Let me make an opening confession. I am not a LGBTI person. I do not share their experiences, nor have I lived their story. I must also confess no little bit of guilt in this matter. I have been quick to judge how LGBTI views adversely affect me without me considering how my views might adversely affect them. I have often clung onto a particular vision of society, a society that feels like it is crumbling before my eyes, but without ensuring the welfare of the most vulnerable in that society.
In addition, part of me has been selfishly worried that some of the perks and privileges that my tribe has enjoyed in Australian society are being taken away. While I have been pre-occupied with how to preserve a Christian witness in a post-Christian society, I know I have neglected to love all the people in this society as my faith requires me to.
I also know that the history of LGBTI people in Australia is a tragic saga about the struggle for existence, acceptance, and equality amidst the heaping of shame, barrages of abuse, and experiences of rejection. I have seen it and must ashamedly confess that I have before failed to speak out against it. I say with genuine contrition that I genuinely do not wish to add to the history of hurt that LGBTI people have experienced.
Given that story, if the plebiscite goes ahead, and if the Yes-campaign won, I would totally understand the celebration and joy of LGBTI people, feeling as if their ship had finally come home
But what I want to do is explain why I don’t believe in same sex marriage. But let’s be honest, we all know that this is a hard ask. Not because such an argument does not exist, it does, and I’ll happily show it to you. But as soon as I say “no” to same-sex marriage, I’m certain that some people will look at me as if I’ve just declared that the sky is green, brussels sprout is the best flavour of ice cream, and the Melbourne Zoo should consider opening a scorpion petting exhibit for toddlers. The proposition sounds absurd and offensive to many people for whom same sex marriage is as self-evident as 2+2= 4 or having vegemite on toast for brekky. There are people who honestly think that the only reason for opposing same sex marriage is because you are either a radicalised Muslim who sleeps at night with an ISIS flag for a blanket or else you are a Bible-thumping Christian fundamentalist who hates LGBTI people like Donald Trump hates Megyn Kelly.
But what if there was a parallel universe where it was possible to set forth a reasonable, sensible, and non-homophobic case against legalising same-sex marriage. Even though it is obviously impossible in our world, perhaps, with a bit of science-fiction, maybe there is an alternative reality where a case for traditional marriage actually makes sense.
So I invite you to hop into my reality-alternator-machine for just a moment and to hear me out. If you don’t like what I say, you can always try me for heresy later, or even worse, tie me to a chair, glue my eye-lids open, and force me to watch re-runs of Al Gore speeches.
The Faith Factor
Like it or not, around 60% of Australians identify as Christian, with 2.5% identifying as Muslim, and 0.5% are Jewish. There are a diversity of opinions about marriage and sexuality between these religions and diverse opinions even within these religions. In any case, we must countenance the fact that a majority of Australians identify with one of the Abrahamic religions, characterised by belief in one God, who made the world, and often has something to say about human behaviour including marriage.
For persons of faith, marriage is not simply about formalising my relationship status or getting my domestic partnership legally recognised. Rather, marriage is a divinely created institution that exists for the benefit of men and women. Marriage is a divine gift whereby men and women are joined together in a relationship characterised by love, self-giving, and fidelity. Marriage is a sacramental union, a holy covenant of commitment, a celebration of love, an exclusive intimacy, and directed towards helping each other flourish as human beings. For people of faith, marriage is anchored in a sexual ecology; it reflects the divinely designed complementarity of man and woman, at both the biological and relational level. In marriage, a man and a woman are united to love each other in heart, mind, and soul. On the specifically Christian side of things, marriage between men and women is meant to reflect the self-giving and lavish love that Christ has for his Church.
That is the faith argument, it works for some of the 61% of people who subscribe to one of the Abrahamic faiths, but to be truthful, it is not going to convince the 22% of the population who identify as “no religion.”
So we move on.
What Actually is Marriage and Why Does the Government Regulate it?
I do have another argument, unrelated to religion, that I think makes a good point.
Can somebody please tell me exactly what “marriage” is and why the government requires me to get a license in order to have one?
If marriage is the legal recognition of an emotional bond between two people then why don’t I need a license to have an emotional bond with all sorts of people like family, friends, or co-workers?
If marriage is the recognition of a person’s regular sexual partner, then why don’t I need government permission to hook-up or to simply have a sexual relationship with any person of my choosing?
If marriage is the recognition of my domestic living arrangements, then why don’t I need government permission to get a roommate, a housemate, or live-in nanny?
If marriage is about my designated heir and preferred carer, then why don’t I just fill out a power of attorney form and change my will?
So let me ask again: What is marriage and why does the government regulate it?
I have an answer, largely following Sherif Gergis and Ryan T. Anderson, that marriage is different to other human relationships and living arrangements. Marriage is a comprehensive union of a man and a woman in an exclusive life-long relationship. In terms of content, marriage is a union of the will (by consent), of the body (by sexual intimacy), ordered towards procreation and the broad sharing of family for the wider community. In other words, marriage is about partnership, procreation, and the promotion of the family. And because marriage normally results in family, and families are the building blocks of society, that is why government takes an interest in the legislature and licensing of marriage.
