The most significant thing about the new, anti-gay "Manhattan Declaration" is not that scores of Christians are against gay rights. It's that, recognizing they're on the wrong side of history, they tie themselves in knots insisting they're not anti-gay. And in doing so, they reveal the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of their obsessive persecution of gay people.
The Declaration, released last week and signed by over 150 Christian leaders and social conservatives, identifies abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty as the three most important issues facing modern Christians, and pleads with both believers and non-believers to stand up against the first two and in defense of the third.
Christians, says the Declaration's preamble, were the ones who rescued abandoned babies in trash heaps in ancient Rome, tended to the sick during the plagues, ended slavery in the West, uplifted the poor, created the conditions for democracy, and ushered in women's suffrage. Their bizarre self-righteousness in claiming the mantle of all the great things that have happened in history makes you wonder if these modern moral crusaders have a pathological need to feel that they are good people, which is usually the first sign that they have reason to worry they are not. (Sure enough, one of the three drafters of the document is Nixon's former special counsel, Chuck Colson, convicted of obstructing justice surrounding the Watergate scandal.)
Claiming the rather quaint authority not only of Holy Scripture but of "natural human reason" and "the very nature of the human person," the signatories proclaim themselves vigilantes called to protect "marriage as a conjugal union of man and woman, ordained by God from the creation, and historically understood by believers and non-believers alike, to be the most basic institution in society."
The drafters seem to go out of their way to present themselves not as garden-variety right-wing hate-mongers but as highly educated Christian rationalists who have mastered the art of hating the sin and loving the sinner. They seem braced for the smarter folks they sometimes encounter in their daily lives to say, "WTF are you talking about -- why are you spending your energy rationalizing your homophobia instead of putting that behind you so you can focus on resolving the far more legitimate concerns you may have about the moral state of modern society?" They insist preemptively that "it is out of love (not 'animus') and prudent concern for the common good (not 'prejudice'), that we pledge to labor ceaselessly to preserve the legal definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman." And they claim they have no choice: "How could we, as Christians, do otherwise? The Bible teaches us that marriage is a central part of God's creation covenant." Funny -- the Bible also teaches that divorce is absolutely prohibited, but there is no movement to take the right to divorce away (just to make it a tad harder). And where's the battle to pass a law requiring that adulterers get stoned to death?
Support for gay marriage, say the signatories, "reflects a loss of understanding of the meaning of marriage," which apparently only Christian conservatives truly know. It would "lock into place the false and destructive belief that marriage is all about romance and other adult satisfactions, and not, in any intrinsic way, about procreation and the unique character and value of acts and relationships whose meaning is shaped by their aptness for the generation, promotion and protection of life."
For decades now, religious moralizers have cast marital heterosexual intercourse as the zenith of virtuous self-sacrifice because it sometimes results in the nifty creation of another human life. I admit this is pretty cool, and I sometimes wish I could do it too. But sexual intercourse is also the epitome of self-indulgence, the embrace of one of the most intense experiences of carnal pleasure of which humans are capable. This pleasure, and the fraught relation we have to it in the Western world, is of course the very reason we've created a purifying religious narrative of redemption -- to tell ourselves that the act that many find dirty, messy, and guilt-inducing is really the highest, noblest, most selfless act there is -- so long as something greater than the sum of its parts comes out of it, something to balance out its highly selfish component. While homosexuals and their allegedly exotic acts of sexual pleasure are cast as the epitome of narcissism, what could be more narcissistic than reproducing yourself -- the only kind of sex that conservative Christians endorse?
So social conservatives hang the privileging of heterosexuality on the assertion that an act which might produce a life can't be all that bad, no matter how fun it might be; and a really fun act which can't produce a life must be either outright bad (gay sex) or merely tolerated (infertile heterosexual sex). Bracing for the retort that any reasoning that allows marriage for infertile straights must also allow marriage for gay couples, the signers of the Declaration are ready with prose that is more horrendous and meaningless than the worst translation of Hegelian philosophy. It deserves to be quoted in its entirety:
Marriage is made possible by the sexual complementarity of man and woman, and the comprehensive, multi-level sharing of life that marriage is includes bodily unity of the sort that unites husband and wife biologically as a reproductive unit. This is because the body is no mere extrinsic instrument of the human person, but truly part of the personal reality of the human being. Human beings are not merely centers of consciousness or emotion, or minds, or spirits, inhabiting non-personal bodies. The human person is a dynamic unity of body, mind, and spirit. Marriage is what one man and one woman establish when, forsaking all others and pledging lifelong commitment, they found a sharing of life at every level of being - the biological, the emotional, the dispositional, the rational, the spiritual - on a commitment that is sealed, completed and actualized by loving sexual intercourse in which the spouses become one flesh, not in some merely metaphorical sense, but by fulfilling together the behavioral conditions of procreation. That is why in the Christian tradition, and historically in Western law, consummated marriages are not dissoluble or annullable on the ground of infertility, even though the nature of the marital relationship is shaped and structured by its intrinsic orientation to the great good of procreation.
