Modern marriage, theology, and the state

Three pieces about marriage for your consideration. First, theologian John Milbank writes at the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal. He offers a complex and intriguing argument against same-sex marriage – one that makes a lot of assumptions that I don’t share. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting attempt to defend the status quo without, supposedly, invoking homophobic attitudes in any way. Milbank concedes that he is likely backing a loser, and he suggests attitudes that the Christian churches might take in a world where same-sex marriage is increasingly provided.

Second, my piece on the same site defends same-sex marriage, but more or less in passing in the context of a wider discussion of marriage in a fully secular society. I prefer the state abdicating entirely from the marriage business, but that is an ideal that I don’t consider achievable even in the medium-term future, let alone the short-term future. If we are going to make realistic policy in current crcumstances, we should support same-sex marriage. I go on to discuss how the state should regard traditional polygynous marriages and, on the other hand, modern concepts of polyamory. The article as a whole is adapted from my discussion of these issues in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. This piece may read like a reply to Milbank’s (it appeared a day, or indeed some hours, later) … but they were written independently.

Third, Stephanie Zvan replies to me (and gets some interesting discussion going) on her Almost Diamonds blog. She is largely in agreement, but worries about one particular issue that I brought up in defending same-sex marriage, namely that of rights as next of kin. Should this really transfer automatically to the spouse (from parents, or whomever) on marriage? Zvan sees a downside to it.

There is also a thread about the first two pieces over on Richard Dawkins’ site, if you’re interested.

Whatever their other merits or otherwise, all three pieces argue the issues in ways that are a little different from the usual posts and op.eds on same-sex marriage. Hopefully they might enrich the current debate.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Civil partnerships are the business of the state and are legal contracts.

    Religious marriage is the business of the religion, and is not the business of the state.

    If one abides by that clear distinction, there is no issue at all.

  2. to be frank that first link is a load of crap, the author uses a lot of words to disguise the fact that ey are just retreading the same old arguments leaning very heavily on tradition and a few anti-feminist jabs for good measure.

  3. There seems to be a conflict operating in Millbank’s analysis. On the one hand you have the quasi-ontological claim that marriage is a natural institution between man and woman and that this reflects a primordial cosmic condition which predates language itself. This understanding is, in an inchoate way, that of the unsophisticated mass of humankind. On the other hand you have the claim that state action at this stage of Western Civilisation will alter or diminish this understanding.

    Is a resolution possible between those who think that human nature is malleable and those that think that human society is both malleable and alienable. Put this way the conflict is between social engineers with a vision and the traditionalists who hold that basic intuitions that have evolved over millennia are the stars that can best guide us. It’s that nurture and nature thing again.

    In my view social engineering has a poor historical record. Contracts and other instruments should be enough for the securing of rights for partners. If marriage isn’t important for one why try to grab it as a trophy?

  4. When you talk to an environmentalist about endangered species or ecosystems, one of the things they’ll say often say is, we shouldn’t let ANY species go extinct, or make any major change to an ecosystem, because we have no way to know what long term changes could result with such tampering, and once a wilderness/species is gone, it’s gone for good.

    But when I say I feel the exact same way about human civilization and culture, the same people look at me like I’m insane. I’m against gay marriage because you’re giving a small, chosen-behavior defined minority a few fringe benefits in exchange for undermining a key foundation of ethical/civic thought it western civilization. Treating anybody that takes the Bible seriously like a racist (because that’s where this is heading, let there be no doubt) is going to have far bigger implications down the road than not recognizing the ‘marriage’ of a particular class of sexual deviants.

    And when I say deviants, let me be clear- in American, first cousins getting married is highly frowned upon. It’s NOT in much of the non-english speaking world. Every culture has it’s taboos, and having them is in general healthy. The idea that one particular group who’s desires are curtailed by a taboo has bought into the idea that they are a special class of distinct being who can be discriminated upon as a class is preposterous.

    But not entirely their own fault. When we were still considering homosexuality as a mental disorder a few short decades ago (a decision that was changed for purely political, and not scientific reasons, I might as well add), we were treating them as a different class of human being as well. When homosexuality was no longer considered a paraphilia, the idea of the homosexual as a unique kind of being should have vanished with it- but it didn’t, because a homosexual lobby is a voting bloc with power, so there’s a use in keeping the definition around. In fact, the class of person ‘homosexual’ is no more or less real than the class of people who like to pee on each other, or people who like to read comic books.

  5. “…marriage is a natural institution between man and woman and that this reflects a primordial cosmic condition which predates language itself”

    Accepted, but are we also saying that gay relationships didn’t take place then too? I’m sort of assuming that they did, and that homosexual behaviour in a minority of our population has been there (more or less) forever. It is, if you like, as traditional as heterosexual relationships, and marriage.

