Interestingly, about four years after I wrote this article, a well-reasoned response, containing many thoughtful points against so-called ‘marriage privatization,’ appeared in the New York Times Stone philosophy blog. I’m mainly flattered that it turns out I independently came up with the same idea as a number of prominent academics and advocates, even if the Stone article offers a solid rebuttal! (I should also note that I wrote this without really knowing very much about the issue, and with terribly didactic style; on both counts, I apologize.)
A Novel Proposal
The American nation, it is often said, is a nation founded on compromises. The art of compromise, a skill adroitly applied by statesmen from Washington onwards, seems, however, to have fallen out of vogue. According to the ostensibly contemporary Wikipedia, “In the UK, Ireland and Commonwealth countries the word “compromise” has a positive meaning (as a consent, an agreement where both parties win something); in the USA it may rather have negative connotations (as both parties lose something).”
Whatever notoriety ‘compromise’ earned as a politically weak maneuver is probably due in large part to the inflated ideologies of recent party politics. Despite the relative proximity of Democratic and Republican thought when compared on a global scale, and despite their shared inheritance of the classic liberal tradition, neither can ever seem to admit that they are more alike the other than they are different. During the recent election, liberals seemed to be fond of swearing they would ‘move to Canada’ if McCain triumphed, and one conservative I talked to spoke of buying guns in case they needed to revolt against the coming oppressive liberal regime. I speak so much of compromise because there is an arena where its calming influence is sorely needed—a significant American populace has suffered too long for their rights. I speak, yes, of the roughly 5% of Americans who are gay.
During the recent election, perhaps the second most closely-watched result nationally was that of Proposition 8, in California—the Marriage Protection Amendment. Without bringing my personal beliefs about the question to the table, it is apparent that the fundamental crisis at stake was one of personal liberty versus popular belief. Gays would like to marry—but now they cannot (in California) due to the religious (not political) beliefs of the majority.
What is required is a moderate dose of two of the founding principles of the United States of America: the rule of the majority with the preservation of the rights of the minority, and the separation of church and state. I propose a basic enough solution, which I hope I am not the first to have thought of, because I find it very simple, very elegant, and very obvious (and also very similar to the successful European way of dealing with this problem).
Marriage, as a word, should be removed from the political jargon. If marriage is a religious sacrament—as most will well agree that it is—it should be governed by the individual religious entities, which may independently decide whether to approve of same-sex couplings. Do a find-and-replace on government documents, replacing ‘marriage’ with ‘civil union,’ and thereby preserve the societal rights gained by married individuals at the state level. Civil unions will be gender-blind.
Under this proposal, conservative religious groups need not feel threatened—homosexuality will not be forced upon them. They may still preach against the sins of the flesh and so on and so forth as much as they like, until the metaphorical trumpet sounds and they are proven either right or wrong in their judgment of others. Complete separation of church and state will be achieved, insofar as that a religious institution—marriage—will be removed from the political sphere, while retaining the recognition that the union of two individuals provides important, even integral social benefits (thus the granting of civil unions). The bywords of our time—freedom and change—will be achieved. I think that both political parties can agree on the maximization of self-determination, and that is exactly what is achieved by this proposal, whilst recognizing the capacity for each congregation to decide what is acceptable in its particular religion with regards to homosexuality. Furthermore, this arrangement allows for the application of one of the central facets of conservatism: minimal governmental intrusion into the lives of its citizenry, an idea that the last administration seemingly failed to recognize at all.
This is a change that will need to be achieved at the level of each individual state, per the 10th Amendment. It is, however, a commonsense proposal, and one that cannot be accused of being persecutory or too difficult to administrate. I recognize the aversive nature of this solution with regards to the underlying tension present; it is my intent, however, that this measure be the first step towards a more open dialogue pervaded with tolerance and understanding rather than homily and discontent. The actual resolution of this issue will take more than rhetoric or legislation, but I yet hope that others will join in conversation about this particular issue, and that reconciliation and compromise allow the American people to quell this unseemly quandary once and for all in a desirable and progressive manner.
Sell, R. L., Wells, J. A., & Wypij, D. (1995). The prevalence of homosexual behavior in the United States, the United Kingdom and France: Results of national population-based samples. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 24, 235–248.