I’ve been working on this post over the course of many months (like six), and so if there is anyone who happens to track such things this is NOT in response to any one event, person, e-mail, blog post, sacrament meeting talk, newspaper article, or any other world event. I understand that there are some who read this that will disagree strongly with my point of view; that’s fine with me. Also nothing in what I have said below should be interpreted as a personal attack on any individual.
The whole gay marriage debate seems a bit strange to me. It is almost like we missed a step along the way somewhere. Like most of the “great” debates of the day, each side seems to be plugging its ears and shouting at each other rather than actually sitting down and thinking though the issue. This is clearest in the way the “traditional” marriage supporters talk about the issue. They say, “Marriage is defined as between a Man and a Woman.” Okay…that sounds nice, the problem is that it is only half a definition, and without the other half the whole debate floats away to a strange never-never land. The real debate needs to begin not with who can marry, but what marriage is. Who can marry is completely irrelevant until we have an understanding of what it is they are doing and the impact that it has on society. In other words: if marriage is to be only between a man and a woman, what is it that is between them? As I see it there are three main facets of marriage that are relevant to the discussion before us. They are: marriage as a personal relationship, marriage as a legally recognized union, and marriage as a facilitator of biological reproduction.
Marriage as a personal relationship
One way to define marriage is as a lifelong relationship between two individuals entered into for mutual support and companionship on the basis of love and respect, and which assumes the partners have exclusive sexual access to one another. I think that most modern Americans would agree with this definition of marriage.*
The above definition is completely independent of government, society, or what the neighbors say or think. Without intruding into the personal lives of its citizens to a degree that most Americans would find appalling there is nothing that government can (or should) do to stop such relationships from forming between any individuals whatsoever, gay or straight. Everyone in this country should have the right to pursue happiness wherever they think they can find it, so long as one individual’s pursuit does not unreasonably interfere with anyone else’s, and surely your relationships and living arrangements have no real direct impact on me at all. We all have this right regardless of whether or not others think that the path we are pursuing is moral or not or whether it conforms to their belief systems or not. This means that if two men want to live together in a long term, mutually supportive relationship, change their last names, exchange rings and throw a party to celebrate the official start to their new lives together, that is completely their business and not anyone else’s, regardless of whether or not others think such a relationship is a good idea.
The trouble is that while the personal aspect element of marriage is important, left standing by itself it is incomplete.
Marriage as a legally recognized union
If marriage is purely a personal relationship, why should the government be involved in marriage at all? In fact, I have heard it suggested by people on both sides of the issue that the government should just get out of the business of marriage altogether and the whole issue would then just go away. Marriage would then become a purely private affair with no legal ramifications at all. I suppose individuals could then write their own contracts regarding things such as distribution of property and other such issues normally assumed in a marriage relationship.
I do not think that this is a good idea. Currently marriage has a larger role in society than just official recognition of a relationship between individuals, though that relationship is at the root of it. Stable monogamous relationships provide society with a myriad of benefits, everything from lessening the spread of disease, to home health care, to increasing worker productivity, to reducing anti-social behavior, to fostering a commitment to the stability of the community. In other words individual marriages benefit society as a whole, not just the individual members of society who are married. Therefore society has a stake in marriage, its success, and the roles it plays.
By formally recognizing such relationships we can encourage them, and we can provide individuals in such relationships benefits that are designed to strengthen, maintain, or otherwise assist such relationships. For example providing hospital visitation rights reinforces (among other things) the role of the spouse as primary caregiver, the responsibility that they have for their partner, and clearly identifies (hopefully) an individual who is responsible for the health of the patient.
Formal recognition of private relationships is an important tool that society can use for its betterment. The benefits above are independent of the genders of the persons involved in the relationship. If both heterosexual and homosexual relationships provide society with these benefits then both types of relationships should be officially recognized.
Questions still remain: “Do either homo- or heterosexual relationships benefit society in a way that the other does not?” and “If such a difference is found is the benefit large enough to merit distinct recognition?”
Marriage as a facilitator of biological reproduction
While there may be many disagreements as to what constitutes the best environment for raising children I believe that there would be almost universal agreement on the importance of long-term family stability as a vital part of the mix. With the assumption of sexual access as part of marriage, good marriages become an optimum place for the birth and raising of children. A relationship that has the positive interpersonal characteristics enumerated above and has the capacity to extend that stability and love to the joint biological offspring of the participants is a unique benefit of most heterosexual marriages. The only (constitutionally legitimate) difference that I can see between a heterosexual relationship and a homosexual one is the potential for the partners to reproduce together. Is this biological difference a strong enough reason to provide heterosexual relationships with unique recognition? What about heterosexual relationships where the individuals choose not to have children, or are unable to? Should these relationships be recognized with the same status as fertile relationships? What about adoption, which allows those in infertile relationships to raise children?
