Saturday, December 27, 2008

Joined Together

Friends and family have been sending me the link to this week's cover story in Newsweek on the religious case for gay marriage. It is nice to see an article in a mainstream newsweekly take on such a topic, but frankly it is a restatement of many of the arguments I've made before on defining just what "traditional" marriage is -- a business deal between two landowners, a political peace offering between two warring European dynasties, one man and as many women as he can buy, or a convenient way of keeping the tabloids out of the bedroom of a Hollywood heartthrob who prefers his life partner in a tuxedo rather than a Dior gown. And since we as a nation have taken the word "marriage" and codified a religious sacrament into common law, it becomes problematic for both the sacred and the secular to define the union of two people for the purpose of sharing rights and responsibilities of a life together by that word. Tradition, it seems, has joined together the civil and the religious meaning of marriage.

Personally I don't care whether or not the case can be made that the bible supports the concept of same-sex marriage. I have been a member of a religious society, the Quakers, for nearly forty years and we have been supportive of equal rights, including marriage, for all people, since our founding in the 17th century. I have been at meetings for worship for marriage of same-sex partners long before it was on the national agenda. So it doesn't matter to me whether or not the Mormons, the Roman Catholics, the Baptists, the Jews, or any other community of faith approves of it or not. I am not seeking to impose my beliefs on them, and as far as I'm concerned, if they don't want to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, they don't have to. It does matter to me, however, that some organized religions would use their considerable media and financial power to impose their religious beliefs on others regardless of their faith or lack thereof. I have no problem with the churches speaking out. They have the same rights we all share as citizens. But if they are going to make the case to change the law to restrict the rights of a particular group of people, they had better make it based on the due process of law, not on the fear of a mythical supernatural power.

As the editors of Newsweek will undoubtedly discover, for every argument that can be made for same-sex marriage by theologians and biblical scholars, there will be those who can find passages and interpretations in the scripture that inveigh just as strongly against it. That is the danger in trying to find practical legal meaning in a collection of poetry, fables and parables written in a cobbled-together translation in a form of English that is over four hundred years old. Either way, I don't care whether or not the prophets of the Old Testament or Jesus Christ approved of homosexuality any more than I care about the approval of any other character in a work of fiction, be it him or Gandalf or Albus Dumbledore. The only written word that has any bearing on me is this passage:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
and this one:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
It is our peculiarly human nature that has joined together the religious and the civil definition that has made this debate what it is today. But what seems to be lost, ironically, is the point of joining together two people in the eyes of the society. They have found happiness together and they wish to be seen as a couple and share the benefits that we as a society have deemed important for them to have as one, be it the tax code or merely the acceptance in social circles or booking a vacation at a couples-only resort in Scottsdale. Families are defined not by the production of children but by common bonds of love and companionship. And while the focus of many advocates who oppose same-sex marriage focus on the issue of children and their upbringing, they're ignoring the facts that not all marriages produce children, and not all children are raised in happy homes, regardless of whether or not their parents are married or living under one roof. There's also the simple fact that many same-sex couples have children and provide wholesome and loving homes for them. Many same-sex couples want kids, and it seems both cruel and sadly ironic that certain states, including Florida, would single out gay people as the only citizens who are precluded from adoption.

It comes down to this: it doesn't matter what the bible says about same-sex marriage. Regardless of the gender, the union of two people who love each other and want to make a life together only strengthens our society and liberates us from the artificial limits imposed on us by absolute strangers wielding unintelligible and contradictory passages of poetic fiction from a time and a place far removed from our own. Granted, there is wisdom and insight into the human condition in the bible, just as there is in any work of literature that speculates on our relationship with ourselves and tries to find the cosmic truths of why we are here and where we are going. But to make it the basis of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and preclude the Constitutional guarantees that specifically prohibit the imposition of religious doctrine as the rule of law is a far greater perversion than anything the homophobes can imagine goes on in the lives of people whose very happiness they wish to control.

Bonus Feature: Jon Stewart discusses the issue with Mike Huckabee and pretty much nails him on it.

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