Saturday, January 11, 2014

Some Thoughts on Gay Marriage

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a long time. Several years, in fact. This has become an increasingly important issue for me over the years, and with the recent changes happening in Utah, my home state, it’s become an ever more pressing issue. What finally pushed me to write out my current thoughts on the subject was a post written by one of my best friends in this world.

This is kind of a heavy topic, so first here's a happy picture of a field with my favorite flowers in it:

Okay, on to business.

The first thing I want to say is that this issue is a lot more nuanced than I think most people give it credit for. Much of the public discourse I see surrounding the issue seems to operate from the assumption that the solution is black and white. I don’t think it’s that clear. There are those who say, “Homosexuality is sin and not marriage and it shoudn’t be allowed, period.” And there are those who say, “Homosexuality is my identity and I deserve the same rights as you do, period.” And then they proceed to yell a lot and get angry at each other. But that kind of discussion goes nowhere and does nothing but increase the level of contention in the world. I hate contention. So consider this my attempt to try and push the conversation in a more productive and civil direction.

Now before I get into exploring my views on the subject, I want to say that there is no way I can possibly address all of my thoughts on all the different threads of this question. There are so many different arguments that get brought up when we start delving into this matter that there’s no way I can possibly touch on them all. Among the many threads, the most prevalent is the question of what does the word “marriage” mean. Related to that question, we have the question of human rights, the question of societal impact one way or another, and perhaps most important on an individual level there’s the question of identity. With this blog post I’m not going to try and address the question of societal impact, mostly because I’m no expert and I don’t want to pretend authority that I don’t have. Also, the question of identity is only going to be mentioned briefly, though I find it a very compelling question that I might revisit sometime in the future. Mostly, I want to talk about the word “marriage” and how I think that much of our current disagreement and contention on the subject stems from the fact that we aren’t operating from a commonly held understanding of the word. Thus, while the defining of this word should be the argument that is being held, it usually is not. And I find that frustrating. So I’d like to try and clarify the differing definitions of marriage so that we can maybe start working towards a mutually acceptable solution to the problem.

First I want to put my cards on the table. I have long been opposed the legalization of gay marriage, largely for religious reasons, though I have somewhat softened my views on the subject over the years. I know that’s a very unpopular opinion for many people, so let me explain how I see this issue, and why I think taking a hard line stance in either direction is impossible.

The word “marriage” brings with it a lot of baggage. Like it or not, the word carries with it strong moral, ethical, and religious connotations.  Now I don’t pretend to be any great religious scholar or theologian, but looking at two examples we can begin to see how deeply connected marriage is to religious traditions, specifically Christianity.  I am not very familiar with the specific place of marriage within Protestant Christianity beyond being able to say that I know that they view it as a holy act done in the presence of and often consciously including God. As such I don’t want to misrepresent their specific beliefs so I’ll not discuss them further. That said, the examples I want to look at are of Catholicism and my own religion Mormonism.

First let’s look at the Roman Catholic Church. In the Roman Catholic Church, marriage is a “sacrament,” a word derived from the Latin word sacramentum which means “sign of the sacred.” explains saying, “The seven sacraments are ceremonies that point to what is sacred, significant and important for Christians. They are special occasions for experiencing God's saving presence.” While I am expressly describing Roman Catholic traditions, a cursory review of sources shows that the Eastern Orthodox traditions hold similar views of marriage as a sacrament.

In Mormonism we take a similar understanding of marriage. For us Mormons, marriage, when performed in a temple by one authorized of God, isn’t just an institution of this Earth, but one that extends through eternity. It’s a promise that you make both with your partner and with God as well. Marriage is deeply connected with our faith, our understanding of God and our relationship with him, and our eternal potential. In these religious understandings of marriage God prescribes that they be done between a man and a woman.

While these religious views of marriage are not universally held, we can’t escape the fact that when we talk about marriage in the public discourse, this is what much of the religious population is hearing. They hear “marriage,” and they think “man, woman, God.” They think of marriage as a sign of the sacred. So it’s easy to see why they view homosexual marriage as something abhorrent. If you view homosexual relations as morally debase and outright sin before God, and then have someone come in and try to link that view of that way of life with that sign of the sacred, then you are going to react in such a way that reflects how repugnant that is to you. This is where much of the religious population is coming from.

