Casting Light on Gay Marriage
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, October 11, 2004
Counsel for the government of Alberta cut to the chase this week when the Supreme Court commenced hearings on the same-sex marriage reference. Any change to the opposite sex requirement of marriage is a change to the nature of marriage itself, counsel stated. The Charter’s equality guarantees are not a vehicle for remaking fundamental social institutions in an effort to manage questions of social status and approval.
Ominously, counsel added, only by elevating incapacity to inequality does the gay marriage movement make any sense.
Like Counsel for the Attorney General of Alberta, others made robust arguments but given the perilous state in which the institution of marriage finds itself they seemed curiously beside the point. As America’s pre-eminent social scientist, James Q .Wilson, has observed, “Marriage was once a sacrament, then it became a contract, and now it is an arrangement.”
Wilson’s most recent work, The Marriage Problem, was published two years ago but it was in 1996, in a Commentary article about same-sex marriage, that he recounted the origins of marriage. In pre-Biblical pagan times when heterosexual love seemed most at risk, homosexual practices were common, widely tolerated or even exalted in many cultures, he wrote. The Torah reversed this, making the family the central unit of life, the obligation to marry one of the first responsibilities of man and the linkage of sex to procreation the highest standard by which to judge sexual relations.
From this, Christian precepts of marriage developed and endured in theory if not always in practice. What then precipitated the change from ‘sacrament’ to ‘arrangement’?
The cultural change that made this happen, Wilson says, was the same one that gave us science, technology, freedom, and capitalism. “The Enlightenment made human reason the measure of all things … What the king once ordered, what bishops once enforced, what tradition once required was to be set aside in the name of scientific knowledge and personal self-discovery.”
But great freedoms meant losing the cultural habits that make freedom meaningful. The family was one of these. In the Enlightened nations - England, America, Canada, Australia, France and the Netherlands - single parent families proliferated, individual consent and not clan control became the basis of a marriage contract and divorce became legal. Later, the pill and liberalized abortion reduced the chances of unwanted pregnancies. “As a result,” Wilson writes, “family law lost its moral basis. It was easier to get out of a marriage than a mortgage.”
Now the social costs of marriage’s decline are becoming apparent. The children of single mothers are particularly disadvantaged and where marital discord was once thought to be more damaging to children than divorce, Wilson cites evidence that divorce exacerbates the negative effects of discord. “The role of raising children is entrusted to married heterosexual couples,” he wrote in his Commentary article, “because after much experimentation … we have found nothing else that works as well.”
In The Marriage Problem, Wilson writes nostalgically of the Victorian era when good works and personal restraint built character. Of course, turning back is neither desirable nor possible. “The right and best way for a culture to restore itself is for it to be rebuilt, not from the top down by government policies, but from the bottom up by personal decisions.”
Wilson’s advice is timely. The pagan era that indulged a variety of sexual unions were recalled this week by the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto where Canada’s first same-sex marriage rites were performed. Wilson doesn’t address problems around polyamory or the possibility that state-sanctioned marriage of any kind may eventually be eliminated but any doubts about the path ahead are quickly dispelled by a casual glance at the nearest pierced body part, a pop video or even television’s Fashion File where the catwalks and fashion houses of Europe routinely disgorge gaunt models draped in richly tailored rags, furs and feathers.
In the meantime and as the high priests and priestesses of the new order commence their deliberations on same-sex marital arrangements, the approvals homosexuals seek will remain elusive. As Alberta’s counsel suggested, these cannot be legislated. Like all misunderstood behaviours, homosexuality will only be destigmatised when all aspects of human sexual orientation are explained scientifically. It is from this achievement of the Enlightenment era, not judicial, parliamentary or faith-based processes, that homosexuals can realistically draw some hope.
Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.