In response to Vice President Biden’s comments this weekend in favor of gay marriage, many of his fellow Democrats, especially those who represent African American and Hispanic districts (two demographics generally opposed to same-sex marriage initiatives on, primarily, religious grounds) are having fits of apoplexy, arguing that they cannot support gay marriage ostensibly because it is against Christian teaching (and not just Christian teaching, but many other traditional faiths as well).

As the religion guy around here, I thought it might be helpful to take a moment to suggest that this view is really missing the point.

The most serious objections to gay marriage have absolutely nothing to do with religion.  By and large, it is simply incorrect to frame the debate about marriage as primarily a “religious issue.” 

Marriage: A Natural Institution–Not A Religious One.

Both gay marriage advocates and many church groups have largely succeeded in framing opposition to gay marriage as a religious issue.  And yes, there are certainly significant religious dimensions to the debate, but frankly, religious arguments aren’t really the most interesting or even relevant issues in play.  Why?  Because marriage didn’t start out as a religious institution and, at its core, it still isn’t.

Marriage was, is, and always has been first and foremost a social institution.  Over time, it has taken on significant religious significance (like water has taken on religious significance because of baptism, or bread has taken on religious dimensions because of communion, but neither of these facts make water or bread religious inventions per se), but at its core, marriage is not essentially a religious institution as much as it is a natural,  secular, social institution. People have forgotten that.

So what? 

Understanding how social institutions are created, and why marriage is one, is kind of a big deal for this debate.  In fact, it’s the Big Enchilada of this debate.  Nowadays, everyone thinks of marriage as a state-sanctioned stamp of approval on the person you have an emotional connection to and enjoy having sex with (or, for the more traditionally minded among us, would like to have sex with).   

But that isn’t what marriage was ever intended to be and it isn’t really what marriage is now despite widespread, popular misconceptions to the contrary.

Here’s the (very) short and (incredibly) incomplete (but still essentially accurate) history of how and why marriage became a social institution, and why it is hard to argue that gay marriage–whatever other benefits it may or may not convey–is actually marriage as we have understood it for over 4000 years.  (BTW, that’s not to say it couldn’t be.  I’m just proposing that the context for this debate ought to be very different than the religious one in which it is currently being held.)

Sex (& Marriage) in the (Ancient) City

People tend to think that opposition to gay marriage is rooted in hatred of homosexuality, but in the ancient world (going back at least to 2000 BC) it does not appear that anyone really thought anything negative about homosexuality.

For instance, throughout the ancient world there were many, many popular artistic renderings of both homoerotic and hetero-erotic scenes suggesting popular acceptance of a variety of sexual orientations.  Likewise, while there were at least some laws against rape and incest, there do not appear to be any more laws against homosexuality than there were laws against heterosexual activity.

Basically, for the ancient, sex was sex. Gay, straight, whatever.  So, for instance, ancient Babylon, by today’s standards, would have been a pretty sexually liberal place to live and work.

Well, back around 1800BC, in the middle of this quite sexually liberated culture, Hammurabi, the King of Babylon and developer of that famously, eponymous “Code,” observed that while there were lots of different types of people having sex with each other, only some of those sexual relationships were actually beneficial to society-at-large.

Specifically, men and women who entered into lifelong, sexual partnerships  (as opposed to same-sex relationships or heterosexual sex with temple prostitutes, or affairs with the servants, etc) seemed to benefit society in the following ways (this is not a complete list, but it is representative).

5 Benefits Marriage Grants Society

1.  Lifelong heterosexual partnerships–unlike other sexual partnerships–tended to secure the socio-economic status and security of women in general (who tended not to fare well as well without the support of a man). (NOTE:  Even today, in an age where women can support themselves, this tends to be true. Less educated unmarried and divorced women, even today, have lower socioeconomic status than less educated married women.)

2. Lifelong heterosexual partnerships–unlike other sexual partnerships– tended to increase the likelihood that men would claim children that resulted from the sexual union, leading to less juvenile crime and poverty.  (NOTE:  Even today, this tends to be true)

3.  Lifelong heterosexual partnerships–unlike other sexual partnerships–tended to increase the likelihood that children would have both a mother and a father, providing them with the nurturance and security necessary for children to become healthy citizens.  (NOTE:  Again, this tends to be true even today).

4.  Lifelong heterosexual partnerships–unlike other sexual partnerships–tended to decrease the likelihood that women would be forced to raise children on their own, which led to less poverty among women and less juvenile crime.  (NOTE:  You guessed it. Still true)

5.  Lifelong heterosexual partnerships–unlike other sexual partnerships–seemed to socialize men (NOTE:  Yup.  Even today, married men are about 30% less likely to commit violent crime than unmarried men).

