Saturday, April 29, 2006

Snark of the Covenant

William Saletan, a Slate Magazine columnist, is one of my favorite writers. He objectively tackles the field of bioethics, particularly in areas such as genetic research, cloning and stem cells, weighing potential benefits against potential harms and stacking them up against moral concerns. His recommendation for Democrats on the issue of abortion – that they’ll never get anywhere with the American heartland until they can admit that “abortion's legality doesn't make it right, or that some women take it too lightly, or that every abortion is tragic” – is spot on. He’s insightful, empathetic, intelligent and opinionated without being ideological.

That’s why I was so disappointed with the piece that appeared today, “Solemnize Me.” He is correct that a major conservative objection to same-sex marriage is the idea that gays will treat matrimony lightly, that marriage will become a casual thing.

Saletan’s prescription for the gay community is to embrace “Covenant Marriage,” a conservative Christian practice that includes pre-marital counseling, written and oral affirmations of lifelong intent, and barriers to divorce. It’s not especially popular: fewer than 1% of heterosexual couples choose this option in states that promote it, about 7,000 couples in total since the practice began in 1997. Compare that with Massachusetts, where more than 7,000 same-sex couples have married just since 2003. Saletan argues that if gays could convince conservatives that they intend to take marriage seriously, they could gain some ground.

He’s right, but he gives the wrong prescription. What’s needed is for conservatives to get a grip on reality. Gay people already take marriage at least as seriously as heterosexuals.

“Supporters of gay equality think they can demand marriage like any other right,” he says. “You cannot assume or demand it,” he chides, “you have to earn it.” What did straight people do to earn their right to marriage? The Declaration talks about inalienable rights with which we have been naturally endowed. If the right to recognition of your committed relationship doesn’t fall under “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” then I don’t know what does.

Saletan cites some poll numbers showing that the growing acceptance of homosexuality in America draws a line at same-sex marriage: “solid majorities oppose offering gay couples ‘the same rights as traditional marriages.’” That’s not entirely true: in New Jersey, the most recent data suggests 56% in favor of legalizing same sex marriage. That’s not a static number; even a cursory glance at changing attitudes toward homosexuality will show an accelerating trend toward acceptance. Gay marriage is an unstoppable juggernaut; it’s a social inevitability. Even if it weren’t, his argument stumbles fatally on the core definition of a civil right: the majority doesn’t get to decide whether the minority is equal under the Constitution.

Then he reverts to the old canard about definition: marriage is “usually about kids, and it’s always about commitment.” What gay marriage isn’t about commitment? As for children, “A new survey finds that two-thirds of lesbians and a third of gay men in the US plan to add children to their families in the near future.”

“If covenant marriage were opened to gays, many on the left would spurn it,” he predicts. Yet he reports that fewer than 1% of heterosexuals are interested. For what reason should gays be held to a higher standard?

Citing John O’Sullivan, he ponders, “Just how many gay couples would sign up for a marriage that was really lifelong?” Doesn’t everyone who gets married have the intention, at least on the day of their wedding, to make it last forever? Yet the most recent data shows that 38% of marriages go bust. No one proposes denying marriage to heterosexuals on account of their lousy track record, yet some feel perfectly justified in denying it to same-sex couples based on assumptions and double-standards. Gay people shouldn’t get married because they might get divorced?

Saletan is not arguing that gays shouldn’t be able to get married, but he does unfairly blame the gay community for the obstacles in their path. The problems with marriage in America – divorce, infidelity, etc., -- are not unique to one sexual orientation or another. Those that are willing to make a legal commitment and a serious attempt at a lifelong partnership should not have that opportunity denied by a hypocritical majority.


Jarred said...

"Supporters of gay equality think they can demand marriage like any other right," he says. "You cannot assume or demand it," he chides, “you have to earn it."

So now we're creating different "classes" of rights? Soem rights are granted and others have to be earned. As I understood it, something which had to be earned isn't a right, but a privelege. In which case, one can argue that in terms of marriage it is those against gay marriage in favor of maintaining "special priveleges" for one group of people.

JP said...

Love the title.

Luke said...

That was very satisfying to read. Thank you.

kr pdx said...

[I] No one proposes denying marriage to heterosexuals on account of their lousy track record[/I]

if it make you feel any less put upon, I do ;). I grok the complete hypocrasy of hetero folks complaining that homosexuals can't handle the lifetime commitment idea (or the healthy relationship idea). Can we say, "Projection?"

You are, btw, a phenominal writer.

Andy said...

Aww...thanks, KR, I needed that today. : )

Mari said...

"Saletan argues that if gays could convince conservatives that they intend to take marriage seriously, they could gain some ground."

Oh yeah, cuz Britney Spears' 36-hour marriage was taking the sanctity of marriage so seriously... Or my ex-boyfriend's mom who was married and divorced 4 times...

Being heterosexual doesn't mean you take it more seriously... it just means you don't have to think about it at all - because it's your "right"


Andy said...

To be fair, Mari, I believe Britney was married for a full 55 hours. I don't mean to keep using her as the proverbial whipping post, but she's such a wonderful example of what's wrong with conservative objections to gay marriage: no matter what anyone's moral disapproval of the manner in which Britney entered into (and subsequently left) her first marriage, everything she did was perfectly legal. Had there been some unfortunate incident during those 55 hours, both she and Mr. Alexander would have had full, unquestioned rights to make medical decisions for each other (including life support), they would have inherited property -- there are over 1,000 legal privileges and protections that are offered to married couples. Gays aren't asking for the right to form relationships -- we've always done so. We're just finally getting around to arguing that our relationships are really no different than straight ones, and deserve the same recognition.