When my wife and I were Peace Corps volunteers in West Africa there was a tree growing near our house that produced a fruit with thin skin, a sweet, pulpy orange flesh and a large seed in the center. The Liberian people called it “plum.” Their indigenous languages don’t adjoin two consonants, and they would often say “prem” instead of “plum” because P-R elides easier than P-L. And because they don’t like consonants at the ends of words, they would say “preh” instead of “prem” instead of “plum.”
You may recognize the fruit in the picture as a mango.
My experience was different. I had never seen the tropical fruit before going to West Africa. But I had seen plums and I knew that plums are purple and shiny on the outside and firm and juicy and sweet on the inside. So I learned that the Liberians mis-named the fruit. It wasn’t the only thing they gave peculiar names to. They also called papaya “paw-paw”, limes “lemong” and aluminum corrugated roofing panels “zinc,” which they pronounced “zee’.”
But I had more to learn than the Liberians’ idiosyncrasies. I thought I knew about mangoes from growing up in Indiana. The mangoes we grow in our gardens are hard and green outside, hollow inside with many small seeds. Imagine my surprise when my wife explained that the green fruit is a “bell pepper” rather than a mango. It turns out that Hoosiers and other mid-westerners are just as wrong as the Liberians.
Lesson: People are apt to call things by different words. And when they do, other people won’t know what they are talking about.
The word “marriage” has been used of late by various people to mean various things. But what? Marriage is a civil contract between people. Civil contracts are flexible and negotiable, and they draw their legitimacy from the government.
Marriage is also a holy sacrament. As such, it is specifically and only what God Almighty declares it to be.
These are two very different ideas, yet the public debate went on for years without clarification. There is no way people with these different ideas about the words could ever understand each other. And they never did. But I don’t think the debate was split two ways. I think it was split four ways, with the following types involved:
- Reasonable, secular people who support same-sex marriage as a matter of equal rights, just as they support fair housing and non-discriminatory hiring policies.
- Reasonable, religious people who defend traditional marriage as a holy sacrament. Their own personal feeling about gays and relationships doesn’t enter into the discussion, but only the clear and unaltered Will of God. (This is the group I personally fit into.)
- Hateful iconoclasts who support same-sex marriage as a way of undermining American culture and tradition.
- Hateful bigots who defend traditional marriage as a way of denying civil rights to people who offend their personal prejudices.
I would not venture to guess how many of each there are. But I’m certain that all four groups exist. Numbers don’t really matter in America anymore, because our government responds to vocal and proximate minorities rather than to the majority.
As an example of #1, I offer Jonathan Chait. He recently made a post on New York Magazine under the heading, Same-Sex Marriage Won Because Its Opponents Never Had an Argument. Chait’s column is based on his critique of political or social arguments made by proponents of tradition:
If you scan across the range of anti-same-sex-marriage arguments more typically on offer, the quality of thought drops off precipitously. In Time, Rand Paul writes another of his trademark college-libertarian-style op-eds that manages to avoid taking any formal stance on banning same-sex marriage while insisting that Big Government is really to blame for the existence of a debate that places him in an uncomfortable position. The Federalist’s Stella Morabito lists 15 reasons why same-sex marriage will lead to horrible consequences, most of which consist of right-wing fever dreams.
Chait is a liberal social writer and is concerned with equal justice under law. He’s heterosexual and married to a woman he admires greatly. As far as he is concerned, if the law affords a privilege to some, it ought to afford that same privilege to others. I don’t think he’s very thorough in his critique. The mentioned 15 reasons given by Morabito substantive and imminent concerns as well as right-wing fever dreams. But I recognize the validity of his position as a political commentator in a secular society. Chait never mentions the holy sacrament because that’s not his purview.
Examples of the second group are surprisingly hard to come by, which explains why they lost the argument. But I’ll offer this excerpt from the Catholic Catechism is an example of the thinking of the defense of traditional marriage as a holy sacrament.
Holy Scripture affirms that man and woman were created for one another: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” The woman, “flesh of his flesh,” his equal, his nearest in all things, is given to him by God as a “helpmate”; she thus represents God from whom comes our help. “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The Lord himself shows that this signifies an unbreakable union of their two lives by recalling what the plan of the Creator had been “in the beginning”: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh.”
