On the appeal of the appeal to tradition

15 01 2008

I join Ninglun in congratulating Jim Belshaw for having a blog post of his republished at On Line Opinion, but I really must take exception to the following:

Take a question that I have not discussed on this blog, my views on gay marriage.I support civil unions for gays. I support legal recognition of the joint rights of gay couples. I do not support gay marriage because the term “marriage” carries very specific connotations linked back to our Christian heritage, so that the application of the term “marriage” creates tensions and problems among much larger groups in society.

This may change. But for the present, my view is that we need to find a solution that gives gays the legal and indeed symbolic things that they need, while recognising the views of the larger group.

I have a profound love of and respect for our core institutions. Perhaps I can be classified as a conservative in this area, although the views I hold are very much minority views even among those classified as “conservative”.

I can’t get my head around this position at all. Unless I am mistaken, by his support for civil unions Jim is advocating for gays all the rights and privileges pertaining to legal marriage. He just doesn’t think gays should be allowed to call their marriages “marriages”–because, in his view (and that needs to be emphasised), the term “marriage” has “very specific connotations linked back to our Christian heritage,” and if we let the gays use it, that will create “tensions and problems among much larger groups in society.”

Sorry, I don’t get it. The people who are going to get their panties in a twist over the breach of Christian copyright on the term “marriage” are just as likely to object to the legal recognition of the joint rights of gay couples–surely the latter runs counter to “our” Christian heritage just as much as gay marriage supposedly does? If pandering to the sensitivities of these people is indeed a legitimate concern in a secular democracy–even if that means denying gay couples equality before the law–it just seems inconsistent to me to simultaneously oppose gay marriage and support civil unions.

Obviously I don’t think that the marriage laws in a secular (and liberal) democracy should pander to the concerns of those who, for religious reasons, think the law should treat gay couples differently. Nor do I see the relevance of our “Christian heritage” in the framing of our laws–at best, this constitutes an appeal to tradition, and perhaps also an appeal to popularity; in the context of a secular democracy, it becomes something far more sinister. So I’ve never understood the social utility of advocating two legal institutions–marriage, and marriage-that-for-PC-reasons-we’re-not-allowed-to-call
-“marriage”–when one would suffice. That’s assuming that civil unions would confer upon couples the same rights and entitlements as marriages do. If not, that’s a different (and worse) kettle of fish.

If our core institutions perpetuate injustice and enshrine prejudice, I don’t see why they ought to be loved and respected. I guess that’s why I’m not a conservative.


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22 responses

15 01 2008
Bruce

The appeal to tradition fallacy aside, this;

…the term “marriage” carries very specific connotations linked back to our Christian heritage” is baloney (no disrespect meant, it’s just the Jim is very, very wrong).

Marriage pre-dates Christianity and has arisen independent of it. Moreover, as far as I as an Australian am concerned, I don’t have a Christian heritage.

Are we going to tell Japanese Australians that they can’t get married because they practice Shinto? Are marriages in Unitarian churches going to be anulled because Unitarians, recognising gay marriage, aren’t Christian enough?

For that matter, if the state is going to bar marriage to gays on a Christian criteria, they also have to ban atheist marriages.

Notably, a state giving overt preference over the Unitarian definition of marriage, to a non unitarian church (or any other) is at least prohibited at a federal level by our rather minimally secular constitution.

15 01 2008
Jacob

I’m a bit torn about this. Although I think that *any* legal recognition of same-sex relationships is a move in the right direction, what exactly is the point of creating a new ‘institution’ which is identical to marriage in every respect but name?

15 01 2008
Kevin Morgan

I was recently listening to an online discussion of this very topic. I don’t recall where it was, but the gist of it was that the speaker was in favor of ALL legal “marriages” being civil unions. Male-Female, male-male, or female-female. If you also wished to be “married”, you would contact the appropriate organization (Catholic church, Jewish synagogue, etc.) and have an additional ceremony as allowed by them.

