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Is Increasing Acceptance of Same-Sex Marriage Really REALLY Linked to Moral Decline?

April 23, 2014

ls increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage really linked to moral decline?” John Gustav-Wrathall asked yesterday at No More Strangers.

According to Wikipedia, “Betteridge’s Law of headlines is an adage that states: “Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”

Sorry to spoil you on his article, but he complied with Betteridge: his answer is no.

In this article, I am taking a second look…but spoiler: I am also complying with Betteridge.

In John’s article, he writes about a conversation that he had about same-sex marriage with someone who was against the idea. The twist was that his conversation wasn’t with a devoutly traditionalist, conservative religious type, but actually another gay man:

I remember quite a few years ago having a conversation with a gay man about marriage. I believe this must have been shortly after same-sex marriage became legal for the first time in Massachusetts. I spoke about Göran’s and my own yearning to be legally married, and I think I said something to the effect of, “I don’t understand why any gay couple, if they had a choice, wouldn’t prefer to be married.”

I was a bit surprised by the vehemence of the response, by the moral outrage my comment provoked. I thought I was making a commonsense statement. But this individual replied, bristling, “Why should we mimic corrupt heterosexist norms?”

I continue to see occasional murmurings in the gay community about where all this marriage stuff is leading. Isn’t it more honest, some folks continue to insist, to acknowledge that human beings are not by nature monogamists? Isn’t it unhealthy to start to uphold a marital standard that holds up unreasonable expectations? (That argument is fascinating to me, if only because it was an argument embraced by 19th century Mormons in defense of polygamy.)

But at the moment, there seems to be a convergence between radical sex liberationists and conservative opponents of same-sex marriage. In 2012, when I was staffing phone banks and talking to people about marriage, one of the most vociferous opponents of same-sex marriage I encountered as a gay man who insisted he was voting for Minnesota Amendment 1 (to ban same-sex marriage) because he believed nobody should be allowed to marry.

If you haven’t heard these radical voices directly, then chances are, just as John describes, your conservative friends who oppose same-sex marriage may probably be linking to the radical voices, trying to paint the picture that the radical voices are what the marriage equality supporters are really after but just too spineless to say in public. (Never mind that the radical voices come from a different framework and so cannot be combined with liberal, more conventional voices.)

The rest of John’s post was an outline of some of the main reasons that marriage equality proponents do support it.

  1. We should have the same standard of morality for everyone in our society. It is unfair to hold gay individuals to a standard of celibacy while heterosexual couples are permitted the socially acceptable context of marriage for the expression of sexuality. It undermines marital monogamy as a moral norm when large numbers of couples are forced to cohabitate without the full rights and responsibilities of marriage.
  2. Individuals thrive best in a context of committed love. The framework of commitment that marriage reinforces benefits not only the partners in a marriage themselves, but everybody associated with the married couple: children raised by the couple, family, in-laws, friends and neighbors of the married couple. Everybody benefits from the increased stability and happiness that marriage is designed to ensure. Society benefits when individuals care for each other, instead of being forced to fend alone for themselves.
  3. We should treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated.

I agree with John on most of the points on marriage equality, but from reading these points, I saw that John wasn’t really answering his question…at least, not directly. Is increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage really linked to moral decline? Well, it depends on whom you ask, of course. But I would answer differently — no (there’s Betteridge), it’s just linked with ongoing moral change in society.

See, the thing that struck me about John’s reasons are that they aren’t so much an improvement or decline in existing moral values (with a caveat). They are, rather, a rebasing of those moral values in a different framework.

My caveat is that for many people, these already are the moral values they hold, because the rebasing has been going along for a lot longer (and was started by straight people in the first place.)

If you haven’t read that article I linked, go to it, because the main points there are what I’m going to only summarize here.

I certainly think that many people have an uncritical opposition to homosexuality, and so they do not necessarily offer any arguments of value to the discussion. However, even if I disagree with more thoughtfully considered argumentations, I recognize that one place that many opponents to same-sex marriage are coming from is a place that just plain has a different understanding of the purpose and morality of sexual relationships (and marriage)…and John is coming from a different place.

John says it is unfair to hold gay people to a standard of celibacy while heterosexual couples are permitted the socially acceptable context of marriage for the expression of sexuality.

But I would say that one of the main contrasting views from marriage is that marriage isn’t just this “socially acceptable context” for straight people to “express sexuality”…it’s not just a prize granted to straights. Rather, marriage is a tool…it is a binding rope of responsibility. The responsibility is to use sexuality to bear children. (I think that the proponents of this view place too much emphasis on childbearing and not enough on childrearing, as the rearing can happen in a number of different contexts.)

John’s appeal to folks is basically to try to get them to think that that other moral framework is not the one that they have, or the one that they want to have. That they don’t or shouldn’t want to view marriage as being the vehicle for childbearing, but about monogamous sexual expression  and, as John discusses in the second, individuals “thriving best.”

To this point, I think that John will be generally successful (and indeed, support for marriage equality continues to increase) because many, if not most people have already jumped to this framework. I would guess that even among many people who consider themselves conservative and traditionalist, many don’t see childbearing as the sole or primary purpose of marriage.

However, when you consider that some do, then suddenly, policies that seemed (and seem) utterly draconian start to make a little more sense (even though I still vehemently disagree with them.)

Why is contraception a big deal in 2014? Because it delinks sex from childbearing.

Why is women in the workforce, equal pay, etc., a big deal in 2014? Because economically and educationally empowered women statistically have children later in life, and not as many, as those who do not have as much access to education.

The increasing tide of support for marriage equality simply reflects that when we change those sorts of things (and thus, change the emphasis on marriage to being less about bearing kids), then it doesn’t make much sense to deprive this from LGBT friends and family (although I wish people would stop being so narrow as to only support marriage equality *when* it affects a family member).

Conservative folks will have a rough time because most of us LIKE these things. We do like equality of opportunities in education and work. We do like contraception. We don’t see these as moral ills.

So maybe conservatives will see this as moral decline. But for the rest of us, it’s a moral shift, and we are going to see it as positive.

(The addendum to this post would be that…if this isn’t moral decline, but a moral shift, where those with different moral frameworks can appeal to different bases to try to get policy changes, then that does give a place to the radical voice who asks, “Why stop here?” We are approaching an equilibrium of a liberal solution, but what is stopping others from proposing a more radical change?)


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