There have been studies done to determine how having homosexual parents impacts children. It is these studies that have lead the American Psychological Association (see also here) to conclude that having a homosexual parent is not detrimental to child development, and thus that arguments against homosexual marriage based on concern for child development are unfounded. In other words (to debunk a few of the more hatful lies of those who oppose gay marriage out of ignorance and /or bigotry) children of gay parents are no more likely to be abused than children of straight parents, are just as likely to develop socially accepted understandings of gender roles, and while they are slightly more likely to report having experimented with homosexuality they are no more likely to self-identify as homosexual than children of straight parents.
To my mind, while these studies are sufficient to show bigots for what they are, they are not asking quite the right questions. The studies that I looked at, at least, focused mostly on the sexuality and sexual development of children and additionally they focused almost exclusively on the biological children of homosexual parents. This most often meant that the children had lesbian mothers or gay fathers who were separated from the child’s other biological parent, and thus for the purposes of the studies the legitimate comparison group would be the children of divorced parents or single parents. And while no one would argue that single parents or divorced parents cannot be excellent parents, it is clear that both divorce and single parenting have a negative impact on children.
Does biology matter? I’m not a social scientist, but I would suspect that this is a question that can be answered through the right kind of research. Does being raised by both biological parents provide any advantage to a child? I hypothesize that, when other factors are equal, it does. Many traits, from personality types to health conditions, are passed genetically from one generation to the next, and along with these genetic traits can come the family traditions that can direct, control, and explain them in positive ways, or provide other coping strategies.
Appropriate future studies should focus on the adopted children of homosexual couples and compare them with both the adopted children of straight couples and the biological children of straight couples, and then measure them not only on the direct impact of sexual or gender identity development, but on all aspects of child development. This would help to confirm or detract from the earlier studies, and help to establish the relative importance of biological parents. My hypothesis is that little difference would be found between the two groups of adopted children, but that there would be clear differences between adopted children and biological children. This is not because I believe that adopted parents are not good parents (in fact, given what it takes to be approved to become an adoptive parent I believe that they are much more likely to be better parents in terms of skills, financial and emotional stability, desire for children, and willingness to appreciate the chance to parent.) But being given up for adoption can have an impact on the child, independent of anything their adoptive parents can do. Some children are able to see their adoption as a positive, as “someone wanted me badly enough to work hard to find me.” Unfortunately, others have a hard time getting past the idea that someone didn’t want them and gave them away (however legitimate the reasons).
It is for this reason that I believe that in an ideal world children would all be born into homes where both biological parents are in the same stable, committed, long term relationship (marriage) and are willing and able to take care of them. I understand, however, that as long as we are living in an imperfect world this will not be the case, and so I salute adoptive parents and their children. But my point remains; I believe that biology, in terms of parenting, matters.
All of this strengthens the idea that society has a legitimate interest in recognizing and promoting long term, stable, healthy, relationships that are capable of producing biological offspring.
The “threat” posed by eliminating any distinction between heterosexual marriage and homosexual marriage is not that any individual relationship would be weakened, it is the fact that such a definition would define marriage purely in terms of the participants’ relationship to each other, thus leaving out the role that marriage has traditionally played of providing official recognition of a legitimate means of biological reproduction. (note the difference between the traditional role of marriage and traditional marriage.) When the Church says that acceptance of gay marriage is a threat to “traditional” marriage, this is the threat that they are talking about: the threat that biological reproduction has either been reduced in importance or defined out of marriage altogether. Or, in other words, the threat is that marriage moves one step closer to being seen as purely an interpersonal relationship with less and less of a larger social purpose.
The question arises, how do we maintain a hold on the ideal while accepting that it is not possible in every condition or for every person?
If we accept that reproduction is an important role for marriage and that officially refusing to recognize that the capacity for reproduction is, in fact, a loss to society, we need to ask what it would take to prevent that loss from occurring and if we are willing to pay that price. The way the debate appears to be going now is that the cost seems to be reducing the gay and lesbian members of our society to second class citizens, undeserving of the same rights and freedoms as their straight neighbors. Many in the “traditional” marriage camps seem all too willing to accept this, some with regret and, unfortunately, some with relish. Is this an issue worth hating your neighbor over, or stirring up hatred, or strife? I don’t think so.