I tend to agree.

15 01 2008
Jim Belshaw

Arthur, thank you for the congratulations. At the time this post first went up it generated a series of posts on a number of blogs, including responses on my own.

I didn’t think that I should alter the post, but I will put up a post pointing to the various discussions generated.

15 01 2008
jankis

I was recently listening to an online discussion of this very topic. I don’t recall where it was, but the gist of it was that the speaker was in favor of ALL legal “marriages” being civil unions.

It makes sense, but unfortunately I can’t see it happening. I think slowly but surely a parallel institution for homosexuals (probably called a ‘civil union’) will evolve until it is indistinguishable from the institution of marriage. I’d like to think that at that point the religious right will drop the charade when they realise they are arguing purely over the use of the word ‘marriage’. Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if they fight it out ’till the bitter end. After all, as John Howard remarked, we’re talking about “the survival of the species”.

15 01 2008
Christopher

While I agree that having “civil unions” for homosexuals and marriage for heterosexuals is discriminatory I think it may also be a smart tactical move.
People who have some slight reservation against homosexual “marriage” would be far more likely to support a homosexual “civil union” even if it were virtually the same thing.

Under this option homosexuals would get the same rights as heterosexuals but have to use a word game. Unfair but it may be necessary at this point if we want these measures to be passed.

16 01 2008
ninglun

I am not all that fussed one way or another about whether gay unions are called “marriages”. It is interesting that Jim’s position on this is not all that far from my recall of a talk by Justice Michael Kirby on the subject which I attended a few years back. Kirby was saying that churches can say or do pretty much what they like in defining marriage from their own point of view for their own purposes, but they had no right beyond that to define the rights and responsibilities in unions, gay or otherwise, in society at large. The real issue is to end the practical discrimination that still exists.

16 01 2008
AV

I don’t recall where it was, but the gist of it was that the speaker was in favor of ALL legal “marriages” being civil unions. Male-Female, male-male, or female-female. If you also wished to be “married”, you would contact the appropriate organization (Catholic church, Jewish synagogue, etc.) and have an additional ceremony as allowed by them.

I tend to agree.

Kevin, I’ve heard that proposition, and it seems reasonable to me also. There seems to be a conflation between a legal institution called “marriage” and a religious institution or sacrament by the same name. If marriage is indeed to be considered the sole province of the churches, then perhaps in a secular liberal democracy the state has no business being involved at all in what we are being asked to accept is an essentially religious institution. After all, nobody argues that the state should regulate other religious practices, such as who is eligible to receive communion or serve at the altar. (Certain practices are of course proscribed–e.g. female genital mutilation–but this is on liberal-democratic/human rights grounds, not theological or populist grounds.) In Australia at least, the state doesn’t appoint priests or bishops, nor does it canonize saints, nor does it dictate church dogmas. If marriage belongs to the churches, then it should be left to the churches, and if the state is to regulate civil partnerships, these civil partnerships–whether they be heterosexual or same-sex–should be called civil partnerships or civil unions.

Of course, it would be much easier to simply extend the right to be legally married to same-sex couples, but evidently there are disjointed religious noses to consider.

While I agree that having “civil unions” for homosexuals and marriage for heterosexuals is discriminatory I think it may also be a smart tactical move.
People who have some slight reservation against homosexual “marriage” would be far more likely to support a homosexual “civil union” even if it were virtually the same thing.

I have some doubts about this, and they tend to be confirmed whenever any moves towards civil unions meet resistance at least as heavy as the idea of same-sex marriage has–as transpired last year when the Howard Government blocked the ACT bill.

There are, I agree, pragmatic reasons for advocating civil unions in the interim, to slowly wean elements of the larger groups in society off their anti-gay bigotry, but that is different from arguing that the status quo should be “separate but equal” marriage laws for same-sex couples and heterosexual couples.