Ostensibly, in response to the benefits Hammurabi noted these relationships gave to society, he dedicated about a third of the nearly 300 laws in his Code to regulating these relationships and granting them special social status–and a social institution was born.

People entering into this institution we now call “marriage” promised to live by certain rules so that society would benefit from their relationship and, in exchange, society would extend certain benefits back to the couples in those relationships. This is how marriage came to be.

Any social rewards given to married couples were given in response to the benefits those couples were already giving to society.  Marriage was a social institution long before religion ever got anywhere near it. And, contrary to the way most people think of the institution today,  marriage never really had anything to do with validating anyone in their okay-ness, or giving a state stamp of approval to your personal sexual relationships.

Gay Marriage in Context

Now, we flash forward to gay marriage.  The argument people really should be dealing with–instead of this religious argument stuff–is whether or not gay marriage can provide the same social benefits that society has counted on marriage to provide for over 4000 years.

The problem is that–at least at this time–this is not at all clear from the available data. In fact, it has been argued from the available data that many benefits society has enjoyed from traditional marriage may acutally be directly undermined by legal recognition of gay marriage.

For instance, if gay unions are not, statistically speaking, as stable or as faithful as hetero-sexual unions (and, it would appear, even Dan Savage would agree with this), then that undermines benefits related to the well-being of children.  Also, where gay marriage is legalized, fewer people in general–gay or straight–get married at all, thus undermining the socio-economic benefits poorer women might otherwise enjoy in a more robustly, pro-traditional marriage society.  (Note: To be fair, gay marriage does not cause this trend exclusively. If no-fault divorce and the social acceptance of cohabitation critically poisons the patient that is marriage, gay marriage simply adds more poison to the institutional system, hastening the decline instigated by these other marriage-hostile trends.)

The point is, in all the huffing and puffing about the religious arguments fer ‘n agin’ gay marriage, very few people are having the conversation that really matters.  Namely; can gay marriage provide the benefits society has depended upon marriage to provide (and which heterosexual marriage continues to provide even today–as tattered as it is) or can it not?

And if not, by what right should it be called “marriage” any more than any other relationship in which two people like each other and have sex with each other should be called marriage?  If gay marriage does not provide the social benefits that traditional marriage does, then why should it be given any more legal status than any other cohabiting arrangement?

Certainly, it should not be persecuted, condemned or attacked, but that’s different than saying that should it be enshrined as a social institution over and above say, heterosexual cohabition. From a social science perspective–at least at first and maybe even second glance–there is little differenve between these two types of relationships (gay relationships and heterosexual cohabiting couples).

Why favor one over the other?  Why not just make everyone who lives together “married”?   A case could easily be made that gay marriage advocates don’t go nearly far enough in their advocacy for the extension of marriage rights.

Feelings…Nothing More Than…Feelings…

As I stated at the beginning of this post, Vice President Biden commented that he feels comfortable with the idea of gay marriage.  I’m happy for him, but the case for or against gay marriage ought to have nothing to do with how anyone feels about it.

What kind of a basis for civilization are feelings for heaven’s sake?  Mental health professionals are constantly fighting an uphill battle trying to get people to stop building their personal lives around their damn feelings.  Shouldn’t we have at least the same standard for, I don’t know, civilization?

Preferring to support traditional marriage in favor of gay marriage can be is not necessarily an argument against the dignity of homosexual persons, or a statement of homophobia, or even religious zealotry.  The case for preferential treatment of heterosexual couples in a lifelong, committed relationship is not primarily a religious one.

It is primarily a historical and social science argument.  The battle should be waged on those grounds, not the shifting sands of competing revelation and sentiment, no matter how sincere either might be.  There may be a case to be made on the grounds of social science for same-sex marriage, but that, by and large,  isn’t the argument being advanced.

Even more than a call for civility, I would like someone to start calling for sanity and social science to inform the debate–front and center–on this critically important social issue.

Nu?  It could Happen…

Perhaps asking people to think about research, facts and history is too much to expect around such a hot topic, but even though gay marriage isn’t really a religious issue, as the religious guy around here, I would like to think I could still believe in miracles.


For Further Reading…

For readers who would like a much more thorough and much better-articulated version of what I have presented here, I highly recommend David Blankenhorn’s excellent work in  The Future of Marriage.

Gay couple’s hands photo available from Shutterstock.