In taking up the cause of “the family” in the debate over homosexual marriage, conservative commentators appear to be making the same rhetorical mistake they made in 1992 when Dan Quayle touched off a firestorm of controversy with his famous “Murphy Brown” speech. Conservatives then spoke about the widespread problem of illegitimacy as an issue of “family values.” Nothing much was ever decided in that debate and nothing, including public opinion, really changed. The problem now, as it was then, is not that anything these commentators are saying is wrong. As far as they go, their arguments are correct. The problem is that their arguments, in underestimating the decay of decent instincts in this country, dont go far enough.
In the minds of too many Americans, the “family” and, therefore, “family values” are amorphous things. They do not mean the same thing to the listener as they do to the speaker. (Never mind that the mere use of the word “values” in itself suggests a subjective meaning.) Thus, arguments beginning with this take are assuming too much. It is as if conservatives are arguing that oak trees come from seedlings rather than from seeds. That argument is not strictly wrong and is understood and accepted by people of good will. But the level of confusion about basic facts is much deeper than that. There are too many people who, because of their confusion about these facts, are not people of good will. However dismaying this state of affairs may be, that is where we are. Things that should not need to be explained must be explained. We must dig deeper.
To demonstrate the problem, let us look at a typical response to conservative objections to so called “gay” marriages. Conservatives object to it on the grounds that the purpose of marriage is the proper upbringing of children. The conservative correctly reasons that homosexuals cannot (without outside intervention) produce children and that they cannot, therefore, fulfill the societal purpose of marriage. Why, then, should homosexual unions be accorded the same status in society as marriages? The typical and usually rhetorically effective response to the conservative is to argue that many heterosexual marriages likewise do not produce children. Are these marriages less valid? One might argue that childless marriages are less valuable to society than marriages with children, but one would be wrong to argue that a childless heterosexual marriage does not benefit society. While it is true that marriage must remain between a man and a woman because that is in the best interest of children, it is even more true that a traditional marriage is in the best interest of the parties themselves. More important, it is in the best interest of society. Marriage is more than the foundation of the family. It is the foundation of civilization itself.
Nature is full of opposites and differences. A better way of putting it may be that there is diversity in nature. In the animal kingdom, particularly among human beings, the most striking of these differences is the difference of sex. Nature produces male and female in roughly equal numbers. Females may outnumber males by a slight majoritybut it is easy to see that the superior strength of males and the hazards of childbirth are probably the reason for this. No matter how much we may wish it was otherwise, there are huge and important differences between the sexes that extend beyond mere outward appearance. Nature imposes these differences and, to some degree, separate roles for male and female. These differences are the source of much delight and, of course, much exasperation. The biggest question for every society is how to make these opposite and opposing forces work together for a common purpose.
The coming together of man and woman in marriage is one of the most beautiful and highest achievements of human nature. In this union between a man and a woman we create something greater than the sum of its parts. A husband and wife are not just roommates. They are a microcosm of what society can be. We can learn to live with diversity. We can overcome even the most incredible differences. We can make something even more beautiful together than we can on our own or with those who are just like us. Marriage is the ultimate test laboratory for tolerance. But it is also a helluva lot of work. And maybe thats the rub.
It is ironic, is it not, that liberals who clamor for diversity in every other aspect of human relations, now argue for homogeneity in marriage. For, ultimately, thats what homosexual marriage is. It is a redundancy. Perhaps it is an exercise in narcissism. Perhaps it is laziness or cynicism. It is easier to “love” that which is familiar and what can be more familiar than that which is just like you? This is not to say that there can never be any joy or pleasure or personal fulfillment for the parties involved in a homosexual union. But it is safe to say that whatever those benefits may be, the reciprocal benefit to society is in no way equivalent to that of a heterosexual marriage. Obviously, then, society need not recognize, support or encourage these unions.
What we should recognize, however, is ordinary human decency and compassion. Sodomy laws, while probably not unconstitutional (as the Supreme Court argued last spring), are probably also pretty stupid. Clearly, homosexuals should be able to visit their sick “partners” in the hospital. There should probably be some reasonable accommodations made with respect to inheritance and insurance laws. But these things do not require a recognition of homosexual marriage or even a formal recognition of so-called “domestic partners” in the law.
These are harsh words. I know that. In ordinary times one would not dream of uttering them in a public way. But then, if the times were ordinary, one would not need to utter them. It could be argued their utterance is uncharitable and that the proper attitude to assume with respect to people who punish themselves by denying themselves higher goods is sympathy. But again, these are not ordinary times and it is clear that sympathy is not wanted or appreciated by the huge homosexual lobby in this country. The hand of decent Americans is forced and we must come to the debate with an equally strident approach. Too much is at stake for us to mince words. We cannot sacrifice the truth on the altar of polite conversation.
Julie Ann Ponzi is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.