Ever since California voters passed Proposition 8, defining marriage in the state as between one woman and one man, my wife and I have been arguing about it.
She was appalled by the vote, and even more appalled when I told her that I wasn't. "You're such a bigot," she said, "not to mention a hypocrite! How can you be for gay rights [which I am] and against same-sex marriage?" My wife is from the north of England, where they don't embrace that famous restraint of Londoners.
"Well, I'm only sort of opposed to gay marriage," I tried to explain, but that just led to more name-calling. I was "wishy-washy," "cowardly," a "nobhead." I don't even know what that last term means, but judging by my wife's tone of voice, it was not a compliment.
In these kinds of situations, I've learned that written communication is best. So here, my love, is why I think California voters -- not to mention voters in 29 other U.S. states -- did the right thing.
First, I think everyone but the most mindless libertarians would agree that it's wise to allow the state to regulate family life to some extent, especially when children are concerned. Through most of human history, children were considered chattel, fully under the control of their parents, no matter how abusive or neglectful. Then, in 1875, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the landmark case of a 12-year-old girl who had been regularly beaten by her parents. In its ruling, the court took an unprecedented step to end the chattel tradition, ruling that the state could limit parents' rights when children were at risk. Extensive legislation establishing children's rights followed, eventually spreading across much of the world.
Many governments also have defined and limited the way adults can partner with each other, although approaches have varied widely. During the 1800s, the then-new Mormon church openly practiced polygyny (one man, several wives), emulating the common patriarchal practices of the Old Testament. Because Christian authorities had banned all forms of polygamy (polygyny, polyandry and group marriage) in the 4th century, mainstream American Christians generally frowned on Mormon polygyny, and court actions and laws eventually forced the Mormon church to ban it too. A unanimous Supreme Court decision in 1878 set the precedent for state interference in religious marriage practices, concluding that "laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices."
Lifetime one-man one-woman marriages aren't the only kind of partnerships sanctioned by governments, however. In some countries with large Shiite populations, for example, short-term, fixed-duration marriages (Nikah Mut'ah) are allowed -- kind of like our cohabitation rite, except with official recognition and an expiration date. And in many Muslim countries, men are allowed to take up to four wives, a practice described in the Koran. Nearly 1,000 cultures around the world allow some form of polygamy, either officially or by nonregulation; in Senegal, nearly half the marriages are polygamous. In the U.S., both the Libertarian Party and the American Civil Liberties Union have opposed laws prohibiting polygamy.
As for same-sex marriage, since 2001, seven countries have come on board, including mainly Catholic Spain, even though the Roman Catholic Church is officially opposed to the practice.
There is no convincing evidence -- absolutely none -- that these various forms of romantic partnership do anyone, or any society, or any children, any harm. So I'm not really skeptical about same-sex marriage per se. If anything, I think that same-sex marriage is a shortsighted idea that doesn't go far enough.
Most Americans insist that they want the word "marriage" to continue to mean a long-term, opposite-sex union, as it has in the Judeo-Christian world for nearly two millenniums. To put this issue into better perspective, imagine that English were more like German and that the word marriage had a lot more syllables: longtermoppositesexunion. Should same-sex couples wed under that label? I say no -- and that gay activists have been fighting the wrong battle.
The real challenge is to have the state begin to recognize the full range of healthy, non-exploitative, romantic partnerships that actually exist among human beings. Gays are correct in expressing outrage over the fact that official recognition, the power to make health decisions, inheritance rights and tax benefits, have long been granted to only one kind of committed partnership in the United States. But wanting their own committed relationships to be shoe-horned into an old institution makes little sense, especially given the poor, almost pathetic performance of that institution in recent decades. Half of first marriages fail in the U.S., after all, as do nearly two-thirds of second marriages. Is that really a club you want to join?