    So what’s the fuss about?

  6. Steve:
    Yes they did exist but the point that Millbank would stress is that they did not and do not have the same symbolic loading as the male/female bond that we can note in ancient mythology and religion. He would probably go on to claim that this reflects a uniqueness that is reflected in the concept of marriage properly understood that is to say not merely a contract witnessed on behalf of the state. Marriage in this understanding predates the state. To have a contract between two people with inheritance rights etc. does not make it a marriage in the sense that Millbank would reserve the term for. He fears the dilution of the concept or its derogation altogether.

  7. What is marriage? Is it a civil union of partners, like a Joint Venture, not specifying the sexuality of the the partners? If so would it apply to polygamy (as in a sense it does in some Muslim countries), is there any sense in making any line to draw around the term?

    It seems to me, and as observed by Leo above, that if one recognizes the historical and sociological underpinnings of such unions we can come up with separate words and definitions that reasonably apply and do not overlap or cause offence.

    If we insist on allowing homosexual “marriage” it does change things and blurs a definitions edge. If we keep things to the use of language this should not be a contentious issue.

    It seems to me to be a cause célèbre of certain “progressives”, hence why we use the term “modern marriage” to differentiate it from a traditional marriage.

    If a civil union with the commitment of bonds is what is being requested, then I say let it be so. But let it be a “civil union with bonds”, not “marriage” (that remains a civil union between a man and a woman, that may or may not be hosted in church premises, with commitment of bonds and blessings) if it is to be a civil union with bonds and a church blessing, then again let it be so, subject to a church being willing to provide that blessing (and there are such).

    In summary: I say keep “marriage” within its traditional definition, and let gay couples have what they reasonably want under a different term that in no way puts them at legal/social disadvantage. If this is not what transpires, then, people being people, will simply apply their own term to express the difference (e.g., “gay-marriage” and “marriage”), if this is legislated against, because it is seen as homophobic, it is a cause for concern because it is saying we are not allowed in law to recognize an actual difference in natural language terms.

  8. Martin Ciupa- I’ve got a better idea. Because “marriage” is, amongst its many meanings, a term for the culturally approved form of union, I’ll use it to refer to unions I approve of, including homosexual unions. People will object, but that won’t matter, because, you know, cohort replacement.

    That may sound brutal, but… this is a political question, not a linguistic question. I want good things from my homosexual friends and family. One of those good things is social recognition of their relationships. One of the ways I can get that for them is including them in the existing framework of social status, in particular, in the existing framework for pair bonding in my culture. It seems to me, at present, that cohort replacement is going to win this battle for me as long as I don’t surrender pointlessly.

    Why should I compromise when I can just bury anyone who opposes me?

  9. Patrick hit the nail on the head- there are no ethics in this debate, this is a war for dominance, where homosexuals and their sympathizers want a few minor benefits, and if that means completely annihilating traditional values and re-branding all Christianity as bigotry, they absolutely will do that.
    More broadly speaking, political groups that have resented the power and influence of religious tradition in American for a long long time are really just using gays to undermine it, just as they will aggressively undermine any source of ethical thinking that isn’t rooted in The State. Homosexuality is perfect for this, because it’s endorsement manages to destroy both the Church AND the Family in one fell swoop, which have always been the two biggest threats to academia’s ongoing mission to cure us all of the ‘idiocy of rural life’.

  10. “Patrick hit the nail on the head- there are no ethics in this debate, this is a war for dominance, where homosexuals and their sympathizers want a few minor benefits, and if that means completely annihilating traditional values and re-branding all Christianity as bigotry, they absolutely will do that.”

    1. With respect to “re-branding all Christianity as bigotry,” you’re assuming that your particular variety of Christianity is the real one. I understand why you think that, and but I also understand why homosexual friendly Christians feel the same way about their version of Christianity. I have no reason to choose one of you or the other as the “real” Christians. This means that from my perspective, I don’t feel that I’m even talking to, or about, all of Christianity. This means that your argument lacks all logical or emotional convincing power to anyone who doesn’t already agree with it, ie, me.

    Imagine that I insulted a king, and he claimed I was insulting all of his country. It might be a bad thing to insult all of his country. But I don’t accept his view that he is the same thing as his nation, so it doesn’t really matter to me when he claims that. Same deal.

    2. With respect to the idea of annihilating “traditional values,”… I’m reminded of a hysterical conservative I once read, who was claiming that liberals were implicitly suggesting that humanity, through all of history until now, was morally monstrous. And well… yes? Actually? How is this not obvious? I know there’s a strong motivation out there to whitewash the past, but seriously. Looking back at history, there’s no plausible way to say that human beings were better people at any point in the past. So… what point is there in venerating traditional values? If a value is worthwhile, it can justify itself in the present day. If it can’t, screw it. Its not worth keeping around. Saying that a value is “traditional” is an indictment, not a laurel.

