Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Robert P. George on the Superiority of Opposite-Sex Unions: Because I Say So

Robert P. George of the American Principles Project (yes, yet another of those right-wing think tanks in D.C. that seem to have unlimited access to deep pockets and the immediate ear of the mainstream media) has just published a Wall Street Journal opinion piece arguing against same-sex marriage.* Under the guise of advising the Supreme Court not to weigh in on this issue, George seeks to build a theological foundation (informed by his version of Catholic theology) for viewing opposite-gender marriage as inherently superior to same-sex marriage.

The heart of George’s argument:

The definition of marriage was not at stake in Loving. Everyone agreed that interracial marriages were marriages. Racists just wanted to ban them as part of the evil regime of white supremacy that the equal protection clause was designed to destroy.
Opponents of racist laws in Loving did not question the idea, deeply embodied in our law and its shaping philosophical tradition, of marriage as a union that takes its distinctive character from being founded, unlike other friendships, on bodily unity of the kind that sometimes generates new life. This unity is why marriage, in our legal tradition, is consummated only by acts that are generative in kind. Such acts unite husband and wife at the most fundamental level and thus legally consummate marriage whether or not they are generative in effect, and even when conception is not sought.
Of course, marital intercourse often does produce babies, and marriage is the form of relationship that is uniquely apt for childrearing (which is why, unlike baptisms and bar mitzvahs, it is a matter of vital public concern). But as a comprehensive sharing of life—an emotional and biological union—marriage has value in itself and not merely as a means to procreation. This explains why our law has historically permitted annulment of marriage for non-consummation, but not for infertility; and why acts of sodomy, even between legally wed spouses, have never been recognized as consummating marriages.

Where to begin with analysis of an argument that contains so many downright fallacious premises and misleading attempts to disguise raw prejudice as reason? First, it’s important to note that George’s claim that “[e]veryone agreed that interracial marriages were marriages” is simply false.

I understand why George and his allies need to undercut the clear parallels between Loving v. Virginia and same-sex marriage. Those parallels point to the indefensibleness of arbitrary prejudice as a basis for denying marriage to couples who, in all respects except one respect based on sheer social penchants grounded in nothing other than prejudice, qualify to have their lifelong public commitments to each other recognized as marriage.

In point of fact, everyone did not agree that interracial marriages were marriages. That was the bone of contention. Why was there ongoing legal contention to establish these marriages as marriages, if such agreement already existed, if everyone agreed that these interracial unions were marriages?

As I’ve noted several times on this blog, I’ve spent a great deal of time in the past several years researching a fascinating story from my own family’s history, in which a white Southern planter lived with a free woman of color in a marital union throughout his whole adult life. He acknowledged his children by her, sent them off for an education, set them up on prosperous farms in a non-slave state, willed his property to them.

But he could not call his spouse his wife. He was not permitted to marry his spouse. Not legally. Not in a church. On the two occasions when it became safe for him even to acknowledge her existence on the federal census, he lists her as his housekeeper—though his letters to their children make it abundantly clear that he regarded this spouse as his wife.

I am finding other such stories from the area in the 19th century. Without exception, these stories revolve around a central tragedy: the inability of two people of different races, living together in a lifelong union that they themselves recognized as marriage, to consolidate their marital union legally. That tragedy caused the couples themselves untold misery throughout their lives. And it visited the generations after them with constant trial and tribulation grounded in one stark legal reality: the refusal of law to recognize the marital union of the interracial couple as a marriage.

Everyone most certainly did not agree that interracial marriages were marriages. That was the point of contention: whether a loving, lifelong commitment recognized as a marriage by two persons of different races deserved to be called a marriage, when social norms preferred to see this union in other terms, as a manifestation of immoral lust or social decay. Facts matter here, intently so.

The heart of George’s argument has to do, of course, with the link between generativity and marriage—physical generativity. There, too, George knows he is up against facts, against data that seriously undermine any rational attempt to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples.

This attempt is undermined by evidence—by facts—that are not difficult for any of us to find. Both our government and our churches willingly marry opposite-sex couples who either have no ability to procreate, or who do not intend to procreate. No questions asked. No promises made, prior to marriage, that one can or will bear children, before permission is granted to marry.

Marriage does not, in fact, depend on the ability or willingness of a same-sex couple to procreate. And that fact, evident to all of us, makes it plain that those opposing same-sex marriage on the ground that it is not procreative are really opposing it on quite another ground: they are opposing it on the ground of taste, of their personal distaste for dignifying the lifelong committed union of two people of the same sex as marriage. Just as, for generations, a majority of Americans found the lifelong committed union of a person of color and a white person distasteful.

Just because. Because they were not of the same race. Just because. Because they are of the same gender.

Don’t confuse me with facts. It’s not facts or reason or truth that are at stake here. It’s what I want. Because I prefer it. Because I find who you are and what you are doing distasteful.

And so Robert George’s need to find that fancy smokescreen of rhetoric about male-female complementarity which increasingly tries to cover over the sheer, undisguised prejudice lying behind the opposition of many Christians to same-sex marriage. George argues that even though opposite-sex marriage only “sometimes” generates new life—a telling word—it represents a “comprehensive sharing of life—an emotional and biological union” that, on the face of it, vastly transcends any such comprehensive sharing or union that might take place in a same-sex relationship.

Why? Because he tells us this is the case. Since we do, in fact, marry droves of opposite-sex couples that cannot or do not intend to have children, that do not intend to procreate, the only way we can justify the arbitrary, discriminatory choice to deny marriage to same-sex couples is by claiming that, even though opposite-sex couples often cannot and do not procreate, their unions are just flatly better than those of same-sex couples.

Because we say so. Because the churches say so. Because they have said so throughout history. Just as they said that slavery was fine and dandy, that women were malicious daughters of Eve and misbegotten males, that people of color were the cursed children of Ham doomed forever to hew wood and draw water for the race of Shem.

George’s analysis is not an argument. It is prejudice masquerading as high rhetoric. Just as is the churches’ bogus male-female complementarity argument on which this analysis is based.

I’m all for permitting members of religious groups to believe whatever they choose to believe: that men inherit a planet on which to live in celestial harmony forever with all their wives; that the house in which the Virgin Mary grew up flew through the air from the Holy Land to Italy; that God dictated every word of the bible verbatim to scribes who wrote it down in good King James English. Whatever. Let folks believe, if they wish, that God made women and people of color to serve white men, and that gay people are doomed to hell for all eternity just because they are gay.

What I am not for, however, is permitting people to impose their peculiar religious beliefs on the body politic in a pluralistic society, particularly when those beliefs harm others. That’s why, gradually, most developed nations have chosen politely to ignore the peculiar, religiously grounded or religiously fueled notion that women are inferior to men or that people of color are born to serve white people—even when churches have been loath to give up those notions because they consider their authority imperiled when their longstanding interpretation of scripture is called into question.

I am not for permitting people to dictate to the body politic what is and is not to be acceptable, simply because they say so. Because they happen to believe so. Just because they say it. Just because they believe it.

The developed world has rejected that move, to a great extent, in the case of misogyny and racism. And it may also one day do the same in the case of homophobia. But not if the Robert P. Georges of the world have their way. Swallow their deliberately misleading smokescreen arguments for what cannot be rationally justified or supported in a pluralistic society founded on the notion of justice for all, and you may even find yourself believing that the white men who now fight tooth and nail against gay marriage would actually have fought for and not against interracial marriage a generation or so ago.

* Once again, a hat tip to a good reader of this blog, Jim McCrea, for bringing this piece to my attention. I also note that Andrew Sullivan has posted about the article at his Daily Dish blog today.