The latest issue of Free Inquiry features pieces by myself and Tom Flynn on same-sex marriage and related matters. Free Inquiry publishes some material online, to tease potential readers, and in this case it has published Flynn’s interesting piece, which suggests that the institution of marriage, which has lost a lot of on-ground support in recent decades (many people are not bothering to marry, and a sizeable number think the institution has lost its relevance), may be actually be saved by gay couples pressing for equal marriage rights.
As I emphasize in my own piece (which is not available online, so you’ll have to buy the magazine), I have consistently argued in favor of sex-same marriage throughout the current debate, including in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State and a bit more briefly on the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal.
Perhaps, however, I’ve been less enthusiastic than some – I don’t mean that I’ve been unenthusiastic, just that I’ve, quite literally, not been one of the most enthusiastic people on my side of the argument. You might think that the arguments I’ve concentrated on have a more detached, less passionate sound to them than those from certain other commentators. If that’s what you think, I possibly stand guilty, and it may be because I feel some ambivalence about the entire concept of marriage, and especially about state involvement.
Flynn captures some of the reason why – and it will be familiar to many people who’ve been thinking about the issue over decades, not just over the last few years:
In one 2010 Pew Research Center Study, four in ten respondents said they already considered marriage obsolete.
Increasingly, matrimony has lost its power as the default state/religious apparatus for sanctioning pair-bonds. “The institution is dying—for the poor,” Streshinsky declared, while for wealthier Americans it has come to serve less as a normative rite than a design platform for celebratory excess.
As I’ve often written, secular humanists—indeed, Enlightenment individualists generally—should hail these developments. There’s something deeply wrong with the idea that free individuals should require the public sanction of the state—or even of their families and friends—to make their choice of a life-partner “legitimate.” And we should be no less queasy with matrimony’s historic cargo. At its roots it’s a disturbing amalgam of state and religion, a separationist’s nightmare entangled in its pedigree as a sacrament of the church. Anyone who views women as men’s equals should recoil from marriage’s origins as an arrangement for transferring property rights in the bride from her father to her husband. (Which is why the father traditionally “gives away” the bride.) For all these reasons, since the nineteenth-century Golden Age of Freethought, a strain of dogged resistance to matrimony has run through much atheist and, later, secular-humanist activism.
Later he adds:
Fifteen years ago, no LGBT advocate could have imagined that we would be where we are today. Back then, gay activists hoped not to reform marriage but to respond to its presumably irredeemable bigotry and narrowness by supplanting it. They dreamed not of same-sex marriage but of civil unions.
To be frank, civil unions had much to recommend them. Given time and focused activism, it is likely that they would have grown to confer most or all of the same rights granted by traditional matrimony: parental rights, sickroom visitation, health-care decision-making, community property, the right to inherit, and so on. What secular humanists especially liked about civil unions was that they would represent a brand-new institution constructed entirely within the domain of secular law. Civil unions would be as free of matrimony’s tangled roots as they were of its historical negatives. The activists of fifteen years ago dared to hope for a future, perhaps a couple of decades ahead, when robust civil unions might be available to same-sex couples across the land.
This perspective is not heard much in current debates, and perhaps that’s understandable, even appropriate. The priority may, after all, be equality for LGBT people. That may mean dispensing with some ambiguities and subtleties for the purpose of practical political campaigning. Still, I do find it refreshing to get a reminder from time to time that the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples while leaving marriage itself much as it was might not be the utopian outcome – perhaps it’s the best practical outcome and the one we should be fighting for, but there are other possibilities that looked viable and progressive even quite recently.
Again, I support moves for liberal democracies to recognize same-sex marriages for those who want them. It is often argued that this will somehow undermine the institution of marriage, but it may be that the opposite is actually true: it might even help the institution’s survival if large numbers of same-sex couples value it so much and start to take part in it; it may even tend to give the institution more credibility when we currently have people fighting to gain access to it. More power to the people concerned.
All the same, what if a time comes one day when marriage no longer seems needed or especially desirable as a legal institution – perhaps if more and more people come to the view that it is not important, and if we progressively extend the legal rights that go with it to couples who are not formally married?
I won’t be losing sleep at the possibility that – for completely different reasons that began to have effects some time ago now – the institution does erode and we find viable alternatives to it. Marriage is not an institution that needs to be preserved for its own sake. It is valuable insofar as it serves human needs … and if they can be served in other ways, so be it. Or so it seems to me.