The first thing to say about this blather is that it doesn't make any sense. I don't mean it's something that secular rationalists simply don't have the capacity to understand; it's actual nonsense. It doesn't take a pomo-studies major from Brown to point out that the exclusive "complementarity of man and woman" is not an empirical fact but a subjective predilection of those who find satisfaction in male-female intimacy. The fact that the bond can form a procreative unit doesn't make it any more sexually complementary than a same-sex pairing, a fact which society already recognizes by granting marital rights to infertile, post-menopausal, and willingly childless couples. And while we're at it: spouses don't actually become one flesh in intercourse--they can get pretty damned close, but they don't literally meld together. And the idea that straights deserve special rights because they alone fulfill the "behavioral conditions of procreation" is nothing more than a failed attempt to justify heterosexual privilege. It says that, so long as a couple's behavior mimics that which sometimes leads to procreation, i.e. so long as they are straight, they can join the club, even if their actual union is utterly devoid of the procreative result that supposedly justifies any marriage in the first place.
The second thing to say is that what the signers are most likely trying to say here -- that marriage is society's way of honoring and encouraging comprehensive, life-sharing unions that involve spiritual, emotional, sexual, and yes biological complementarity (two lives whose pairing makes life better) -- applies to gay unions too. Indeed, the signatories have utterly failed to explain to rational thinkers why gay marriage should be blocked.
So they slip from holy rhetoric to the purely pragmatic. "Vast human experience," they write, "confirms that marriage is the original and most important institution for sustaining the health, education, and welfare of all persons in a society." Huh? If marriage were the "original and most important" institution for sustaining human beings, we wouldn't be here (what did we do before marriage?). Christianity didn't even declare marriage a sacrament until 1215, largely ignoring it for its first millennium of existence. The Western, nuclear family structure simply is not the only arrangement that ever succeeded at nurturing prosperous human societies, as the rampant polygamy in the bible and throughout much of the world today reminds us.
Finally, there's the circular reasoning of the signers' lame attempt to show "genuine social harm" that allegedly results from any alternatives to straight-only marriage. Alternatives to traditional marriage harm religious freedom by upsetting those whose religion, well, opposes alternatives to traditional marriage; they "abuse the rights of parents" because they lead to teaching things that some parents don't want taught; and they undercut civil society by allowing the law's "pedagogical function" to become a tool for eroding the traditional understanding of marriage on which civil society rests. They could just as well have said that female suffrage -- which the signers boasted of supporting a century ago -- is bad for society because it will lead to teaching that female suffrage is good for society; or racial integration is bad because it will prompt people to say it is good. If this is the best you've got, you'd be wise to stick to "the Bible tells me so."
The bankruptcy of the anti-gay marriage crowd's arguments is best revealed by their use of the old slippery slope chimera, echoed this week by Mike Huckabee: Once you change the meaning of marriage to include gays, why not groups, siblings, children, and maybe sheep? Any alternative to heterosexual marriage, says the Declaration, "could be asserted with equal validity for polyamorous partnerships, polygamous households, even adult brothers, sisters, or brothers and sisters living in incestuous relationships. Should these, as a matter of equality or civil rights, be recognized as lawful marriages?"
Here's what's going on here: Religious opponents of gay marriage don't have a good understanding of why a modern state should recognize civil marriage in the first place; they view marriage primarily as a religious tradition that has made their lives satisfying and secure and so they are most comfortable justifying it in terms of what's been -- this is one of the roles of a religious narrative. If they thought honestly and rigorously about the civil, rather than just religious, reasons why the state recognizes marriage today, they'd see that gay unions fit into those reasons in the modern world. But, vaguely to ardently anti-gay, they can only view gay rights as a symbol of "anything goes" hedonism. Some purposely deploy the "slippery slope" tactic to try to win the argument. But many others are simply not willing or able to think that maybe there are actual reasons why gay marriage makes rational sense while group and incestuous marriages don't. So to paraphrase a recent presidential candidate, they cling to gays and God to defend a way of life that's familiar.
Only if you don't have a good reason for defending the existence of marriage would you be this insecure about sharing it. When your only defense of the status quo is to suggest it's always been this way and any change will ruin it, you know you're out of reasons to defend the status quo.
So let me give the defense-of-marriage crowd a few good reasons to defend marriage that don't rely on sectarianism: it can provide a stable place to raise kids, if you have them; it channels the boisterous, undirected energy of young singles into unthreatening domestic bonds; it encourages individuals to take care of each other so the state won't have to; and it helps society recognize and enforce the caretaking commitments people have made to one another. All these functions gay couples can share in.
Says the Declaration: "Just as Christ was willing, out of love, to give Himself up for the church in a complete sacrifice, we are willing, lovingly, to make whatever sacrifices are required of us for the sake of the inestimable treasure that is marriage." This is great news. If you're really interested in sacrificing for marriage, stop opposing the righteous tide of history, speak out for the honest reasons that marriage matters for all of us, and quit leaning on the superficial gratification of heterosexual privilege to make yourself feel more Godly.