Proposition 8 and other “Protect” Marriage Initiatives
This brings us to a specific instance of the debate, the Proposition 8 debate in California, one of the very few instances where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has actively played a role in a political campaign.
There are few things in life that make me truly, deeply angry, to the point of being furious. One of the worst is when individuals or groups use religion as a cover for bigotry, hatred, meanness, or violence. Only one thing makes me angrier – when the people doing this are members of my own religion. It is completely and utterly inexcusable. It is for this reason that I have had such a hard time writing this post; the things that I have seen and heard from some of my fellow Church members have been appalling. While I think that some comments are based on ignorance, to me that is no excuse; for members of the human race, and especially for those that claim to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, ignorance is no excuse for intolerance, bigotry or meanness.
If I had to give the official Salt Lake City-based Church organization a grade on how they did entering into this debate (based primarily on this statement and this one on the Church’s web site) I’d give them a C+. They avoided bigoted and untrue attacks on those who opposed their position, they spent the time to address the issue in a nuanced way, and they stated that they were not trying to interfere with existing homosexual relationships or rights, and that they were not opposed the rights then granted to homosexual couples elsewhere in California law (including civil unions, a statement that Utah gay rights groups are hoping to leverage to get those same rights for same-sex couples in Utah.) They reminded members to speak their positions with love and respect for those they disagree with and they expressed their respect. And they tried to present the position as pro-marriage rather than anti-gay.
There were, however, several problems with the statement. One was the complete intermingling of secular reasoning and LDS theology. This (at least to me) made the statement unusable as a tool to promote public policy. If your main basis for supporting a position is “because God said so,” that is fine for governing personal behavior and the behavior of fellow believers, but it doesn’t fly for promoting policy. The reason is that all it takes is for someone to say, “No, he doesn’t,” and you’re in the business of using the government to enforce religious belief or dictate religious doctrine, clearly a violation of the constitution. Additionally, because of the way that religious doctrine was intermingled throughout the statement I believe that attempting to use it as a tool for persuading someone who didn’t already agree with the doctrine would be futile.
The next problem was one of omission: while the statement did express respect for those with differing opinions and asked Church members to do the same, it seemed evident (to me anyway) that this was not said clearly enough, nor defined well enough (more on that below.) To me this was the greatest failing of the statement. They could have clearly condemned the use of misinformation and lies in the pursuit of their objective. I deeply wish that more time and effort had gone into explaining what respectful conversation meant and that specific examples of bigotry had been raised and repudiated. For example the Church could have raised the falsity that homosexuals are more likely to be pedophiles or abusive and then clearly stated that this was not true and that for Church members to play a part in the creation or spreading of such scurrilous lies would be diminishing for both the individual and the Church. They could have called on Church members to get to know their gay neighbors better, not for the purpose of conversion or to change their minds on the issue, but just to increase the amount of good will and good faith the country. In short I believe that they should have recognized the amount of bigotry and ignorance in the Church, the tendency for people to hear what they want rather than what is said, and recognized that some people would use the Church and its position to excuse their own bigotry.
My last concern was that there was some (though not much compared to some other statements/ emails that I’ve read) use of fear of homosexuality as a motivator. This was evident in the using of the Catholic Charities of Boston’s cessation of adoption services (in response to Gay rights lawsuits which required placing children with homosexual couples) to motivate participation. While concerns about those that will attempt to force the Church or its members to participate in activities that they feel violate their beliefs is legitimate, the ignorant and bigoted have seized on the few examples and exploded into a state of irrational panic. Take for example the case of the Catholic Charities in Boston. They did voluntarily remove themselves from the adoption business in response to a lawsuit that they lost which would have required them to place children with gay couples (the issue at stake being should the government be able to force someone to violate their religious beliefs, a great question for another time.) However, the Catholic Charities only went to court once, even though they certainly had grounds for appeal based on the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. Many groups that supported them were disappointed that they chose to capitulate rather than pursue such an appeal. The ability and limits of government to control and regulate religious groups is certainly a question that could benefit from a look by the Supreme Court. Additionally, no other Catholic Charities in Massachusetts have closed or stopped facilitating adoptions, nor have they begun placing children with gay couples in violation of their religious beliefs. Another example is what if (God forbid) the courts should require that gay couples should be aloud to live in married student housing at BYU. My response is, so what? How many gay couples do you really think there are that would want to go to BYU let alone live in the married student housing (I’m suspecting very few, bordering on none.) But let’s imagine that there was such a couple. What would happen? There are several possibilities: 1) They would come to get to know their neighbors and their neighbors would get to know them and everyone would learn that we’re not really that different and that we should all love and respect one another even when we disagree, and they would leave the school with a positive view of the Church and its members. In other words it would give Church members the opportunity to practice what they preach. 2) They would experience the hatred and bigotry that many in the gay community have come to associate with religion and leave the school with a negative view of the Church and its members. In other words it would show Church members as hypocrites. Either way it would be positive, even in the second instance, because then we would learn where we need to focus our efforts in order to become more Christ like.