Now the debate can be had concerning the morality of homosexuality, but that is an expressly different discussion from the one I’m trying to outline here. It’s a different discussion because we all have different definitions of “morality,” which go far beyond sexual preferences. What’s important to take from this is that for a large percentage of the American population, this is their reality. This is why there is such concern among the religious about how this might affect public policy concerning freedom of religion. Marriage is a part of their religions, and so to redefine it is for the government to change their religion. The two issues are inseparably connected for these individuals.

I’ve heard many people on the other side of this issue say that gay marriage has nothing to do with freedom of religion, and from their point of view it doesn’t. But that is because they are working from a fundamentally different definition of the word “marriage.”

Now my discussion is transitioning onto shakier ground for me. My purpose here is to explore why this issue isn’t easily resolved because of our differing understandings of the word “marriage.” My operating assumptions concerning marriage fall in somewhere among those of the religious, so I recognize that in trying to explore the views of those with whom I don’t entirely identify I run the risk of misrepresentation. I want to say outright that I don’t mean to oversimplify or distort this view, so if I do so in any way, I welcome correction and feedback. I truly do want to understand.

That said, from what I understand, proponents of gay marriage seem to work from the definition of marriage that says that marriage is a social contract between two consenting adults who love one another. From this viewpoint, marriage is seen as a governmental rights-granting institution. This is a perfectly valid understanding of marriage, because that precisely what it is from a government standpoint. This is why arguments such as this one that appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune this week are so effective: “We want our daughter to have both her parents be legally responsible for her.” Two women, consenting adults, have adopted a child. They want to be assured that legal action is taken to assure that child’s security.  The question of human rights is a very compelling one that can’t be taken lightly. While I think that comparisons to the cultural subjugation of black Americans and the equal rights movements of the 50s and 60s are entirely inappropriate in terms of scale and history, it can’t be denied that there are some governmental rights withheld from gay couples.  In addition to adoption rights, you also have hospital visitation rights, insurance beneficiary rights, tax benefits and a whole slew of other government granted and protected rights that are only available to individuals who are “married.”

And this is where we find the problem. Well-meaning and completely justified homosexual couples want legal justification. To be perfectly honest, they are being discriminated against by not being granted the legal benefits granted to heterosexual couples. And this is where they see themselves taking a stand. For them it’s about rights. And on this point, I agree with them entirely.

Can you see how these two definitions of marriage are at odds with one another? For the religious who oppose gay marriage the big question isn’t rights, it’s whether or not the government can declare moral something that they deeply believe to be immoral and something that they see God as having declared immoral. For those in favor of gay marriage the question is love and equal rights, and religious freedom is an entirely separate issue.

As long as these two sides of the issue aren’t arguing from the same definition of marriage, there will be no understanding and there will only continue to be conflict and hard feelings. Is there not some middle way? Is there not some path that can assuage the religious freedom concerns of the religious population, while granting the rights so desired and craved by the LGBT population?

Perhaps more importantly, is there some way we can get past defining ourselves as belonging to one of these populations or the other? Can’t we find some overarching community definition that incorporates all of us into a single population, a population that works together for the good and happiness of all? For me, this open and loving community that works to accommodate, embrace, and celebrate differences is the end goal we should all be working towards. In the immortal words of John Lennon, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.” 

Was that a corny way to end this post? Probably, yes. But I do what I want, so deal with it.


