Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Steele Contra Sullivan on Same-Sex Marriage

About a month ago, Shelby Steele wrote a Wall St. Journal article, "Selma to San Francisco", that argued "same-sex marriage is not a civil rights issue." The homosexual lobby sees marriage as "more a means than an end, a weapon against stigma." Andrew Sullivan took issue with Steele and penned a New Republic article, "Civil Rites" (available to subscribers only), arguing as much.

Now Steele has written a rebuttal of Andrew Sullivan’s defense of same-sex marriage in his own New Republic article, "Married With Children". This last article is a more robust and persuasive argument than Steele’s original Journal article, and so I take note of it here. Steele does not think Sullivan’s analogy to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s is a fair one. More importantly, Steele makes a fundamental point about (heterosexual) marriage being primarily a "civilizing institution," and not simply or principally an institution to facilitate "romantic love and adult fulfillment." Instead, marriage exists to channel or "manage the explosive natural force of male-female sex" toward "the heavier and more selfless responsibilities surrounding procreation." In short, marriage does not exist to integrate or equalize individuals, as Sullivan presumes. For Steele, the function of marriage is "the perpetuation of the human species, the launching of family life, the nurturing and socialization of youth, and even the survival of whole peoples and nations when tyranny and cataclysm collapse all other institutions."

Steele rightly observes that "the conundrum for the gay marriage movement is that marriage has already declined from its more selfless and stable era into something very much like what gays already have," which is more self-focused than other-centered, especially when those "others" are one’s children.

What is curious about Steele’s argument is that while he recognizes the natural functions of marriage that make it indispensable to life in civil society, he still argues--along with Sullivan--that "the stigmatization of homosexuals is evil and in no way contributes to the moral health of society." Now, perhaps Steele is drawing a distinction between stigmatizing homosexuals and stigmatizing homosexuality--a secular version of hating the sin but loving the sinner. If so, this is an important enough distinction to merit a bright line between the two.

Marriage is grounded on natural distinctions between men and women that give rise to the civilizing institution, the family. The fact that nature itself, along with the dictates of reason that produced a morality long supported by both nature and religion, are rarely mentioned in this debate surely explains why civil unions for homosexual couples (as opposed to marriage) are now conceded by a majority of the population. If arguments against same-sex marriage are considered null and void by virtue of their appeal to morality, which is to say an appeal to what both natural reason and revealed truths teach about men and women in civil society, then even the arguments put forth by Steele will not avail much. His best arguments are grounded in nature, and the conclusions one can readily draw by use of one’s reason. We can only hope and pray that said appeal will regain its authority before this issue is decided for the nation by over-reaching courts.

Discussions - 2 Comments

Lucas - thank you for those articles and that well-argued defense for the inclusion of the truths of natural law and revealed religion in the argument. I have always opposed "civil unions" because it is a recognition and legitimization of a relationship that violates the natural law. If we concede the argument to merely the utilitarian, then we will find ourselves in a society that does not really pursue the good and the true. Indeed, the very basis of our rights as defined in the Declaration will disappear as will our republican form of self-government since as Washington pointed out in his Farewell Address that a republic is rooted upon morality which is founded upon religion.

L.M.--If natural reason (I ignore the possibility of "revealed truths") supports your notion of marriage so unequivocally, then why does Socrates abolish the family in the Republic? Why does Lucretius consider it better to go "after a street-strolling trollop and cure yourself" than to succumb to the charms of Venus? Why does Montesquieu seriously consider all sorts of "alternative" (i.e. non-Judeo-Christian) family arrangements in his Persian Letters? Why does Nietzsche argue: "The philosopher abhors marriage, together with that which might persuade it--marriage being a hindrance and calamity to the optimum. What great philosopher hitherto has been married? Heraclitus, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer--they were not; what’s more, one cannot even imagine them married. A married philosopher belongs in comedy, that is my proposition--and as for that exception, Socrates--the malicious Socrates, it would seem, married ironically, just to demonstrate this proposition"? Your notion of the family may be edifying for most, but can natural reason justify it as "readily" as you claim? Hardly.

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