Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What the Marriage Debate Tells us About America

In the question and answer I did with the American Family Association, I addressed the question "What does this debate reveal about America today?" In my answer I touched on the generation gap and the changing ideas about normalcy prevalent in the younger generation. I always made some suggestions about how we can begin to have genuine communication with the other side in this debate, while sharing some of my struggles to get the message of real marriage across. This is what I said:
I don’t watch the news very much, partly because we don’t have a television. But when I do catch a news report, this issue is almost inevitably being framed in generational terms. The subtext is that it is the old people who are clinging to outdated ideas while the young people have learned to adjust to life in the 21st century. Consequently, most young people don’t really know what all the fuss is about when it comes to “letting homosexuals get married.”

To the younger generation gay ‘marriage’ just seems
Now the generational gap isn’t quite as stark as the media is trying to portray. If it were then 41 states wouldn’t have been able to pass laws defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman! But still, there is some truth to it. It’s interesting for me because I’ve written about normalization theory and it seems that for the younger generation gay ‘marriage’ just seems normal. More than that, supporting gay ‘marriage’ seems like the progressive, trendy, modern and cool thing to do. You get some idea of this by the way the media makes heroes out of any public figure that “come out” in support of gay marriage. This is reversing the field of play that used to be at work: vice used to have the exhilaration of going against the grain, but now it is those who contend for virtue that find themselves being marginalized against the forces of prejudice and suspicion. I believe this will become more apparent in the days ahead, and it brings to mind G.K. Chesterton’s words, “The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice.”

Something else this whole debate has revealed to me about America is that everyone seems to be trapped within their own interpretive communities, unable to have constructive dialogue with those in different communities. The two sides seem to be separated by a chasm of mutual incomprehensibility that short-circuits genuine discussion. Social critics have been commented on this for a while, but now it seems to have reached a pitch.

We see this in the way that so many people—on both sides of the debate—have been unable to transcend beyond simple sloganeering and unsophisticated argumentation, and this even includes people with legal training. As I shared earlier, so much of the case for same-sex ‘marriage’ rests on premises that already implicitly assume the conclusion and so are viciously circular. The result is that we do not really have dialogue at all, but simply cycles of assertions, denunciations and reassertions. As a result, each side is often unable to really address the concerns of the other side in a way that is satisfying and shows they are really listening.

This is constantly a source of frustration to me. Again and again I find that no matter how carefully I frame my arguments so they can be meaningful to those on the other side, my opponents will keep coming back at me with a retort like, “You’re just saying that because you believe the Bible” or “it’s clear the bottom line is that you just hate homosexuals.” It’s like the opposite side wants me to be arguing from the standpoint of a narrow-minded fundamentalist because they have the categories for dealing with that, but when I appeal to tightly reasoned arguments that are not explicitly religious, they don’t know how to deal with that so they resort to ridicule and insults.

I don’t want to make the same mistake, and so I always try to make sure I can summarize my opponents’ case in a way that they can say, “Yes, that’s what I’m trying to say. Robin understands where I’m coming from even if he doesn’t agree.” Then, when I present my case, I try to emphasize the things I agree about. For example, I will acknowledge that the push to legalize it has brought some important truths to the public consciousness, such as the importance of equal protection under the law, the understanding that marriage has never been a static concept, and the limitations involved in trying to impose a religiously-derived concept onto a pluralistic society. I can even share that of all the arguments that can be made in support of gay marriage, it is the last that I find the most compelling. You see, as a Christian I recognize the problem in trying to impose the teachings of my religion onto those who have different perspectives and lifestyles. This isn’t because I think the state can be religiously neutral, for I would follow William Cavanaugh and other thinkers in denying that the concept of religious neutrality is even coherent. However, even in a society governed by the teachings of the Bible, there is an important distinction between a sin and a crime, or between what is morally ideal and what is legally permissible. So it isn’t a matter of just saying, “This is what the Bible says, therefore gay marriage is bad.” It’s a matter of looking at the common good, considering how same-sex ‘marriage’ will affect everyone, carefully thinking through the legal ramifications, and so forth.

I find that if I lay things out like this, it breaks down some of the hostility. One person commented on one of my articles saying, “After reading it I can sort of understand where the 'other side of the argument' is coming from.” He still disagreed, but at least he was starting to understand the case that could be made against same-sex ‘marriage.’ I hope to have the opportunity to see more of that sort of thing in the days ahead, but I often get discouraged because of the abuse that is thrown at me by the other side.


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