Now that the Massachusetts Supreme Court has ruled that marriage be open to gays and lesbians, it is time to consider the question that pops up more than mushrooms after a spring rain. How would the legalization of gay marriage harm current and future heterosexual marriages?
The answer at first glance is that it wouldn't, at least not in individual cases in the short run. But what about the longer run for everyone?
It is a superficial kind of individualism that does not recognize the power of emerging social trends that often start with only a few individuals bucking conventional patterns of behavior. Negative social trends start with only a few aberrations. Gradually, however, social sanctions weaken and individual aberrations became a torrent.
Think back to the 1960s, when illegitimacy and cohabitation were relatively rare. At that time many asked how one young woman having a baby out of wedlock or living with an unmarried man could hurt their neighbors. Now we know the negative social effects these two living arrangements have spawned: lower marriage rates, more instability in the marriages that are enacted, more fatherless children, increased rates of domestic violence and poverty, and a vast expansion of welfare state expenses.
But even so, why would a new social trend of gays marrying have negative effects? We believe there are compelling reasons why the institutionalization of gay marriage would be 1) bad for marriage, 2) bad for children, and 3) bad for society.
1. The first casualty of the acceptance of gay marriage would be the very definition of marriage itself. For thousands of years and in every Western society marriage has meant the life-long union of a man and a woman. Such a statement about marriage is what philosophers call an analytic proposition. The concept of marriage necessarily includes the idea of a man and woman committing themselves to each other. Any other arrangement contradicts the basic definition. Advocates of gay marriage recognize this contradiction by proposing "gay unions" instead, but this distinction is, we believe, a strategic one. The ultimate goal for them is the societal acceptance of gay marriage.
Scrambling the definition of marriage will be a shock to our fundamental understanding of human social relations and institutions. One effect will be that sexual fidelity will be detached from the commitment of marriage. The advocates of gay marriage themselves admit as much. "Among gay male relationships, the openness of the contract makes it more likely to survive than many heterosexual bonds," Andrew Sullivan, the most eloquent proponent of gay marriage, wrote in his 1996 book, Virtually Normal. "There is more likely to be a greater understanding of the need for extramarital outlets between two men than between a man and a woman. … Something of the gay relationship's necessary honesty, its flexibility, and its equality could undoubtedly help strengthen and inform many heterosexual bonds."
The former moderator of the Metropolitan Community Church, a largely homosexual denomination, made the same point. "Monogamy is not a word the gay community uses," Troy Perry told The Dallas Morning News. "We talk about fidelity. That means you live in a loving, caring, honest relationship with your partner. Because we can't marry, we have people with widely varying opinions as to what that means. Some would say that committed couples could have multiple sexual partners as long as there's no deception."
A recent study from the Netherlands, where gay marriage is legal, suggests that the moderator is correct. Researchers found that even among stable homosexual partnerships, men have an average of eight partners per year outside their "monogamous" relationship.
In short, gay marriage will change marriage more than it will change gays.
Further, if we scramble our definition of marriage, it will soon embrace relationships that will involve more than two persons. Prominent advocates hope to use gay marriage as a wedge to abolish governmental support for traditional marriage altogether. Law Professor Martha Ertman of the University of Utah, for example, wants to render the distinction between traditional marriage and "polyamory" (group marriage) "morally neutral." She argues that greater openness to gay partnerships will help us establish this moral neutrality (Her main article on this topic, in the Winter 2001 Harvard Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review, is not available online, but she made a similar case in the Spring/Summer 2001 Duke Journal Of Gender Law & Policy). University of Michigan law professor David Chambers wrote in a widely cited 1996 Michigan Law Review piece that he expects gay marriage will lead government to be "more receptive to [marital] units of three or more" (1996 Michigan Law Review).
2. Gay marriage would be bad for children. According to a recent article in Child Trends, "Research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage." While gay marriage would encourage adoption of children by homosexual couples, which may be preferable to foster care, some lesbian couples want to have children through anonymous sperm donations, which means some children will be created purposely without knowledge of one of their biological parents. Research has also shown that children raised by homosexuals were more dissatisfied with their own gender, suffer a greater rate of molestation within the family, and have homosexual experiences more often.
Gay marriage will also encourage teens who are unsure of their sexuality to embrace a lifestyle that suffers high rates of suicide, depression, HIV, drug abuse, STDs, and other pathogens. This is particularly alarming because, according to a 1991 scientific survey among 12-year-old boys, more than 25 percent feel uncertain about their sexual orientations. We have already seen that lesbianism is "chic" in certain elite social sectors.
