At the WSJ (behind the pay-wall, which I consider un-American), Ken Mehlman makes once again what’s come to be known as the conservative case for gay marriage. And at First Things, Rusty Reno denounces the argument as either disingenuous or delusional.
But this debate is not really what’s on my mind today. What interests me is Reno’s straightforward equation of the gay marriage debate with the larger issue of gay rights and gay identity. For Reno, the animating issue is whether it is good for society to “treat homosexuality and heterosexuality equally” and therefore to move toward full “acceptance and affirmation of homosexuality.”
For Reno, as for many orthodox Christians, the answer to that question is, No. And the reason why it’s No is that, on the basis of church teaching and on the basis of conscience, they believe that homosexual conduct is intrinsically wrong and therefore should not be “accepted” or “affirmed” by society. Period. Which is (at least in some measure) why he, as do many orthodox Christians, opposes gay marriage today, and why he has always opposed (part of this is historical assumption on my part; someone correct me if I’m wrong) virtually every jot and tittle of what has been traditionally called, at whatever point in our recent history we are looking at, the gay rights or homosexual agenda. All of this is very straightforward and easy to understand.
Yet at the same time, Reno’s argument is deeply – and in my experience, hotly – disputed today by many conservative Christians who oppose gay marriage. For them, the issue is not “gay” and not “rights” – they favor both, they say – but instead “marriage.” It’s as if “gay” is the last thing they want to talk about, and “marriage” is the only thing they want to talk about.
Again, I’m familiar with the argument. I wrote a book defending it. And I still think the argument has integrity. (Although in my own case, as I look back, I think I was too self-congratulatory about my lack of anti-gay bias). I certainly believe that it’s possible to oppose gay marriage without opposing gay people. And I think that the anthropological record about the meaning and purpose of marriage cross-culturally in human history – a meaning and purpose fundamentally liked to filiation – is powerful, and simply cannot (should not) be swept aside, as if it does not matter.
But does that mean that Reno is wrong, and that the “real” issue on the table today is not “gay”, but only “marriage”? I don’t think so. I think Reno’s broader argument is closer to the truth.
As far as I can tell, the strongest argument against Reno’s view goes something like this. We bear no animus, we have nothing against, persons with same-sex attractions. They are children of God no less than anyone else; the law of neighbor-love applies to them no less than it does to anyone else; and they have the same human rights that any other person has. Moreover, when we say we oppose sexual sin, we mean all sexual sin – straight as well as gay; masturbation, contraception, and adultery as well as homosexual conduct – without any special reference to sexual orientation.
So, are we “anti-gay”? O course not. Do we oppose their, or anyone else’s, “human rights”? Of course not. Do we favor any form of unjust or invidious discrimination? Of course not. Perish the thought.
To me this argument has some power, but it’s main weakness is that it insists on its own special definitions of all the key terms, including “gay” and “rights.” When I was growing up in the South in the 1960s and 1970s, lots of people who opposed desegregation and favored the retention of Jim Crow insisted firmly that they had nothing against black people – quite the opposite! – and had no objection to civil rights, properly understood. Again, the only hitch was, they were claiming the right to define all the key words in their way, as against the commonly understood and accepted (by the larger society) way of understanding those terms.
In the final analysis, I think Reno’s way of arguing is more honest, or at least more transparent. Yes, he most definitely has something to say about “marriage.” But he also definitely, and in his view more fundamentally, has something to say about “gay.” And to him, the two fit together, with one of the debates being a logical sub-category of the other. To me, seeing it that way makes the actual sociological patterns on the ground much more … clear.