My last concern is not with the statement itself but with the Church’s implicate endorsement of resolving the issue though a ballot initiative in the first place. The issues involved are numerous and nuanced – they will require great care and the development of long-term relationships and understanding to resolve. Trying to resolve them through the ballot initiative process to amend a state constitution is like trying to perform brain surgery with a baseball bat. It just isn’t the right tool for the job, and could very well cause more problems then it solves.
Church Member Response
I don’t live in California, so I can’t say that I have a lot of direct experience with how members of the Church there responded. I have talked to, heard from, seen email from, seen blog posts by, etc. Church members here and around the country and based on my observations I would (with a few exceptions) give Church members somewhere between a C and a C- for their responses to Prop 8.
Too many missed, misunderstood, or ignored altogether the requests of the Church to treat those we disagree with with respect. Many were clearly anti-gay, or homophobic, and were using the cover of the Church’s position to justify their bigotry. I remember talking to one individual who said (in essence) that if the Church wants us to say something and reminds us that we are a respectful people then however we say it it is automatically, by definition, respectful (kind of like the Nixon defense “if the president does it, it’s legal.”) And I saw in words and actions of many others this same attitude. I saw fear mongering, incomplete and twisted representation of facts, and pride and glory taken in what were framed as “strong” comments, but were actually hurtful or rude. Vile rumors and hearsay was passed around with no effort at verifying truthfulness. Excitement was found at the prospect of taking action that would obviously hurt others (“only” emotionally, fortunately; I have not heard that Church members participated in any violent or destructive protests.) I saw no effort to reach out to others and little effort taken to be respectful. I saw Church members excuse this behavior by saying, “well, the other side is doing it too,” as if the meanness of others (and there was meanness on the gay-rights side) somehow absolves you of your obligation to follow Christ’s teachings. I read the comments of one prominent Church member, who I believe should have known better, where he accused those he was attempting to debate with of lying because they did not agree with him.
Whenever I wonder how it is that people like the Pharisees and Sadducees could have risen to such prominence at the time of the New Testament, or how people that claim to be followers of Christ could consent to and participate in some of the worst autocracies of our time, I only have to see the words spoken by some of my fellow Church members to see them fearing deviance and valuing conformity more than love and respect for others and their agency. I see them starting down a path that could, if followed to its extreme end, lead them to crucify their Savior, rejecting Him because He preaches love for individuals above ritual, doctrinal purity, and societal conformance.
Mormon Theological Possibilities for the Recognition and Acceptance of Same-Sex relationships
(A note to those who worry about such things: This is not an attempt to dictate doctrine to the Church or its leaders. I speak only for myself and claim no authority to change Church doctrine, nor am I attempting to claim that my statements below are Church doctrine. Like everything else on this blog the speculations below represent only my own personal opinions.)
I believe that the best course for society with regards to the gay marriage question is to recognize gay unions, and give homosexuals clear access to equal civil rights, while at the same time recognizing the unique role of heterosexual marriage. But that doesn’t change the fact that as a point of Mormon religious doctrine homosexuality is still condemned. Is it possible that that could ever change? I would like to think so. After decades of officially denying priesthood equality and semi-officially backing it up with doctoral teachings and justifications the Church was able to reverse course and allow black members to be full participants. There are still traces of lingering racism, but we are moving further and further from that.
It is important to note that the Church, right now, recognizes many different types of marriages, some very different from the “traditional” marriage model. To understand the significance of these it is important to understand the Church doctrine of eternal marriage. This is the belief that marriages that have been blessed by the right people and in the right place (currently temples) do not end at death but continue forever. This implies that marriages that took place 150 years ago are still valid, still in existence and still recognized by God and, inferentially, by the Church. In the early days of the Church a variety of relationships were recognized, and thus are presumably still recognized. (Meaning that those that were authorized and performed historically are still recognized, not that members could enter in to some of the relationships below today and still expect recognition.) This includes the following types of relationships:
Temple Marriage – the highest form of marriage, marriage for eternity
Civil Marriage – recognized by the Church (i.e. the Church does not consider those in a civil marriage living in adultery) but not considered equal to temple marriage, nor is it considered still in effect after the death of either of the spouses.
