American society, like so many others throughout the world, honors marriage as the cornerstone of the family. Since the family is groundwork for society, this is most certainly a sacred institution that deserves respect and a fertile social environment in which to flourish. While few will doubt the prominence, frequency, and meaning of marriage to the society and individual, debates about what actually constitutes marriage proliferate. For instance, how do we most appropriately define marriage? Is it correct to say that marriage is a legally binding union between a man and a woman or should it be expanded to include the more inclusive addition of “two people” that are in love?
Since it is a both a legal, institutional, and social commitment, is it right for the state to impose restrictions? Of further interest is the battleground for these questions is the “American family” itself, whatever its definition. Those who are in favor of same-sex unions discuss how they could form a new and strong American family redefined while the opposition contends that it is at stake—that it being threatened. These are questions that have plagued the political debates with particular veracity within the past decade and although there are a multitude of voices coming out on either side, there are problems with nearly every argument. Instead of focusing on the “right and wrong” aspects to the debate, perhaps it would be wiser to look ahead at the potential consequences for choosing one side over another. For instance, if we were to legalize same-sex unions, could we foresee a “slippery slope” effect in which other forms of sexuality are legally ushered into the mainstream?
On the other hand, if we were to ban gay marriage, is it not reasonable to think we have done a great injustice to both our Constitution and to those gays and lesbians who merely wish to enjoy the same freedoms straight Americans do? As it is clear, none of the possible outcomes might produce a desirable future. Since this is the case, we must first examine the basic arguments behind each side while keeping in mind the importance of the family in American culture. Just as the rhetoric concerning the “family” and it’s “values” have been used as weapons against the prospect of gay marriage so too can these be positive words in the debate. The purpose here is not necessarily to take sides or profess an open bias, but to empirically examine the viewpoints and attempt to understand how they relate the family and its future as an institution.
If there were to be a federal ban on same-sex unions, it would be the first time in the history of the United States that an amendment was added to constitution that was aimed at taking away rather than providing rights. Despite whichever side one might take on the debate, this is a striking fact and should not be lightly considered. Up until this point, the Constitution has allowed us freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, as well as a host of other rights that have become so commonplace that occasionally we forget how important they are. Among such federal assurances is that all citizens have the right to pursuit of happiness. While this is a necessarily vague clause, it is useful to consider that happiness is not the same for everyone. Women and men have the right to choose their companions and enter into the marriage contract according to their own free will and in accordance with their pursuit of happiness. By denying certain members of our society the right to achieve the same kind of legally-sanctioned happiness, it seems that one of the most fundamental aspects of the constitution is being ignored.
Another issue that further complicates efforts to create a federal ban on gay marriage is that the logic behind the opposition for gays to marry is not solid. In the past, the federal government granted rights to people because they saw an imminent necessity. For example, they allowed people to bear arms in case of an attack and because without these arms they might be vulnerable to attack, which would of course infringe on their right to live a peaceful life without coercion or threat. The logic behind federal moves to put a ban on same-sex marriage does not carry even close to the same clout. For instance, during a state-level debate on gay marriage the Court of Appeals in New York stated that the New York legislature “could ban gay marriage because it could rationally believe that children are better served by a father and mother than by two parents of the same sex. This belief, it acknowledged, was not based on empirical evidence” (Beinart 6). Herein lies the problem: it is clear that there is not a rational foundation for rejecting gay marriage, but rather, the arguments are based in a moral understanding of law that does not sufficiently look to reason and rationality. The idea of reason that was championed by the Enlightenment gave rise to our Constitution and yet for the first time in history, that reason is being replaced with the same kind of morality-based arguments that plagued the pre-Enlightenment era and led our forefathers to flee. Even though it is not overtly a moral claim, the argument in the New York Court of Appeals speaks volumes about how morality (particularly that of an overtly conservative and religious) is now starting to guide law. In order to respect the nature and function of the Constitution, any evidence that goes to support the making or changing of a law must follow some principles of rationality and near-scientific empiricism. In general, anyone could make a claim such as the one above concerning marriage and thus the fact that anyone who could speak could create law obviously undermines rationality-based lawmaking. Although it may be tempting to wonder about the family and how it might be better served with two parents of the same sex, without evidence clearly showing this to be the case, any refutation of gay marriage should stagnate rather than succeed.
