Recently I sat in on a debate about gay marriage. It failed in the noble end of giving everyone in the audience a more complete picture of the arguments and concerns surrounding the issue, but it did at any rate give me the chance to organize my own thoughts on the issue.
It seems to me that, as an institution, marriage has three goods attached to it. First, it recognizes the value we place on a loving, meaningful bond between people who declare their lifelong commitment to one another. Second, it recognizes the value we place on creating stable home environments in which children can be raised to become good people and good citizens. I’ll call these two goods the social goods of marriage, and I think rational people must agree that these goods can be met by gay couples as well as by straight couples. Clearly, gay couples long to have their loving, meaningful commitment to one another recognized through the institution of marriage. And while some people argue that the homes of gay couples are not the best place in which children can be raised, the evidence is very far from clear. Moreover, even if there were child-rearing disadvantages to gay marriage, those disadvantages could well result from the general resentment or resistance toward gay marriage that’s found throughout our society. And if this is so, then such evidence should only spur our efforts to ease that resistance, just as we are spurred to ease the resistance to mixed-race couples or single-parent households.
So the first two goods of marriage provide no reason against gay marriage; indeed, there is every reason to think that these goods can be promoted by allowing gay marriage. But the third good of marriage is different. Many people in our society view marriage as providing a religious good. In their view, God has instituted a holy bond between members of the opposite sex: man and woman complete one another in a profoundly important way that members of the same sex couples cannot. The fundamental, biological difference between the sexes exists because of a purpose God has for human beings, which is to wed, complete one another, and produce more human beings. Marriage is the societal recognition of this religious good, in addition to the two social goods, and from this perspective, making marriage available to same-sex couples in fact repudiates any societal recognition of this particular religious good.
I’m going to argue that religious people need to give way on this good, but first I want to stress that this religious good is in fact a very important to a great many of our fellow citizens, and demanding that they give way on it is asking them to give up on something they value quite highly. This needs to be more widely appreciated, I think. It is not at all like asking an atheist to give way on prayers at school assemblies, or saying “so help me God” at the end of an oath. Having to kowtow to such religious observances are fairly small potatoes; they are very minor concessions in comparison to demanding that religious folks give way on their view of a divinely-instituted bond between human beings. In fact, I can’t think of any other institution that has such a great and equal mix of social and religious significance. It is uniquely a big deal.
Okay; so why do I think that, despite this cost, the religious folks need to give way on this issue? I think they need to for two reasons. First, the cost of denying the social goods of marriage to gay couples is an even greater cost than is the cost to religious folks of giving way. This is becoming more and more obvious to a lot of people. As gay couples out themselves, and as there is greater public understanding of their love and commitment to one another, and their familiar humanity, it feels increasingly wrong to refuse to recognize their bonds through marriage. I’m taking this as a social fact. Second, if gay marriage is generally made available and legal, religious folks can still find a lesser way of saving some of the religious good they see in marriage. This lesser way is that religious institutions can always make a distinction between a secular marriage and one that is recognized in the church and through their ceremonies. (In fact, some religions do this already when they refuse to recognize the marriages, baptisms, and rituals performed in other religions or denominations.) This is not an easy fix; there are many complex ramifications that would need to be sorted out, just as there are between religious hospitals and insurance programs and the Affordable Care Act. But though tricky, this is the only way to go. There can no longer be any denial of the social goods of marriage to same sex couples, and allowing religious institutions to preserve their own sense of marriage is about the best we can do in preserving the good they find in marriage.