This past Thursday, we all sat down with our families to engage in the ritual that is Thanksgiving dinner. There was turkey and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. But this column, perhaps unfortunately, isn’t about food. This column is about family.
Maybe there were parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters. Maybe there were cousins and uncles and aunts. Maybe there were husbands and wives or partners. Maybe there were in-laws or step-parents. Maybe there were friends. Maybe there was a line of people at the soup kitchen. Regardless of where you were or what you ate, there was something connecting you to all the other people who were there and eating with you.
That seemingly ineffable something that connects a family can be understood as a set of four social contracts. The first contract is between the individuals. The second is between the individuals and God. The third is between the individuals and the community. And the fourth is between the individuals and the state.
It’s easy to see how this set of contracts applies to a friendship. Beth and Courtney meet and hit it off. Their new friendship must then withstand any moral differences. If Courtney thinks eating meat is immoral, but Beth walks around all day with a drumstick in her hand, they may run into difficulties.
Then the friendship has to face community scrutiny. If too many of Beth’s other friends dislike Courtney, Beth will probably end up distancing herself from Courtney. Friends who manage to satisfy all three of these contractual obligations are hard to find and might well become so close as to start thinking of one another as family.
The government only gets involved in extreme circumstances, such as when one friend decides to hit the other friend with a baseball bat. Of course, by this point, the Beth and Courtney relationship probably would have been somewhat strained already.
Everybody more or less accepts these contracts as they apply to almost every social relationship. You may have heard, however, that there’s been a bit of upheaval in the whole marriage thing, specifically as it applies to homosexuals.
Some states have been passing constitutional amendments that limit marriage to heterosexual couples, while other states have been issuing court orders that allow gays to marry under equal rights laws. Some of the more adventurous states (I’m looking at you, California!) have been doing both.
While the government is really good (if a little slow) at mandating strictly material actions, such as whether it’s okay to hit people with baseball bats or pour noxious chemicals into the Penobscot River, it’s not very good at dealing with more esoteric concerns. And marriage is more than just a physical union codified by a piece of paper that leads to a tax break.
Marriage is also a spiritual union between two individuals. Liberals tend to underestimate this, generally promoting gay marriage as a series of material rights that gays should have access to. As such, they fail to understand the concern of conservatives who oppose gay marriage on traditional and moral grounds.
The problem with both marriage-defining constitutional amendments and court orders is that they are efforts to circumvent the first three social contracts and go straight to the fourth, and then use that fourth social contract to forcibly bring the first three into line.
But neither side will be able to force any permanent mass community acceptance or denial of gay marriage through government action; it has to go the other way around. And obviously neither side will be able to use the government to square or condemn any relationship before God.
The solution most moderates propose is to permit civil unions for gay couples, but not marriages. But the point — and the problem — with this solution is that it sidesteps the power of the word itself. A civil union would guarantee all the material rights of a marriage, but it also implies a continued barring from the spiritual bond of marriage. In other words, it represents an acceptance of the fourth contract, but an implicit doubting of the first three.
So where does that leave gay marriage? I would argue that it leaves it out of the hands of the government altogether. The state has no business attempting to regulate the spiritual connection between two individuals and God, which is the position that activists on each side of the issue have put it in.
Therefore, the government should issue only civil unions to both gay and straight couples, thus leaving marriage to individuals, communities and God. The effect of this would make any gay couple free to marry before each other and God in an accepting community, but that nobody would be forced to acknowledge it or any other union as marriage.
Ultimately, pieces of paper don’t define family anyway. Neither does blood. Neither does the community in which we live. Neither, even, does God, though it’s probably a good idea to get him involved.
Family is what we want it to be. It’s simply the people we choose to eat our mashed potatoes with.