In general, it seems as though this increasing overlap between morality and law is bound to affect the American family as an institution. It must be kept in mind though that each family has formed and persists because of conditions which are unique to it. What may be appropriate for one family unit might not succeed in another and thus the further risk in the above assumptions about gay marriage is that law is further governing what the family should be rather than what it is. Just as a straight couple would find it appalling if the government suddenly dictated that could not marry unless they produced exactly 2 children and the wife did all of the work, so too do the homosexual couples feel about the government interfering in their view of what kind of family they would like to be. In sum, the government as well as moral institutions need to understand that the American family is not something that can be produced in a mold. All families have unique needs, desires, and ways of understanding themselves and thus designating one as better than the other does not make sense and could harm the institution. Not only is the problem that traditional views on marriage are changing, but that the battle is being waged (supposedly) on behalf of the American family.
Ideas about homosexuals and their right to marry just as heterosexuals do are changing but the public favor still seems to be on the side of traditional marriage. For instance, by the end of the year, almost half of the states in the U.S. may have passed anti-gay marriage amendments. 17 approved them in 2004. “A new Pew Research Center poll shows that 51 percent of Americans oppose gay marriage, far lower number than the 82 percent who were against equal rights for gay men and lesbian women in a 2004 poll” (Azarello 2006). While the issue being addressed here is not necessarily gay rights in general, the fact that they wish to be married and enjoy the same rights of other Americans is important. Because of what appears to be strong sentiment about traditional marital arrangements, citizens are being effectively denied their rights, even though more people will allow them to marry rather than see them enjoy other equal rights. These statistics inevitably bring up the sticky topic of religious values and how they apply to the concept of the American family. Clearly, there is a long road ahead before the majority of Americans accept homosexuality in society, especially if it is part of the institution of marriage. The problem is, this lack of acceptance has been verified to be related directly to religious and moral sentiment rather than because of reason or rationality. To illustrate this point, it is necessary to mention the conclusions of a study undertaken by the non-partisan Social Science Quarterly.
According to their findings, which were based on polls, interviews, and other statistical data, “Religious variables play powerful roles in structuring attitudes about same-sex unions. Moreover, homosexuality appears to be a major component of the ‘moral values’ discourse that is so popular in American politics” (Olson 2006). These same moral values that are upheld by the church also tend to uphold very traditional views about marriage, most notably that marriage should be only between a man and a woman. As a result, the term “family values” has almost become synonymous with “religious values” in current political debates. This issue of family and religious values being one in the same was further exacerbated when “The Pope condemned same-sex unions as expressions of ‘anarchic freedom’ that threaten the future of the family” (Mills 2006). When religious figures speak so passionately about the family and what it should be, it is only natural that many listen and begin creating their understanding of the family based on these assumptions.
The other side of the debate is less vocal. Gays and lesbians seeking the right to marry look the Constitution, law, and other rational institutions to support their claim. Although they do not have powerful religious figures promoting their message, they are able to ask the all-important question of, “what exactly is the family supposed to be?” For many who support same-sex marriages, the thought they are threatening marriage is a strange and almost absurd thought, especially since what they want is what heterosexual couples have; happiness, common possessions, and perhaps children. Since they are seeking to redefine the conservative, traditionalist, and religious views of marriage they do not have as firm of a base to stand on and thus cannot be heard as well over the din of those rejecting their claims to equality. It should be kept in mind, however, that since it is nearly impossible to put forth one all-purpose definition of what the American family is, there is little wrong with their desire to expand what definition does exist.