  1. Sam, this is one of the toughest debates in the world for me. I generally steer clear of commenting for either side, although I have my own thoughts and opinions, for fear of offending someone...or everyone ha. I think that you have drawn an interesting distinction here and one that actually provided clarity in an area where I have seen nothing but murkiness for quite some time. It makes me wish that we could have a long carrels chat about all of this! So my real question is this: Based on the distinction you draw between the two definitions, do you think the answer is to legalize gay marriage with stipulations that no religion will have to perform or recognize the marriage (in the sense that they are not required to give equal treatment in religious ceremonies, etc.)? I know you ended your post with some open-ended questions about how we can find common ground, but I almost feel like that is what you are suggesting? I find myself leaning towards the legalization of gay marriage simply because of the legal trauma that could occur for people otherwise, but I really identify with your discussion of the "sacred nature of marriage" and the desire to preserve that. Essentially I just want to hear more of your thoughts because they seem significantly more intelligent than my own! (Also I miss our chats!) -Katie Wade-Neser

    1. Katie, I left the questions open-ended because I honestly don't know what the best course of action should be. I'm inclined to think that as long as the word "marriage" is in play there will be issues. I think the religious ties to the word are too strong for the religious communities to be okay with the calling homosexual unions marriages. The only way I see both sides being happy is if the government steps back and doesn't deal with "marriage" in any way, either as it concerns homosexual or heterosexual couples. I think we need a new term devoid of any religious, moral, or ethical associations. If the government were to stop giving out "marriage licenses" and instead grant "civil union licenses" or some other term and thereby grant its various rights and privileges, maybe some of these concerns could be alleviated. That way "marriage" can remain a solely religious institution without infringing on homosexual couples' rights. That wouldn't get rid of all of the problems associated with this issue, but it could be a good starting point. Once this ceases to become a question of government rights, the conversation would undergo a considerable shift and, I think, be more productive.

  2. You basically outlined my thoughts in a much more eloquent way than I could have ever done. Brilliant.

  3. Samuel, I have been trying to articulate this for months now, anytime this topic comes up in conversation. I feel like defining marriage is like trying to explain how apples and oranges are both still fruit but entirely different. (Obviously that analogy still doesn't work) Well done, I appreciate what you had to say and I totally agree.

  4. I'm currently standing on my bed applauding! Well done! I very much agree that the differing definitions of marriage are mostly to blame. But even after we identify that there are two very different definitions and viewpoints, it still seems that there's an extra dose of religious "stickin it to the gays" going on.

    For example... If the religious "beef" with gay marriage is that it mocks Christianity's sacredness of marriage, then why haven't we been actively protesting Las Vegas one-night-stand weddings? Those are marriages that god has certainly not put together, and are entered without hardly any thought, but Christians have felt no moral responsibility to to shut that practice down. We see stunt/publicity marriages all the time: getting married while skydiving, scubadiving, we even let kim kardashian get married (surely this was not a sacred event). Not once during all these weddings has the Christian world actively protested that the sacredness of marriage was being trespassed. Marriage was initially intended to be sacred, but Christianity has passively watched over the years while the world has made it something else, and Christians haven't really cared until a group of people that they morally oppose wanted in on the party.

    Now... Mormon marriage is probably a little different from this. I assume that compared to most religions, Mormons hold marriage to be more sacred, and I feel that we definitely treat it that way. But we've still stood by and watched as the scope of the word "marriage" has expanded to mean much more than it initially did. Which brings me to my point. I feel that we (Mormons/Christians) have two viable options.

    1) If our argument is really that the sacredness of marriage is being erroded, then we should actively oppose ALL marriages that aren't done in a sacred manner instead of ganging up on the gays. There are plenty of other blasphemous marriages going and gay marriage should only be a fraction of that protest.

    2) Abandon our grip on the word "marriage" and focus on something else... "sealing".

    In trademark law, you can trademark a phrase/word, but if you don't actively patrol and control how others are using that term, you lose your trademark and the phrase/word becomes generic. This means that you cant tell others how or when they can use it. Even if marriage started out as a sacred Christian ceremony, we have not insisted that it remain that way over the years. It seems then that we should either change our protesting so that all non-sacred marriages be monitored and regulated, or accept the fact that we've lost exclusive rights to the word "marriage". Instead, we're focusing on telling just one group that they're infringing a trademark that we've very much already lost the rights to.

  5. Thank you for writing out your thoughts on this subject. It has helped put voice to feelings I had, but couldn't quite put into words and I have shared it with a friend who also really appreciated the thoughtful way you approached both sides. Well done! Hopefully an amicable solution can be reached at some point. Life is hard sometimes. Back to the dandelion field now :)