16 01 2008
AV

Kirby was saying that churches can say or do pretty much what they like in defining marriage from their own point of view for their own purposes

I agree. I would oppose any attempt by the state to dictate to churches how they define marriage–i.e. I would oppose a law that sought to force churches to marry same-sex couples. (There are churches which do this of their own accord, anyway.)

My issue is with a “theologically-correct” standard being imposed upon the legal definition of marriage (i.e. secular marriage)–a consequence of which, I think, is the practical discrimination against same-sex couples. In a secular democracy, it just doesn’t sit well.

16 01 2008
Bruce

If marriage belongs to the churches, then it should be left to the churches, and if the state is to regulate civil partnerships, these civil partnerships–whether they be heterosexual or same-sex–should be called civil partnerships or civil unions.

Of course, this leads to a bit of a silly outcome, although if the churches want to take responsibility for the consequences of marriage being recognised, I won’t stand in the way of it. Specifically, if marriage is the province of the church, I think it necessary for the state to retrospectively anull all existing state-recognised marriages.

With all the implications for property and tax of course.

This is the (somewhat absurd) consequence of marriage being a religious institution in what should or is supposed to be a liberal democracy. Now religious institutions should either openly oppose liberal democracy (and the AFP keep an eye on those nutters that do), accept liberal democracy and inform their congregations that they intend their marriages to be ignored by the state, or they can accept that marriage is a state responsibility in a liberal democracy and back the hell off.

Personally, I’m not overly particular about which one.

On the topic of political strategies. If marriage is to be continued to be recognised by the state and that it is a Christian tradition, I think straight couples should be entering into civil-unions as well. For a straight couple to get married under such circumstances is to my mind similar to engaging in professional sports with South Africa during apartheid.

16 01 2008
AV

Of course, this leads to a bit of a silly outcome,

Well, yes. My preferred outcome is the least painless–once you remove the injured feelings of faith-based homophobes from the equation: that the legal definition of marriage should encompass same-sex relationships.

On the topic of political strategies. If marriage is to be continued to be recognised by the state and that it is a Christian tradition, I think straight couples should be entering into civil-unions as well.

Here’s something I’ve been wondering about. If legal marriages are exclusively for hetero couples, would civil partnerships/unions be restricted to same-sex couples only? If not, and if the civil partnership model offers advantages of its own (maybe it would be less messy financially if the partnership were to dissolve), maybe you would see a lot of hetero couples going with the civil partnership option instead–thereby undermining the social prestige of marriage. I suspect the opponents of civil unions/civil partnerships have reached similar conclusions.

16 01 2008
ozatheist

Kevin – that’s a good idea, I tend to agree also.
As it is, a large number or people (does anyone know the numbers?) already get ‘married’ by civil celebrants (though these are still only for hetero couples and are called marriages). So is ‘religious marriage’ already on the decline?

I got married in a church, but now regret that somewhat, and if I was to do it again I would prefer the civil partnership/union model.

I know a gay couple who would love to perform a civil partnership/union, and get all the associated legal recognition, but they have stated that they don’t want to get ‘married’.

16 01 2008
The Worst of Perth

It makes perfect sense, because disallowing the name Marriage, even if all else is exactly the same allows christians to maintain their licence to hate or discriminate against the other, which would seem to be the main advantage to being christian. Keeping the name off limits still gives them access to their righteous superiority no matter there is no other difference. The sense of superiority can’t last if there is no name as a marker. It’s not about gays, it’s about the botherers themselves.

17 01 2008
stephen

I think you have to be careful about saying that any form of partnership has the “right” to be called marriage.
There are a number of distincive things about marriage it seems to me.
The first is that marriage is about two people committing themselves to each other for life.
While this is clearly honoured in the breach since 50% of marriages end in divorce…it doesn’t mean that that is not a fundamental characteristation…I say to couples who come to be married that at least on the day you have to be able to say I am committing myself to you for life.
In my experience (only having been married once!) it is this dynamic that moves marriage into a category of its own.
I tend to agree with ninglun that whether gay committed relationships are called ‘marriage’ is not awfully important. There is an equity and social justice issue…and by and large those are not unimportant!
I think that encouraging people to create stable reationships is probably a good thing to do! Whether they are straight or gay, I think it is more human to be committed.
I think it is not unimportant to consider the place of children, and by and large as matter of preference I want children to have married (committed) parents.
I know this is not everyone’s viewpoint, but I don’t think we should try and reduce everything to the lowest common denominator.