There is nothing there about civil law. The argument rests on unchanged scripture and God’s unchanged Will. It is easy to understand why this would fail to persuade Chait while being absolutely compelling to believers. God either doesn’t exist at all and is therefore unimportant, or He does exist and is the most important thing there is.
Now, one of the arguments against traditional marriage is that it is sexist and oppressive to woman. The passage I quote above, on the other hand, says explicitly that woman is man’s equal and that she represents the position of God in the partnership. Marriage is needed because of man’s loneliness, not woman’s weakness. Clearly the holy sacrament is not what opponents are opposed to.
In using the word holy sacrament, I make a distinction between Christian denominations. Because the meaning of marriage varies a lot from one church to the next. According to the Wikipedia page on Christian marriage, “Protestants consider it to be sacred, holy, and even central to the community of faith, while Catholics and Orthodox Christians consider it a Sacrament. “
Note that almost anything can be sacred if it is offered up to a holy purpose. An ugly church building can be just as sacred as a beautiful one. Plenty of oldsters would say the American flag is sacred. What makes a thing sacred is that it has been offered up. A sacrament, on the other hand, is inflexible. And only a couple of Christian denominations say marriage is a sacrament. For the rest, as you’ll see if you read the link above, the church has become just an extension of the state in awarding a state license. I remember my cousin’s ceremony, which took place inside a church but was the farthest thing from a holy sacrament. It amounted to little more than:
- Preacher (to groom): You wanna hit that?
- Groom: I do!
- Preacher (to bride): Do you plan to get some, too?
- Bride: I do!
- Preacher: Sssssshhwwiinnggggg!
The ceremony lasted about nine minutes, and was followed in short order by infidelity, acrimony and divorce. Shame on my cousin, same on the preacher who conducted the farce, and shame on the denomination that allowed such an abuse of a thing it claims to hold sacred.
My third set of actors are those I’ve described as motivated by the desire to undermine or destroy tradition. I give you Sara Burrows, writing in The Federalist, and her recent column arguing why monogamy should be “next”:
Brad and I are not legally married, nor do we ever plan to be, but there aren’t a lot of practical differences between us and a married couple. We’ve owned a home together, have a child together, and have every intention—although no promises—of staying together ‘til death do us part. We are hoping polyamory can help make that happen.
Note that she sees “not a lot of practical differences” between her and a married couple. To make the comparison easier, she lists her accomplishments: own a home, have a child, stay together. She argues that society needs to embrace “polyamory” because she thinks sleeping around would make it easier for her to stay with Brad.
Burrows’ argument for polyamory is either sensibly pragmatic or a heinous blasphemy, depending on whether one applies her argument to a civil contract or to holy matrimony. If the former, then there’s little grounds for objection on moral grounds. Civil contracts can say anything the signers agree to. But if one thinks of the sacrament of holy marriage, Burrows is appalling. She is either very ignorant or very wicked.
I am not going to make the effort to search for links, but there is no doubt in my mind that, competing with Burrows’ case for polyamory as the “next” thing, there are others making the case for bestiality, for pederasty, and for who knows what else.
Finally, there is group #4, who is exemplified by the hardware store operator-slash-Baptist preacher who put is a “No Gays” sign on his store front in Tennessee
Jeff Amyx, who owns Amyx Hardware & Roofing Supplies in Grainger County, Tennessee, about an hour outside of Knoxville, added the “No Gays Allowed” sign on Monday, because gay and lesbian couples are against his religion. Amyx, who is also a baptist minister, said he realized Monday morning that LGBT people are not afraid to stand for what they believe in. He said it showed him that Christian people should be brave enough to stand for what they believe in.
Notice here that the basis of Amyx’s stance is “what he believes in.” People believe all sorts of things, and those who are wrong can be just as fervent in their belief as those who are right. Amyx believes in “his religion,” which is nominally Baptist but more explicitly “his.” I have no idea what Amyx’s religion says. I do know the Bible. It says marriage is between a man and a woman; it says nothing about selling a hammer to a lesbian.
Want another example just for fun? Here’s a man in Arkansas who write to his local NBA television station to complain that they’d adopted a logo with gay colors. The station replied that the peacock has been NBC’s logo since 1956.
To conclude, the issue has resolved in confusion because the word “marry” means different things to different people and too little effort was made to to achieve a common understanding. The discourse was won by the first group I described, though they’ll have to deal soon with their allies in group #3. The issue was lost by group #2 because they let people from #4 do most of the talking.