  11. 1.) You’re assuming I’m a Christian at all. One doesn’t have to be in order to know that homosexual behavior is condemned explicitly in the Bible in multiple places. Sure, there ARE Christian traditions that find ways to simply ignore those (and many other) passages. Be that as it may, those passages are explicit enough, that the issue of ‘why are we conveniently ignoring this’ isn’t going to just go away. So let me rephrase. Homosexual activism is happy to re-brand all Christianity that actually takes the Bible at face value as bigotry. Yes, I’m well aware the Episcopals and Unitarians will get through this just fine.
    As far as having no reason to choose one or the other as the ‘real Christians’-of course you have reasons. For example, there’s your political prejudices. That’s a reason. As another example, there’s actually studying what the hell the Bible says and how it’s been historically interpreted, and trying to find which versions of Christianity operate according to rational good faith instead of political expediency. That would be another reason. I’m sure there are others.
    As far as my argument lacking any power to convince you, please note that I referred to you in the third person while making my argument. I think I clearly stated that I see your ideology as making an irrational, selfishly-motivated power-grab. If I didn’t make it clear, I’m making it clear now. In light of that, why would I be concerned with my ability to convince YOU of anything? You already made it clear that you could give a shit about reason because you have might on your side. You opened up with “Why the hell would I do philosophy when I can overpower my foes and get my way”. I took that at face value.

    2.) See point one. You’re dumping all over traditional values for no reason other than it suits your immediate self interest to do so. In light of which, paradoxically who gives a crap what you think about morality? Anything you say on the subject will just be what furthers an amoral agenda. “monstrous” as you use it means nothing more than “inconvenient or undesirable to Patrick”. With that in mind, yes, traditional values are quite monstrous I’m sure.

  12. “So let me rephrase. Homosexual activism is happy to re-brand all Christianity that actually takes the Bible at face value as bigotry.”

    I don’t think its possible to take all of the Bible at face value. It isn’t an internally consistent document, as far as I can tell. I’m not sure why I should take “opposition to homosexuality” as any more “truly Christian” than I take other face-value moral endorsements in the Bible, such as the Old Testament’s face value endorsement of the use of pedophilic rape as a weapon of war during campaigns of religiously motivated genocidal ethnic cleansing.

    “You opened up with “Why the hell would I do philosophy when I can overpower my foes and get my way”. I took that at face value.”

    In a political conversation, which is ultimately what this is, philosophy is going to have to do some seriously hard work if it wants to convince people that they should accept less than they can get out of a concern for linguistics.

    “2.) See point one. You’re dumping all over traditional values for no reason other than it suits your immediate self interest to do so.”

    Regarding self interest: Well, you think I’m doing that. I think I’m doing it out of explicitly externally interested motives. I’m not homosexual. I just care for people who are. That isn’t typically what we’d call “self interested behavior.” I acknowledge that you think I have super secret evil motives. Its ok to think that- I think you have the less-secret evil motive of being a generally horrible human being and a bigot, so I wouldn’t have much of a leg to stand on if I claimed that it was unfair to attribute motives to people other than those they claim. But! Please keep separate what I’ve claimed as my motives (desire that people flourish, motivated by empathy for them), and what you think are my secret motives.

    Regarding dumping on traditional values: Compare every year of human existence until, lets say, 1980. I think that being born a woman in any of those years would be, in part, a hellish experience. I think this is attributable to the prevailing morality of the time. Now women aren’t the only group to have this problem with the history of human values. They’re just one example. But… with that in mind, saying that a value is “traditional” is no compliment.

    But in the meantime… seriously, you’ll need a powerfully good argument if you want to convince me to give your perspective anything except a grave in the trash bin of history. That argument’s going to have to be motivated by something I care about. A concern for linguistics isn’t going to cut it when placed next to human well being.

  13. @Patrick,


    Your idea does not seem to be a better idea to me, in that you recognize the difference exists, yet say for political reasons we must not recognize it, but people will because they do not share your politics as a dogmatic whole, nor should they be obliged to as, long as they do not seek to hurt others IMO.

    We can give to homosexual unions all that you request, other than, IMO, being asked not to recognize that their civil unions are different from traditional married ones. They simply are – at least in the sense that they are a union that is probably the best (in ideal circumstances) for healthy families and society at large.

    We can serve the vanity of some that want their differences ignored, or we can accept that there are differences in reality between relationships, yet still honor the justice, honesty, love and value that those relationships bring.