17 01 2008
Bruce

I’ll agree on the commitment part if it eases discussion (actually this requires no devil advocacy on my part). It does however raise another question; is “marriage” unique in as far as commitment is concerned?

While I’m not a paragon of staying in a relationship for very long (indeed I’m so much the exemplar of the short relationship that it’s probably debatable if indeed they are deserving the title of “relationship?), I do find fidelity exceedingly easy. I find the idea of being involved with more than one women at once (where their interests conflict as they usually do) or being involved with a woman who has a partner, far more repellent than any attraction between myself and another human being.

Seriously, I’m not being rhetorical. I’ve had the proposition put to me on more than a couple of occasions and each time I’ve reflexively found the idea repugnant. I just don’t want to cheat. Cheating to me is like broccoli boiled in brussel sprout juice is to kids.

We all have out strengths and weaknesses, fidelity being only one of them and hence I suspect that some de facto or otherwise unmarried couples easily have a commitment equal to that of the strongest marriages. Indeed, I suspect that some de facto relationships remain de facto because marriage becomes redundant in the face of their commitment.

P1: Do you want to get married?
P2: Now why do we need to do that? We already know and trust that we’ll be together forever! I’m not that insecure!
P1: Neither am I. You are right. We don’t need a marriage to know we are committed.

(Apologies for the crap script, but I think you’ll get the idea)

This all of course brings us back to the “is marriage a religious concept?” question, and what this could spell for marriage if marriage is to be a) recognised by the state and b) discriminatory (on normative rather than utilitarian grounds) in who it allows to form partnerships.

If marriage is an exclusive club and if it’s prime virtues can be found elsewhere, will marriage continue to dwindle as an institution?

18 01 2008
Stephen

These are some good questions Bruce. I don’t have any problems with marriage being a religious concept. It certainly is that and should be allowed to be so for those who like that sort of thing.
But maybe the question is more accurately stated “Is marriage only a religious concept?” I think social history would suggest that this is not so.
In fact when you look at what marriage has been in our society, it is essentially about contractual arrangements to do with money and property, and the constituent members of families. Thus it exists quite happily and independently of religious ideas.
But I also want it to be more …I (because I am a religious person) want it to be for me about spirituality and faith. But I don’t want the law of the land to legislate in that area…..it is not now possible for that to happen in our pluralist society in a way that it was once.
I want gay people who also want to make a committed relationship to another person, and who want to do open themselves to wider spiritual challenge to be able to do that too! If they want!
What I don’t want is for marriage to be opened up to any relationship, and the essential commitment of it to be dispensed with. That just seems like nonsense to me.

19 01 2008
Regarding Jim and gay marriage . . . « Five Public Opinions

[...] Jim and gay marriage . . . 18 01 2008 Jim’s position–not as “anti” as I in my haste first thought–is clarified in the following posts, which I highly [...]

23 01 2008
Bruce

But maybe the question is more accurately stated “Is marriage only a religious concept?” I think social history would suggest that this is not so.

Arrgggh.. I thought I wrote this (except with “exclusively” rather than “only”) but after a bit of a read of what I did read I’m left kicking myself. In the words of John Laws, “You know what I mean”. ;-)

Incidentally, I personally think that marriage isn’t purely a human institution (don’t worry I’m not suggesting people go out and marry their Dog). Some cockatoos are exceedingly loyal to their mates (often for much of their rather long lives) and other species form long lasting exclusive pairs as well.

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