The problem with this debate is not only that it is trying to confine the definition of marriage to a one-size fits all paradigm, but also that it uses faulty reasoning. The religious side of the debate discussed above has its inherent problems, which are even further compounded “when a popular argument against gay marriage is that is it is a slippery slope to other ‘affronts’ to marriage, including polygamy” (Moran 2006). If one were to take a very liberal view on this slippery slope argument, it could easily be stated that marriage is simply a union formed out of love, and whether it’s love for one person or several at once it should not be up to the state to form a working definition of what marriage should be. It is traditional attitudes and definitions that are blocking any attempt at trying to reestablish what marriage means, even at the sake of the Constitution and the rights of others. While this liberal view on defining marriage extremely loosely is not likely to gain mainstream acceptance, it is nonetheless a very valid point—one which opponents of gay marriage fail to consider. Although this is not meant as a general attack on the religious conservative movement, it is from that sector that many of the new, more firm definitions of marriage are coming from. Again, it is clear that logic that underlies their assumptions is inherently flawed since the “slippery slope” argument itself is one of the largest logical fallacies. One critic insists that, “Religious traditionalists complain that allowing homosexuals to marry with degrade the most important institution of civilized society. Some even claim it open the door to legalized unions with horses and other animals” (Espy 2005). Again, who decides what the family unit consists of, especially since it an institution that is unique and dependent on any number of variables relevant to the members of that family. It does seem ridiculous to think that just by allowing same-sex unions we will have state-sanctioned weddings between men and horses, but again, the slippery slope argument does call into mind questions of definition.
It seems reasonable, although not necessarily desirable, for their to be language included in the legal and political sphere (yet free of gendered terms) that defines what marriage is. If it were merely a legal tract, than it would be fair to assume to that any partners could be joined, assuming they were willingly entering into the contract. When we allow our moral institutions the right to create definitions, however, we are drastically limiting our scope and this will make the definition of the American family susceptible to all sorts of conditions. Although some may scoff at the idea, one scholar suggests that we take a free-market approach to marriage that offers people a choice. Since marriage is a partnership… “Couples entering into marriage should also be allowed to use a partnership agreement tailored to their own circumstances and aspirations, one that reflects the values and expectations they attach to marriage” (Jones 2006). On top of such a legally-based guide for marriage, the definition of marriage would also be based on the free-market approach. In essence, the desirable partner would be the one chosen for marriage because out of all the others, he or she exhibits the most desirable traits.
Again, this may an over-simplified approach to marriage, but it is important to recognize that our problem within this debate is not so much coming to terms with the ideas behind marriage between same-sex couples perhaps, but rather that our traditional definitions of what a family should be are at stake. If we are able to make concessions and see that it is a problem rooted in language, then perhaps we could be free to make decisions based on the unique and personal ideas about marriage and family that are ours alone—not a subset of the population’s.
Other essays and articles in the Arguments Archives related to this topic include : • Argument in Support of Allowing Gay Marriages • Summary Review of Civil Wars: A Battle for Gay Marriage by David Moats • Questioning Restrictions on Adoption for Certain Individuals • Argumentative Analysis of the Essay “First Amendment Junkie” by Susan Jacoby • Analysis and Review of the Documentary Film “Transgeneration •
Azarello (2006). Encouraging signs in gay marriage debate. Contemporary Sexuality, 40(5), 16.
Beinart, P. (2006). Judge Knot. New Republic, 235(4), 6.
Crawford, T. (2006). Political Roundup. Georgia Trend, 21(11), 12.
Corvino, J. (2000). No Slippery Slope. Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, 7(3), 37.
Espy, Brenda (2005). The slippery slope to bestiality. Economist, 376(8433), 32.
Jones, C. P. A. (2006). A Marriage Proposal: Privatize It. Independent Review, 11(1), 115.
Mills, B.R.(2005). OPPOSING GAY MARRIAGE. Christian Century, 122(13), 14.
Moran.(2006). THE ADVOCATE Poll. Advocate, no. 966, 10.
Olson. (2006). Religion and Public Opinion about Same-Sex Marriage. Social Science Quarterly, 87(2), 340.