Posted on Jul 1, 2011 by Tom Gilson
Even a democracy can undermine freedom and foster the unethical rule of power. America’s founders saw this, and placed in our Constitution a Bill of Rights to preserve civil rights and protect us all from the tyranny of the majority. Gay “marriage” is often regarded as a civil rights issue deserving that constitutional protection. And indeed it is. George Weigel has perceptively showed us, though, that it is not the kind of civil rights matter that its proponents claim it to be. They tell us gay rights run parallel to racial civil rights, but as Weigel notes,
the analogy simply doesn’t work. Legally enforced segregation involved the same kind of coercive state power that the proponents of gay marriage now wish to deploy on behalf of their cause. Something natural and obvious – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” – was being denied by the state in its efforts to maintain segregated public facilities and to deny full citizenship rights to African Americans. Once the American people came to see that these arrangements, however hallowed by custom (and prejudice), were, in fact, unnatural and not obvious, the law was changed.
What the gay lobby proposes in the matter of marriage is precisely the opposite of this. Marriage, as both religious and secular thinkers have acknowledged for millennia, is a social institution that is older than the state and that precedes the state. The task of a just state is to recognize and support this older, prior social institution; it is not to attempt its redefinition. To do the latter involves indulging the totalitarian temptation that lurks within all modern states: the temptation to remanufacture reality. The American civil-rights movement was a call to recognize moral reality; the call for gay marriage is a call to reinvent reality to fit an agenda of personal willfulness. The gay-marriage movement is thus not the heir of the civil-rights movement; it is the heir of Bull Connor and others who tried to impose their false idea of moral reality on others by coercive state power.
Several streams have fed into our current confused state. Until about twenty to twenty-five years ago, what was “natural and obvious” concerning marriage was that it was for a man and a woman. Now a significant number of Westerners think it “natural and obvious” that the meaning of marriage can be stretched beyond that. This principle has now been codified into law in New York and five other states.
Of course no one thinks it will go any further than allowing couples of the same sex to “marry;” no one would ever support stretching marriage to include polygamy or polyamory: for isn’t it obvious that marriage is for two adults? Well, yes, and once it was obvious that it was for two adults of opposite sex. What’s most obvious is that what is “obvious” can change over time. We cannot count on what is obvious today to predict what will happen tomorrow. Marriage has lost its moorings, and now it will drift where it will.
Those who do not know history, it is said, are doomed to repeat it. In this case they are doomed to invent a brand-new future; but this future continues a long-established trajectory. The Western world has been trying for centuries to establish mastery over nature in every way. We have won many battles, but not without cost: our victories have been Pyrrhic, as C.S. Lewis both saw and foresaw. We have overcome nature’s power in part, but in so doing we have pronounced ourselves part of nature, like the animals.
This giving up of ourselves to mere nature was never essential to the progress of science. It results not from any growth in our knowledge or skills, but from an intentional rejection of spiritual reality. Naturalistic philosophy lets us imagine that our dominance over nature will someday be complete. If on the other hand there is a God, then we have no such hope for total mastery.
In making ourselves part of nature, though, we forgot that nature is where appetite, instinct, and power prevail, and where reason and ethics have no place or meaning. The implications for marriage are profound. Whereas true marriage is mostly (not entirely, but mostly) about giving to and building a future generation, gay “marriage” is mostly (not entirely, but mostly) about appetite justified by instinct: ”I was born this way so I have to do it!” Psalm 8 tells us that God made us a little lower than the angels. The logic animating homosexual advocacy is that we are no higher than the animals.
Along those same beastly lines, the foisting of gay “marriage” upon us by courts or legislatures is mostly a matter of power. Weigel said concerning this,
resistance to the agenda of the gay-marriage lobby is a necessary act of resistance against the dictatorship of relativism, in which coercive state power is used to impose on all of society a relativistic ethic of personal willfulness.
He is right, and this has been a matter of great concern to me for quite some time. Where the ethic of truth is lost to public policy, public policy moves to being based on an ethic of power. When that happens, much more of what seems obvious today is at risk of being obsolete tomorrow. Now that we are living under a “relativistic ethic of personal willfulness,” what bounds can we set around said willfulness? I search and I can find none, other than someone else’s willfulness, someone who by force of power will establish his, her, or their ethics as dominant over the rest of us.
Thus Weigel is exactly right to see the same-sex “marriage” movement as a civil rights issue. More precisely it is a symptom of a larger shift in our culture, away from an ethics based in truth, and toward policy based in power. This is what the founders knew they had to prevent. This is why the created for us a Bill of Rights. This is what has protected our liberties for more than 225 years.
Herein lies the ominous irony of homosexual activism. It calls itself a movement of personal freedom and liberty. It borrows the language of civil rights. It employs the structures of a free society to achieve its ends. But it rests on a philosophical foundation that undermines all of these.
And herein also lies a caution to all of us who oppose this gay insurgency. Our rights are rooted in our being human, endowed by our Creator with a nature higher than the merely natural. There is no need to follow others’ descent to appetite, instinct, and power.
Therefore, while it is necessary to oppose power with power, we must never forget we have more at stake than just winning for our side. We’re fighting for the principle that there is a higher principle than mere fighting. Let us let that guide our methods in all that we do. We who believe in prayer, let us pray. We who believe in love, let us not return the other side’s language of hate, no matter how venomously they spew it at us. We who believe in truth, let us not resort to bumper-sticker slogans. Let us employ the power we have, but let us do so in a principled way.