Finally, acceptance of gay marriage will strengthen the notion that marriage is primarily about adult yearnings for intimacy and is not essentially connected to raising children. Children will be hurt by those who will too easily bail out of a marriage because it is not "fulfilling" to them.
3. Gay marriage would be bad for society. The effects we have described above will have strong repercussions on a society that is already having trouble maintaining wholesome stability in marriage and family life. If marriage and families are the foundation for a healthy society, introducing more uncertainty and instability in them will be bad for society.
In addition, we believe that gay marriage can only be imposed by activist judges, not by the democratic will of the people. The vast majority of people define marriage as the life-long union of a man and a woman. They will strongly resist redefinition. Like the 1973 judicial activism regarding abortion, the imposition of gay marriage would bring contempt for the law and our courts in the eyes of many Americans. It would exacerbate social conflict and division in our nation, a division that is already bitter and possibly dangerous.
In summary, we believe that the introduction of gay marriage will seriously harm Americans—including those in heterosexual marriages—over the long run. Strong political measures may be necessary to maintain the traditional definition of marriage, possibly even a constitutional amendment.
Some legal entitlements sought by gays and lesbians might be addressed by recognizing non-sexually defined domestic partnerships. But as for marriage, let us keep the definition as it is, and strengthen our capacity to live up to its ideals.
Robert Benne and Gerald McDermott, who both teach religion at Roanoke College, wrote an earlier version of this article for the Public Theology Project. Viewpoints published in "Speaking Out" do not necessarily represent those of Christianity Today.
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Christianity Today's past coverage of the gay marriage debate includes:
Let No Law Put Asunder | A constitutional amendment defending marriage is worth the effort. (Jan. 26, 2004)
Massachusetts Court Backs Gay Marriage | Christians say gay activists will overturn marriage laws (Dec. 10, 2003)
'A Man and a Woman' | Activists say the Federal Marriage Amendment will be the defining issue in the next election. (Nov. 24, 2003)
The Next Sexual Revolution | By practicing what it preaches on marriage, the church could transform society. (Aug. 27, 2003)
The Marriage Battle Begins | Profamily and gay activists agree: Texas decision sets significant precedent. (Aug. 11, 2003)
Canada Backs Gay Marriages | Conservatives say decision could put pressure on dissenting churches. (July 16, 2003)
Marriage in the Dock | Massachusetts case on gay marriage could set off chain reaction. (April 25, 2003)
Christian Conservatives Split on Federal Marriage Amendment | Law would protect marriage from courts, but legislatures could still extend marital benefits to same-sex unions. (July 20, 2002)
Defining Marriage | Conservatives advocate amendment to preserve traditional matrimony. (October 1, 2001)
No Balm in Denver | Episcopalians defer debate over same-sex blessings for another three years. (July 17, 2001)
Marriage Laws Embroil Legislatures | New Englanders push for domestic-partner benefits. (April 26, 2001)
Presbyterians Propose Ban on Same-Sex Ceremonies | Change to church constitution, which passes by only 17 votes, now goes to presbyteries. (July 5, 2001)
Sticking With the Status Quo | United Methodists reject gay marriage, ordination. (May 15, 2000)
Presbyterians Vote Down Ban on Same-Sex Unions | Opponents say vague wording led to defeat. (March 29, 2001)
States Consider Laws on Same-Sex Unions California to vote on 'limit on marriage' in March (Jan. 10, 1999)
Presbyterians Support Same-Sex Unions (Dec. 10, 1999)
Pastor Suspended in Test of Same-Sex Marriage Ban (Apr. 26, 1999)
Same-Sex Rites Cause Campus Stir (Aug. 11, 1997)
State Lawmakers Scramble to Ban Same-Sex Marriages (Feb. 3, 1997)
Clinton Signs Law Backing Heterosexual Marriage (Oct. 28, 1996)
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) does two things: it provides that no State shall be required to give effect to a same-sex marriage law of another state, and it defines the words "marriage" and "spouse" for purposes of Federal law. It was passed in 1996.
In a 1996 Christianity Today column, Charles Colson said that "accepting same-sex relationships as the moral and legal equivalent of marriage will transform the very definition of marriage—with far-reaching repercussions."
Concerned Women for America have an archive of articles in response to the same-sex marriage issue.
Study: The Case Against Gay Marriage
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