I am aware that there are various types of relationships between people, friendships, bonds of fraternity, partnerships, romances, some related to sexual intimacy, and they are deeply meaningful for people. I would not for a minute want to disparage the wide variety of friendships and relationships that people have outside of traditional marriage. My point is that a marriage between men and women is unique as there are things true of it that are not true of other relationships, the natural formation of a family being an obvious one. While governments can legislate to protect the rights of same-sex partners, de facto relationships, and so forth, marriage will always remain unique as a comprehensive union of a man and woman.
“Aha,” someone will say! “If marriage is about making babies, then surely you are saying that couples who are infertile should not get married.” Well, actually no. Nobody thinks that issuing a marriage license is contingent upon producing off-spring within a couple of years or else your marriage license gets cancelled. Couples can be infertile or simply choose not to have children. However, since marriage is about a loving relationship and typified by sexual expression, it is fit for and oriented towards the creation of family, and family is the building block of society. That is true of traditional marriage but not true of same-sex relationships.
The Consequences If Same-Sex Marriage is Legislated
To be brutally honest, if same-sex marriage is legalised, my own marriage will not suddenly fall apart in an apocalyptic blaze of gay pride. That said, I can definitely see some very negative consequences down the road.
First, if same-sex marriage is legalised, then it means that you can take any relationship you like, stick a ring on it, and demand that people recognise it as marriage. We will be entering into a place where, as they say in the great state of Massachusetts, “If you can carry it, you can marry it.” But seriously, if same-sex marriage is legalised then we have to ask if there remains any legal argument against incest and polyamory as marriage. The main thing driving same-sex marriage is a strong belief in personal autonomy and the intent to establish the equality of relationships analogous to traditional marriage before the law. The principal argument is: I want to be married to this person, so law and conventions be damned, start calling it a marriage! But what happens if the relationships people want to call “marriage” suddenly become less and less analogous to traditional marriage. If we legalise same-sex marriage then the only arguments against incestuous marriages or polyamorous marriages will be aesthetic rather than legal. I have to tell you that saying, “I think that is just weird and yucky” is not an effective counter-argument against incestuous and polyamorous marriages that will hold up in a court of law. If marriage is based on nothing more than the right of personal autonomy, and if government’s role is to facilitate the legal recognition of the relationships that people want defined as marriage, then one has evacuated any argument against including more unconventional relationships under the mantle of marriage. So, can anyone tell me where the cut-off point is for marriage? Can anyone in the same-sex marriage camp give me a legal and philosophical reason against incestuous and polyamorous marriages other than, “We’re not ready for it yet.”
To this end, consider the remarks of Julian Rivers, a British Law Professor: “Marriage affirms the equal value of men and women, and promotes the welfare of children. Moreover, the logic of equal recognition and radical choice [in same sex marriage] means that the boundaries of any new definition will be far more vulnerable. Challenges to its exclusivity, its permanence and even its sexual nature will be unavoidable. Marriage risks becoming any formalised domestic arrangement between any number of people for any length of time. On such a trajectory, marriage will eventually unravel altogether.” I take that as a self-evident point. If marriage is redefined, then what marriage is or can be will inevitably change as well.
Second, I think we have to seriously look at negative implications as well for religious freedom. If same-sex marriage is legislated, then people of faith, including houses of worship, faith-based charities and schools, will inevitably face litigation, prosecution, and other punitive actions for their beliefs about marriage and sexuality. Remember that 23 out of the top 25 charities in Australia are faith-based and approximately 35% of school students study at schools with a religious affiliation. The religious charities sector do great work domestically working with refugees, the homeless, in aged care, drug rehabilitation, and facilitate several foreign aid programs too. In addition, religious schools take pressure off the state school system and make private education affordable to groups of people who otherwise would never be able to aspire to it. We are already seeing in Australia political policies and proposed legislation to force faith-based charities and schools to abandon their hiring restrictions and to change their views of sexuality and marriage, under the threat of litigation, prosecution, and the cancellation of state funding. We are facing a real scenario where groups like the Salvation Army, Catholic Schools, St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox College, the Islamic Museum of Australia, and Muslim Aid Australia will be required to change their views about marriage and to cease restricting certain positions to people of their faith tradition, or else they will face punitive consequences.
I want my LGBTI friends to understand that when it comes to social equality, a fair go for everyone, irrespective of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, I can proudly walk with you in the way. But when it comes to same-sex marriage, we have come to a fork in the road, and I cannot join in your journey. For in the precincts of my own conscience, I am not able to affirm same-sex marriage for the reasons given above. I am not convinced it is marriage and I am convinced that the consequences of redefining marriage will be socially injurious in the long term. While I earnestly believe in legal rights and protections for same-sex couples, I remain unpersuaded on the case for same-sex marriage on the whole. Now I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but I hope I have shown that my reasons are not rooted in prejudice or hatred. If you want to understand me then know this: In our cultural war about marriage, I feel like I’m desperately trying to salvage some relic of stability from the debris of an increasingly plastic culture that no longer agrees on what it means to be a human being. I see in the marriage debate one of the enduring structures of human existence being thrown onto the pyre of human desire. I’m not alarmed by notions of equality but by the realisation that the sexual revolution is slowly becoming the de facto state religion. Of course, if worse comes to worse, and mobs of progressive activists pursue me with pitchforks for my heresy, I can always seek refuge in that alternate reality. At least they know me there!
Michael F. Bird
Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia.