Imagine a conversation between a cultural progressive and your average evangelical Christian on the issue of same-sex marriage.
PROGRESSIVE: What do you think of same-sex marriage?
CHRISTIAN: I am against it. The Bible condemns homosexuality and affirms that God has designed marriage as a union of one man and one woman.
PROGRESSIVE: Okay, you have a right to your own religious belief. But why should your religious belief affect the lives of other people who do not share it? If two gay people want to get married, why should that affect your marriage at all?
CHRISTIAN: Um….um…….I have to go. I’m meeting someone at Chick-Fil-A.
Most evangelical Christians instinctively oppose same-sex marriage, but when it comes to explaining how an expanded definition of marriage might affect marriage in general in our society, I doubt that very many Christians have carefully thought through the social consequences.
If same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land (and not just of a few states), the social consequences will extend in multiple directions, but nowhere would it be more troubling than in the increased role of the state in the definition of the family.
Here is why: throughout human history, the legal attachment of children to parents has been, for the most part, simply a matter of nature. A married woman gives birth to a child, and the government assumes, in unexceptional cases, that her husband is the father. The child is, as a matter of course, legally bound to the two parents who were responsible for his or her conception.
Of course, this is not a perfect world, so not every birth works this way. So what happens when parental rights are not self-evident? The government steps in to assign legal connections. In other words, where heterosexual marriage is not normative, government necessarily takes on a bigger role to assign parental rights.
I will employ an extreme example to make my point: suppose that two men are married to each other in Massachusetts. They decide they want a child. Obviously, two men cannot make a baby, so they have to go outside the marriage, including other adults in the process. Let’s say they have a female friend who is willing to donate her eggs to the process, but she is not willing to carry the baby, given the physical effects that pregnancy would have on her. So they have eggs, but they need another woman to serve as a surrogate, and let’s say they find (or perhaps hire) another woman to carry and deliver the baby. But then, when it comes time to fertilize the egg and implant the embryo into the surrogate, the married men cannot agree on who of the two should become the “natural father”. They discover, through conversation, that if one of them has the privilege of fertilizing the egg, the other will necessarily feel less of a connection to the child. Not wanting this to create a rift in their marriage, they decide that the only fair thing to do is to go outside the marriage again and find another man to be their sperm donor.
When this child is born, think of how many adults could claim some kind of legal connection to him or her: the sperm donor, the egg donor, the surrogate, and the two men who started the whole thing. Needless to say, the kinds of parental rights assigned to each one of these five people are not self-evident in this case, and thus this child’s family arrangements would be determined by a family court. The government would be forced to step in to make some kind of sense of this mess for the sake of the child.
If heterosexual marriage is de-normalized in our society, the natural connections of parents to children will likewise be de-normalized, and the government will have to expand its role considerably. Family courts will determine family units on a case-by-case basis, and the family, as we know it, will become something very different.
Don’t take it from me. Take it from Masha Gessen, a self-identified lesbian who recently had this to say at a Sydney Writers Festival:
It’s a no-brainer that we should have the right to marry, but I also think equally that it’s a no-brainer that the institution of marriage should not exist [cheers from the audience].
That causes my brain some trouble. And part of why it causes me trouble is because fighting for gay marriage generally involves lying about what we are going to do with marriage when we get there—because we lie that the institution of marriage is not going to change, and that is a lie. The institution of marriage is going to change, and it should change. And again, I don’t think it should exist. And I don’t like taking part in creating fictions about my life. That’s sort of not what I had in mind when I came out thirty years ago. I have three kids who have five parents, more or less, and I don’t see why they shouldn’t have five parents legally….
[After my divorce,] I met my new partner, and she had just had a baby, and that baby’s biological father is my brother, and my daughter’s biological father is a man who lives in Russia, and my adopted son also considers him his father. So the five parents break down into two groups of three…. And really, I would like to live in a legal system that is capable of reflecting that reality. And I don’t think that’s compatible with the institution of marriage.
Certainly, Gessen’s position is extreme. Though I could be wrong, I doubt that there are many proponents of same-sex marriage (at least in America) who consciously desire to take things as far as she does. But that is exactly where the problem lies: once you get this ball rolling, how do you stop it? If marriage is something that we get to redefine based on the prevailing winds of our culture, what brake mechanism do we have in place to prevent the abolition of marriage itself at some point down the road when that becomes the next cultural preoccupation? Where does this stop?
Yes, it is true that if a same-sex couple living down the street from me is allowed to marry legally, that in itself will not change the nature of my own marriage. But it will begin the process of toppling the institution of marriage as we know it, and those who will be affected most will be children of coming generations whose familial identity will be left to the whims of an ever-expanding state.