One of the most prominent issues in the Australian media this past few weeks has been that of gay marriage, due to the upcoming postal plebiscite on this issue. Those already ‘over it,’ thinking that it makes little difference to them personally, miss the concerning fact that rights concerning love or equality are not primarily in focus here. This plebiscite is fundamentally about what marriage is and what it is not.
Many choose emotive and polarising arguments with misplaced allegations of hatred. It surely behoves any responsible and democratic society to engage in civilised debate over key concerns on an issue so foundational to its own future, its history, and its structure. I would identify three.
1. The Bible is surely relevant to any discussion on same-sex marriage, irrespective of one’s view.
Tennis great, Margaret Court, was recently criticised for appealing to the Bible in opposing same-sex marriage. Its use is not only reasonable, but necessary, irrespective of one’s views of the Bible’s authority in contemporary life. This is because marriage finds its origins in the Bible, the historical accuracy of which is thoroughly verifiable by archaeological discoveries and by parallel cultures. The state may have commandeered marriage legally in more recent centuries, but attempts to redefine it ignore its founding purpose.
In the Bible’s first book, Genesis, marriage was between a man and a woman. It was a committed and secure relationship that provided lifelong and exclusive intimacy as a ‘covenant’ and not a ‘contract.’ Marriage is therefore not intrinsically based on love (even though it celebrates and commemorates it). It is also not a conditional union.
Regardless of whether heterosexual couples have children and regardless of the degree of success of heterosexual marriages today, marriage is only ever a heterosexual union. This fact is historical, biological, inherent and unalterable, despite what any contemporary state authority may presume.
The New Testament builds upon the foundations of the Old. Jesus, Paul, Peter and John all defined marriage exclusively in heterosexual terms, not just in reflecting their own social context, but in establishing key principles of sexual and marital conduct for all time.
For instance, the Bible restricts sexual intercourse exclusively to a lifelong heterosexual marriage, dissolvable only by unfaithfulness or death, and any other sexual relationships (heterosexual or homosexual) are prohibited, a fact often lost in the current debate. That God is loving is not in doubt, but His perfect love does not entitle us to choose any expression of love that we might validate. Furthermore, the parameters of love that He prescribes for us are in our best interests.
Equality is therefore irrelevant in this present matter because marriage, when understood in the light of its origins, is not open to a definition of our choosing. This resembles allowing Americans to bring baseball bats to Twenty-20 matches if they should expect to play our desirable Summer sport according to different rules. We love Americans, but in the end such a decision would ‘not be cricket.’
2. The same-sex marriage issue is not comparable to any other.
Many have emotively linked current prohibitions on same-sex marriage to previous bans on the indigenous vote, for example. The two issues could not be more different.
Indigenous people were, and are, equivalent persons to all others. Personhood was central to the right to vote in the 1967 reforms in Australia. Relevance for marriage is only valid in the sense that personhood entitles any adult to wed, but understanding that such a union is innately heterosexual. Feelings, love, and rights may all seem vitally important to us, but therefore become incidental concerns.
Accusations of discrimination are irrelevant here, since discrimination legitimately recognises and affirms points of difference that, in this case, make marriage accessible only to heterosexual, and not homosexual, couples. After all, discrimination is widely practised in many spheres of daily life, even though there are examples in which it clearly and unacceptably violates uniformity of access (as with the denial of the right of adults to vote if they fulfil all other citizenship requirements.)
If same-sex attracted people wish to commit themselves to each other they can, of course, choose to formalise such relationships by existing legal provisions that already give them the rights provided to de facto heterosexual couples. With the option of a formal ceremony, this facilitates protections for committed gay couples. To restrict the definition of marriage, then, simply affirms its uniqueness.
The plebiscite is costly, yes, but it is also necessary. To have proposals for changes to the Marriage Act constantly rebuffed in parliament warrants a clearer understanding from the people as to what view their elected representatives are truly representing. Any prejudicial belief that such a fundamental social change is unworthy of direct consideration by the people is disturbingly disrespectful.
3. There is no place for the emotionally-charged dismissal of contrary opinions in a democracy.
In this current debate, emotions can cloud objective discussion. Presumption of motive or of supposed rights to fairness have castigated, even bullied, conservatives. Opponents of same-sex marriage are often falsely assumed to harbour common ignorance, intolerance, bigotry, or even hatred, of homosexual people.
Sadly, this trend appears to be a commonplace attitude toward those not readily acquiescing to demands for a same-sex marriage. Is it not truly intolerant, however, to harass people out of the sphere of reasoned debate? Is it not intolerant to view the world through rainbow-coloured glasses that depict conservatives as haters as if to leave no possible room for opposition or indecision in a democratic society? Must freedom of speech be contingent on having a particular speech?
Of course, some minorities have already advocated marriages based on polygamy, even on paedophilia. What is unthinkable to one generation, though, quickly becomes possible to the next and then a preferred reality to the one after that. To say so is not fear-mongering and is surely not an over-reaction, given the patterns observed in other nations.
Conservative opinion is often labelled as an unloving denial of what is self-evidently natural, as if God Himself must have created same-sex attractions. Not only is there no reliable evidence of a causal link, but twin studies argue against this and actually suggest that sociological factors are responsible.
Now this matters little to those suggesting that the rights of loving couples should not be infringed. Heterosexual couples are often believed to be insensitive to the plight of gay couples seeking marriage, especially in cases where ongoing denial would be commensurate with sexual abstinence. Sensitivity and empathy are indeed significant interpersonal values in any discussions here, but of ultimate importance is the very nature of marriage which is currently accessed, and thus able to be commentated upon and defended, by heterosexual couples.
Redefining marriage will undoubtedly open debate on subsequent amendments for those with no objective reference point. The shifting sands of contemporary morality offer little resistance to further erosion by the next allegedly disenfranchised minority.
Preserving the current definition of marriage is not an act of antagonism or ignorance. It simply values the exclusivity of a heterosexual covenant as the only secure and committed relationship that its maker, for the betterment and benefit of society, permits to be sexual. Naturally this ideal does not always play out, but any such eventuality does not invalidate traditional marriage, either.
To enshrine any other definition in law is to place the rights of individuals above our responsibility to the institution of marriage. We are its collective custodians. To relativise our social foundations now, as easily and as quickly as some would desire, is to all too easily disregard the fact that the greatness of any nation has always been defined by the protection of its responsibilities over the deification of its rights, anyway.
Although I know, love and respect many same-sex attracted people, I therefore feel morally obliged to vote ‘no’ in the upcoming plebiscite.