Common ground on marriage

Posted Sept. 28, 2009, at 7:45 p.m.

Conventional thinking has it that the debate over same-sex marriage is a contest of secular liberals versus religiously motivated conservatives. The issue is admittedly divisive. Boston University sociologist Alan Wolfe points out that most citizens don’t have a position on tariffs, but when it comes to the core day-to-day experience of family their views are deeply inscribed and passionately held. Divisions over same-sex marriage, however, cut across the religious-secular divide and even cross individual denominations.

This debate involves not only differing views on who may marry but contrasting perspectives on the nature and source of morality itself. For many social conservatives, morality originates from divinely authored commands. For others, the hierarchical church must serve as the final interpreter of God’s word. For both, without such a rock, society collapses into a sea of relativism.

There are, however, alternative perspectives on morality even within the Catholic Church. A leading Catholic journalist, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, argues that forms of religious engagement in political life are more likely to be just if they are rooted in humility rather than in a total identification of a human political agenda with the will of God.

Dionne presents his own combination of liberal and conservative reasons to support a right to same-sex marriage. Liberals emphasize the right to individual choice. Conservatives value the enduring ties upon which community depends. Both causes can be served by granting same-sex couples the right to marriage.

Dionne in effect is advocating expanding the reach of the Catholic social gospel. But his stance raises the question of the role of the laity in the church. Does the hierarchy have the right to impose its belief? Some are questioning not only the stance of church leadership but also its right to stake out fundamental teachings.

Since marriage has been established as the requirement for many important governmental and private sector benefits, affording same-sex couples the right to marry is an aspect of and key to economic and political equality.

But if we view the Bible as articulating an inclusive religion, and if we seek to remain attentive to the limits of even our most well-intentioned reforms, we need to broaden this debate.

New York University sociologist Lisa Duggan recently pointed out that most of us, whether straight, gay or other, live large portions of our lives in nonmarital situations. She cites and endorses efforts by an unlikely coalition of social liberals and members of Utah’s LDS Church to establish “an adult joint-support registry at a statewide level. And that means that if it were your cousin or your best friend or your lover, you can register and have access to medical decision making and inheritance rights and certain basic recognitions that people who are economically interdependent and residentially interdependent need, without having to show what your sexual life is like or asking the state, in some sense, to recognize your romantic or sexual life. Instead, you’re just registering who it is you need these benefits with. That actually offers protections to a broader group of people than lesbian and gay couples than marriage would and also to people who are straight, who may not want the full marriage rights and obligations and benefits that go along with marriage, to register people, whoever it is that they want to be able to share their responsibilities with. That turns out offering more to more people.”

There is no easy resolution of the divisive social issues, nor can they be buried in a world of flux and rapid change. To evade these issues or fall back on purportedly settled truths is the ultimate in human hubris. But reforms need be attentive to their own limits. And there are ways that burdens can be lifted from some of those most offended by cultural change. Duggan suggests if we “focus on those things that most of us need and have in common with others, we might be able to produce a kind of coalition politics that would be less isolating for the gay movement. And queer issues could be defined expansively and produce alliances with, say, the AARP, who certainly has an interest in getting some recognition for Golden Girl households, right?”

John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers may reach him at jbuell@acadia.net.

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