Polygamy (no longer practiced) – Clearly a part of Mormon history. Authorized marriages performed before the practice was officially discontinued sometime between 1891 and the first decade of the 1900’s are still considered valid.
Polyandry (the marriage of a woman to more than one man, no longer practiced) – much rarer in Church history, although there are a several recorded instances in the Nauvoo period of the Church.
Serial polygamy (current practice) – Currently the Church doctrine (as I understand it) is that when a man’s wife dies, he can remarry and be married for eternity to another women; thus in eternity he will be married to two (or more, I suppose) women. While officially the same belief does not hold true for women whose husbands die (the typical reply I’ve heard is that “God will work it out”) I suspect that given the existence of polyandry in Church history that polyandry, too, will exist in eternity
Marriage for eternity only (no longer practiced) – at times in the early history of the Church marriages were preformed for “eternity” only. That is, the spouses would not be married during their lifetimes, but would only be married in eternity.
Other sealings (no longer practiced) – The Church also practiced so-called “adoptive” sealings, in which adult members were sealed to other members in non-marriage “parental” relationships. From what I have seen in my research this was conducted so that members would be adopted into the families of the Church leaders. Thus a person could be sealed to Brigham Young as his son, and would be counted among his family in eternity even though his parents might be alive and well (I have no idea how this was expected to work out if the son was also sealed to his birth parents, but I think that they also were then connected into the prophet’s family; a fascinating tangent, we’re so boring and conventional nowadays.)
Another Church doctrine that provides us with an entry point is the very unique Mormon understanding of the afterlife. Unlike traditional Christianity, Mormons do not believe the standard Heaven/Hell duality. Instead we believe there is a continuum of glory or reward, and each person will be assigned to a place on the continuum based on the way in which they’ve lived their life and the extent to which they have accepted Christ and His teachings. Mormon scripture divides this continuum up into three categories (called kingdoms), the worst of which is to be so wonderful as to surpass all understanding. The highest level (the Celestial) Mormons typically equate with the more standard Christian Heaven. This highest level is further sub-divided into three more parts. Entry into the highest of these is possible only for married couples (presumably the work that goes on there is possible only by the combination of male and female working together.) This leaves us with the result that we have two levels in heaven that do not require marriage between men and women for entry. Interestingly enough Mormon doctrine is utterly silent regarding the two additional levels, what they mean, and who goes there.
To my mind, given the vast array of marriages (some very nontraditional) already recognized, the already existing belief in several “unknown” levels of heaven, and the Mormon belief that God will continue to teach His children about His ways, there is plenty of room for theological recognition of homosexual relationships, even without a radical change in doctrine.
For comparison, the shift in Church policy regarding allowing members of African decent full participation required the overturning of a vast amount of folklore and tradition. The denial was based on traditional beliefs (some of which have yet to die out completely, despite official instruction to put a stop to them) that justified the practice based on scriptural teachings. As was the case when the Church abandoned polygamy, social pressure was brought to bear on the Church, which set off a chain of events that led to what at the time appeared to be a radical change in Church doctrine, but in retrospect was clearly the right thing to do.
I don’t believe that it would be beneficial for Church members to lobby their leaders for such a change. In fact I would suspect that such an effort would backfire. However, we can go over their heads and take the case straight to God. I certainly would not expect a radical change anytime soon, but we can pray, hope, and trust in the Lord and his power to make all thinks right.
However life ends up working out, we can be absolutely certain that we respect the thoughts, feelings, rights, and beliefs of others.
*Though to call it “traditional” seems a bit of a stretch to me, it is only in our fairly recent history that love, or the physical attraction that often accompanies it, have had a significant part to play in the selection of a spouse. Traditionally things such as family connections, wealth, dowries, or the acquisition of other property were much more important. Nor was the relationship mutually supportive in the way we would think of it today. Women were often poorly treated, it was considered within a man’s rights to beat his wife, and at times women were assumed to be the equivalent of her husband’s property. We have moved beyond such things, to the betterment of society. In a debate with as much riding on it as this we need to be clear. And clearly the terminology “traditional marriage” is not clear.