Who Owns Marriage? (6) why gender agnosticism and same-sex marriage is not the solution

Who_Owns_MarriageI said in my comments in the book that, in effect, the state is wishing to affirm homosexual identity by extending the right to marry.

I’m not persuaded that this policy is a necessary or good solution by which to affirm LGBT identity.

Here’s why I don’t think that same-sex marriage is a good idea.

It represents a radical retreat from a ‘maximal’ role of the state in actively legislating ‘for’ the family based on a marriage between a man and a woman from which children emerge (1937 Constitution) to a ‘minimal’ role where the state is now saying it has no interest or role at all in affirming marriage as between a man and women.

The rights of the individual of whatever sexual identity are now to be recognised and affirmed over and above established notions of marriage. Indeed, marriage as traditionally understood as being between a man and woman will be legally erased as a result of the Referendum. The words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ will become legislatively redundant.

I’m not against change, nor do I think that just because the state took a particular position in 1937 is should be set in stone for ever more. Nor do I assume that the state has a duty to legislate according to Christian morality.

But it should be recognised that the state, via the Referendum and recent Family and Relationships Bill, is now demonstrating a remarkable form ‘gender agnosticism’.

The wording of the amendment to the Referendum says

“Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”

This means that the state has now legally has no interest in the gender of parents.

It means that it, in effect, has no vested interest in how children are conceived or brought into a family and indeed is encouraging and affirming alternative artificial methods of procreation since a homosexual couple cannot produce offspring.

It means that there is no value placed on male-female difference: this will inevitably contribute to an increasing erosion of gender norms and acceleration of the normalisation and societal approval of a wide spectrum of sexual identities.

Logically, in light of this legislation and if consent, romantic love and commitment are all that are required for marriage to exist, it is hard to see a reason why marriage should not be extended to a variety of other arrangements.

As I said in my comments in the book, traditional heterosexual marriage is already in deep trouble. This legislation will, I think, only speed up the erosion of marriage and the family in Irish society. It continues a process of the hollowing out of marriage with negative implications for society.

And, also as I noted in the comments, the overall direction of the legislation carries with it significant threats to civil and religious liberty.

To be perceived to ‘belong’ to the anti same-sex marriage camp is to be labelled as someone who has an regressive agenda to control the individual, promote unhappiness, endorse inequality, restrict freedom, reinforce oppression and maintain intolerance.

A new intolerance is in the air for those accused of promoting ‘homophobic’ ideas (not being supportive of same-sex marriage or holding to Christian teaching about sex and sexuality).

Over time those outside the new legal consensus will likely be increasingly marginalised. How far that marginalisation will go is unknown, but it is obvious from experience elsewhere that changing the law on same-sex marriage will have profound implications, not all of them foreseen or predictable.

See here for a very fair summary by a UK barrister on the conflict between equality law and human rights inherent in the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Same Sex Marriage and Religious LibertyFor a good example of an academic discussion of this issue it’s worth looking at Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts (2008) In it academics in an American context trace how the introduction of same-sex marriage inevitably triggers various legal church-state conflicts such as:

  • Restrictions on free speech against same-sex marriage in public employment and educational contexts and elsewhere in the public square
  • Withholding of licences and accreditations from professionals and institutions that oppose same-sex marriage
  • Civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in employment, public accommodation, housing and education
  • Withdrawal of charity status and other forms of government ‘approval’ and funding from organisations that oppose same-sex marriage

See also this article by Roger Severino in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. He concludes that after the introduction of same-sex marriage

“the chilling effect that either litigation or the threat of litigation would have on religious liberty is real and immediate.”

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Who Own’s Marriage? (2) the issue of religious liberty

Nick Park, Evangelical Alliance Ireland Executive Director, has written a short book which was published this week called Who Own’s Marriage? as part of a dialogue leading up to the Same-Sex Referendum on May 22

Who_Owns_MarriageAlongside his four chapters are contributions from a pretty wide range of other people including Atheist Ireland, LGBT activists, Christians of various perspectives (including me).

Here are my comments on chapter 1 of the book in which Nick sets the context for the debate: I’m picking up on his personal experience of how hostile and polarised the debate has become.

Nick develops some reasons why it is important for Christians to speak into this debate rather than stay out of the fray. I find myself in agreement with most of his arguments. I think it is an overstatement to say that how evangelical Christians speak into this Referendum “may well determine the long term future of the Evangelical movement in Ireland” but he is surely right to say that the real challenge is to engage in a way that manifests “the presence and influence of Jesus Christ.” Redefining marriage is an important issue and Christians need to be making a positive contribution rather than staying silent, both in what they say and how they say it.

As citizens of this state, Christians have exactly the same opportunity and right as anyone else to articulate their vision of what sort of society will best lead to human flourishing. Part of this task will include opposing harmful and destructive policies and ideas as well as developing positive practical proposals for a way forward (Nick develops the latter in chapter 4). Of course, the ‘rubber hits the road’ in articulating what sort of society should evangelical Christians be arguing for and what should they be arguing against? Let me focus on one theme that I think is very significant that Nick alludes to – that of religious liberty.

Nick comments that increasingly where one stands on same-sex marriage is indeed being “viewed as a litmus test for being a decent human being”. There is a rising level of hostility to, and impatience with, people who do not jump to ‘get with the programme’ of same-sex legislation (to quote David Cameron lecturing the Church of England in Parliament a couple of years ago). The same-sex marriage campaign has developed enormous political and social capital, such that it would be a shock (to me anyway) if the Referendum is not passed in May. It resonates deeply with themes embedded in our Western culture: individualism, the pursuit of happiness, equality, freedom, liberation from oppressive institutional structures and tolerance. This is a narrative of progress, inclusion and justice as compared to the old repressive ‘Catholic Ireland’ of the past. To be perceived to ‘belong’ to the anti same-sex marriage camp is to be labelled as someone who has an regressive agenda to control the individual, promote unhappiness, endorse inequality, restrict freedom, reinforce oppression and maintain intolerance. Now that is a hard place from which to gain a hearing! Such labelling acts to exclude those who dissent from the majority position as voices not worth listening to. Potentially I can imagine such exclusion leading eventually to legislation to withdraw state support (funding, charity status etc) from organisations that do not ‘get with the programme’.