    Recognizing difference does not equate to discrimination, the former is an observation, whereas the later is an act.

    Burying your head in the shifting political sands of time is not a way of recognizing a historical and actual truth.

  14. Ah, ok, so your argument isn’t a linguistic one, its an empirical one.

    “We can give to homosexual unions all that you request, other than, IMO, being asked not to recognize that their civil unions are different from traditional married ones. They simply are – at least in the sense that they are a union that is probably the best (in ideal circumstances) for healthy families and society at large.”

    I disagree, and am confident that my viewpoint is prevailing amongst my generation. I would additionally like to note that your argument is the sort that ought be backed up by empirical evidence, not philosophy. I’ll wait.

  15. @Patrick,

    I note your non-argument (lingustic or empirical), and yes you are right laws are voted in within democracies. However I have always thought debate and consultation periods before hand should be used to argue rationally the legitimacy, form and practicality of the proposed new law.

    Though the coalition party in the UK seems to have made up its mind prior to this period, that seems strange and dangerous to me – but perhaps I am just old fashioned and we can do away with such a due process.

    Perhaps the family unit of the father/mother is not really needed to parent children effectively. And we can safely set out laws that over a period of time will undermine that concept. Heaven help this prevailing generation, and those yet to be born, however if it is not a good step.

  16. Patrick- you want to have your cake and eat it too. You want the intellectual satisfaction of (attempting) to refute my points, while retaining the right to ignore any point points because “Why listen to philosophy when I have popular opinion on my side.” In the future, I suggest that if you want to appear like a rational person, you keep the ‘force’ card to yourself, at least for a while.

    I think you’ve summarized my instincts on this matter in your last paragraph nicely. Homosexual marriage rights *seem* like a good idea as long as it’s presumed that progress is always progress for the best, but an honest evaluation of what has to be tampered with/undermined in order to achieve it should give anybody pause for thought. That’s why I brought up ecology in my first comment- most progressives SHOULD have a parallel thought process when it comes to nature that I have when it comes to culture, which should be helpful in seeing my concerns.

  17. Martin- Still waiting.

    Ryan Smith- My point wasn’t a matter of “why listen to philosophy when I have popular opinion on my side.” My point was “why compromise with a position I disagree with when I have no need to do so?” I think I misinterpreted his reasoning, though. I don’t think he was suggesting a compromise position, I think he’s just a confusing writer who was offering a linguistic argument in the hopes that it would function as a public reason for an audience likely to see “organic society” arguments as stupid.

    If you’ve got an actual reason why gay marriage is a bad idea, that deserves to be addressed. But if what you’ve got are arguments that would need empirical support to be valid, and which have been made against gay marriage for over a decade but for which no empirical support has been gathered in all that time… you deserve to be treated as someone who is not, himself, arguing in good faith.

    At this point in the lengthy debate about gay marriage, evidence of gay marriage’s harm to children is about as likely to turn up as evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Its not that there’s some presupposition that such evidence doesn’t exist… we’ve just been here before, and it always ends the same way. With nada.

  18. Patrick,
    You shouldn’t. My point isn’t to disagree with that stance, my point is to AGREE with your stance and to show that, because of this, there’s no rational argument to be had here. You don’t agree with the other side, you’re confident your side is going to win, because of this there’s no point from your perspective in trying to reach a compromise, and because of THAT there’s no point in anybody on the other side trying to convince you of anything.
    My position all along is that this is a straight up culture war that will be settled with legislative force and not intellectual debate- as that’s the way it’s transpired from the beginning. In order to actually have a useful conversation, one would have to ignore homosexuality and discuss the underlying difference- the roles of tradition, taboo, and so in the formation and maintenance of a healthy society. You have two camps- one says, “This group of people shouldn’t be allowed to do what they want because an ancient text says so,” and the other camp that says “5,000 years of moral tradition should be immediately scrapped if it impedes the widespread acceptance of my sexual kinks.” As long as that separation on the broader issue remains, the two sides have nothing to say to each other on the particulars.
    For example, your statement that all women before 1980 had a hellish existence is bat-shit insane to me. So foolish, in fact, that I feel like I’d be insulting myself to bother dignifying it with a response. That’s how wide the divide is. So how the hell are we going to come to any kind of eye-to-eye about gay marriage?

  19. In summary, yes I can make a case that gay marriage is a bad idea, but it would be based on a bunch of assumptions we don’t share, so what’s the point? The opposite is also true; when you make an argument in favor of gay marriage, your starting ground is as irrelevant to me as the Bible is to you.

  20. This dialog has lost its civil and charitable tone – so please excuse me for leaving it alone.

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