What the world needs now: A response to Senator McCaskill

It makes for a sappy song lyric when the answer is “love, sweet love,” but it makes for a perilously shaky framework for law.  So what happens when it makes the centerpiece of an appeal for redefining marriage?

It seems to me the ‘new thing’ is for celebrities, politicians, and others of the ‘Anointed’ class to come forth and profess their support for redefining marriage.  Which is precisely what Senator Claire McCaskill did on Sunday.

Before I look at the text of her statement, a few other comments are in order.  Senator McCaskill has more than a few things going in her favor: she’s from Missouri (always a plus); her statement was concise and of good will; and she enjoys a fairly good reputation.

But this statement is part of a greater National Conversation among several National Conversations; and lest it turn into a National Lecture, or heaven forbid, a National Sermon, I suppose I’d better give a reason why I think there are some pretty good reasons to critically examine the statement itself.

Which is all I will be critical of.  It’s all I really care to be critical of; I do not care to be critical of the person Claire McCaskill.  There are, of course, other things to frown upon (her being a politician; but then again, that’s sort of an inexcusable thing for anyone to become), but that is neither here nor there.

So what about the statement?  It’s brief, at four paragraphs.  But they raise an awful lot of questions.

The question of marriage equality is a great American debate. Many people, some with strong religious faith, believe that marriage can only exist between a man and a woman. Other people, many of whom also have strong religious faith, believe that our country should not limit the commitment of marriage to some, but rather all Americans, gay and straight should be allowed to fully participate in the most basic of family values.

To her credit, McCaskill sets out by trying to take the bull by the horns.  No one likes to get caught between the horns of a dilemma, after all.  Unfortunately, I don’t think she covers the entirety of the dilemma or even the best reasons her constituents might have for defending traditional marriage.

Without being a total nitpick, the choice of language used in the statement is very important for how it is answered.  In this paragraph, the conflict itself is framed in differing terms.  And this is a real problem, because until the worldview-level conflict is resolved, her statement is just one more ship among many passing in the night.  The prime question is not even asked: What is marriage?  What is the purpose of marriage?  Why not start there?  As for the language of “should,” that is problematic too: will churches be forced to recognize same-sex couples in violation of their beliefs?  Will pastors be forced to marry same-sex couples in violation of their beliefs?  Inquiring minds definitely want to know.

I have come to the conclusion that our government should not limit the right to marry based on who you love. While churches should never be required to conduct marriages outside of their religious beliefs, neither should the government tell people who they have a right to marry.

It was clearly not the intention of the statement to be worded in such a way as to undermine itself, but unfortunately that’s exactly what it starts to do in the second paragraph.

What I mean is this: the statement “government should not limit the right to marry based on who you love” is so open-ended, I could parallel park my car in it.  It plainly allows for any relationship based upon a particular sentiment to be called “marriage.”  It would allow for more than just same-sex attraction to be the basis for state-approved status: adultery is a particular relationship built upon a particular sentiment, and it would fly in the face of society and reason–but the statement cannot account for that.  Nor can it forbid any other relationship, be it incestuous or pederast.  Does the government have the right and/or the responsibility to prevent someone from marrying a small child?  And how can it, if “government should not limit the right to marry based on who you love?”  The nature of the claim itself, as an incredibly broad category claim, cannot prevent such a reductio ad absurdam.

My views on this subject have changed over time, but as many of my gay and lesbian friends, colleagues and staff embrace long term committed relationships, I find myself unable to look them in the eye without honestly confronting this uncomfortable inequality. Supporting marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples is simply the right thing to do for our country, a country founded on the principals of liberty and equality.

It is to her credit that she appeals to the best and highest of American virtues; rather than, say, simply accusing those she disagrees with of gross moral turpitude or profound character flaws.  It is also to her credit that she is clear in her communication: and this makes it easier to respond to.

To categorize the difference of opinion and worldview of those who disagree on this issue as one primarily of “liberty and equality” raises a few problems of its own.

For starters, it’s not much of an issue of liberty.  The point of affirming traditional marriage is not to make everyone act and think like Christians, or even like some sort of cultural monolith.  The best defenses of traditional marriage affirm the liberty to live one’s life as he or she sees fit, all other legal things being equal; but it makes no sense to call something what it by definition is not .  And that’s a liberty that everyone can agree to; while the morality of the same-sex lifestyle (or any other lifestyle, for that matter) is up for debate, that particular debate doesn’t need to concern the law of the land.  That’s an issue for individuals to discuss.

But the issue is framed primarily in terms of equality; and this is where something dawned on me concerning the appeal to equality as the highest virtue regarding this issue.

Simply put, it is an issue of equality, just not one everyone imagines it to be: in affirming traditional marriage, I affirm true marriage equality: that a mother and father are both equally indispensable in the raising of a child, and this is the purpose (the philosophical final cause, if you will) of marriage.  Depriving a child of either biological parent is an inequality to the child.

I think if advocates of traditional marriage were to use the language of equality as such, it would actually bridge the ideological divide and allow for real discussion to take place, at least as far as the idea of equality is concerned.  As regards the morality of the topic, advocates of redefining marriage are going to have to make a case that multiple conflicting ideas of morality can be enshrined in law and executed, without that case breaking down into moral relativism and outright contradiction.

Good people disagree with me. On the other hand, my children have a hard time understanding why this is even controversial. I think history will agree with my children.

I keep hearing this idea about “coming down on the right/wrong side of history” and it never fails to amaze me how this is actually supposed to be an argument.  And I’ve heard it on both sides of this issue, and on the abortion issue, so an awful lot of people are guilty on this one.  But it’s an assertion, not an argument, and it might well be that history has a thing or two to say, but I am also supposed to entertain the notion that history is written by the victors.  Put those together and the prospects of history judging rightly appears slim.  Besides, history can’t make up its mind: Is it the Early Medieval Period, or the Dark Ages?

On that note, unfortunately, McCaskill’s statement was exactly that: an assertion, not an argument, based on emotion and little more.

And based on a highly questionable interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:13, and this is the philosophical equivalent of flying a kite in a thunderstorm.  Not because of ill will towards Senator McCaskill, of course; but because it’s a misinterpretation of the Biblical idea of ‘love’ as expressed in 1 Cor 13 that actually makes her statement backfire.  Here’s why.

Love, as expressed and used in the Bible, does not mean the sentimental emotion we think of in our culture, so removed from that of the authors of the Bible by time and space.  Agape love is best defined as “looking out for the best interest of the other.”  And taken with the rest of the New Testament in mind, or even just the Pauline writings, it is not in the best interest of children to enshrine a change of the definition of marriage, because it is both contrary to the Biblical roles of men and women (something Paul was keen on reinforcing), but contrary to the purpose and end of marriage.  But if marriage has a purpose, then it has a purposer; someone–namely, God–is responsible for that as the efficient cause of marriage in the Bible; but if it has an efficient cause and a final cause, then anything outside of that final cause and without regard to the efficient cause is not a right implementation of that thing, in this case, marriage. This is why framing the issue in one of ‘love,’ and specifically that of 1 Corinthians 13, allows for advocates of traditional marriage–who affirm the Biblical texts as authoritative–to make a very effective case and make the opposing case backfire.

Programming note: I will be blogging later this week on my predictions for the Supreme Court outcomes for Prop 8 and DOMA.  Depending on a few other things, there’s a project of sorts I’d like to outline here depending on some feedback I get elsewhere.

2 thoughts on “What the world needs now: A response to Senator McCaskill

  1. Pingback: McCaskill’s Stance On Marriage | Deeper Waters

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