Nick talks about the fragmentation of postmodernism. One of the biggest political and social questions in Ireland in the years to come will be “How do we live with our deepest differences” when those differences appear to be getting deeper and deeper? If, in the past, tolerance in a free society was tolerating views you disagreed with or even found distasteful, today tolerance seems to be in the process of being reformed to mean only tolerating views with which you agree. Os Guinness has written about how the liberal pursuit of equality can become an illiberal imposition by the state of its values at the expense of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. In this context, and especially coming from our experience as a small minority, I think it is the role of evangelicals in Ireland to be actively contending for religious liberty.

Now, too often Christians in the West only get all hot and bothered when it is our rights that are being mildly threatened (like not being able to wear a crucifix to work or being sued for not baking a cake for a gay wedding). The real challenge, I believe, for evangelicals is to look beyond themselves to argue for religious liberty for all citizens, whether religious or secular. In other words, whatever rights we wish for ourselves, we should be willing to defend for others. For it is this sort of society that will be most free – where believers and atheists, Muslims and agnostics can live together within a civil public square. By that I mean where the state gets on with its job and citizens have some sort of shared vision of the common good while having the freedom of conscience to be themselves. Some may say this is a naive pipedream, but what is the alternative? Are we going to replace a dominant Catholic Christendom that had little room for minority voices with a dominant secularism that has little room for minority voices? Are evangelical Christians just going to shake their heads at the big bad world and withdraw from it? Or are we going to love that world by seeking the best for our fellow citizens by trying to help to build a civil society that promotes maximal freedom: a freedom to be human; a freedom to worship; a freedom to share our faith; a freedom to practise Christian marriage; a freedom to disagree without silencing each other.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

post-Christendom (12) the oxymoron of mono-pluralism

These posts on post-Christendom are based on a recently published paper of mine,  ‘Sex, Truth and Tolerance: some theological reflections on the Irish Civil Partnership Bill 2010 and challenges facing Christians in a post-Christendom culture’

I’m proposing 6 themes of Christian realism related to doing public theology in contemporary culture: this is the sixth.

Realism about the need to defend and argue for religious liberty

Christian Realism should, by definition, not equal naivety. Certainly post-Christendom will be significantly (and probably increasingly) less ‘hospitable’ to Christianity than Christendom. It is perfectly possible that an absolutist secularism will progressively encroach on religious freedom. Christian Realists will be aware of the spiritual ‘powers’ behind fallen human systems of thought and action.

Christians should be forthright defenders of religious liberty since deep in the heart of the biblical narrative is the pursuit of justice for the oppressed and the marginalised. Christians can make the case that agreeing boundaries to human behaviour leads to freedom, not oppression. For in a plural democracy not everyone can ‘win’ and it is destructive if one group does so.

A realistic Christian response will therefore have a healthy distrust of the human propensity to seek control and impose one’s values on others. Christians should resist a ‘hard secularism’ that criminalises, marginalizes, denigrates or dismisses religious views as illegitimate and results in legal actions like suing people in court for holding Christian views or forcing Christians to retreat from religiously motivated service in the public square – especially if it threatens the rights and dignity of the weak, vulnerable and powerless by the assertion of competing ‘rights’ by the powerful.

One way of resisting is by coherent persistent articulation of the need for a truly inclusive pluralism and exposing the inherent flaws in an ‘illiberal liberalism’ that leads to the oxymoron of an enforced mono-pluralism.

post-Christendom (11) realistic assessment of each issue

These posts on post-Christendom are based on a recently published paper of mine,  ‘Sex, Truth and Tolerance: some theological reflections on the Irish Civil Partnership Bill 2010 and challenges facing Christians in a post-Christendom culture’

I’m proposing 6 themes of Christian realism related to doing public theology in contemporary culture: this is the fifth.

Realistic assessment of each piece of legislation

Some groups opposed the Civil Partnership Bill because of its supposed threat to religious freedom. Catholic Bishops went as far as to say that ‘This Bill is an extraordinary and far reaching attack on freedom of conscience and the free practice of religion.’ Others thought this an unnecessarily exaggerated fear and would be interpreted as a self-interested pretence to oppose the Bill.

But the main reason many Christians opposed the Bill was a perception it would undermine marriage and be a stepping stone to same-sex marriage. And it is obvious that the CPB is intensely disliked by many sections of the homosexual community since it is perceived as discriminating against certain citizens on the basis of their sexuality. Only full equality in marriage will be acceptable.

The EAI statement frankly acknowledged this reality but argued that the CPB was a reasonable compromise for homosexual and co-habiting couples to register their partnerships and gain the associated legal rights. It was a civil ceremony, explicitly not a religious one, which ‘does not challenge the traditional understanding of marriage in Ireland.’

Others disagreed. Which view is correct is open to debate. This is an area of ‘wisdom’ and ‘judgement calls’ rather than obvious adherence to biblical truth.

A question here is how can a minority Christian community ‘protect’ marriage within a plural democracy? Is protesting against such legislation as the CPB ‘where it is at’? Should the state be defending and promoting marriage for social reasons (such as the good of children) even if not for moral ones?