Dr. Albert Mohler and the Battle Over Language

Timothy Kincaid

October 24th, 2008

Dr. Albert Mohler and I seldom agree about issues surrounding the intersection of sexuality and religion. But he is undoubtedly one of the more thoughtful opponents of gay equality.

In his first installment on the importance of the issue of gay marriage, Dr. Mohler stepped outside the culture war tactic of falsifying anecdotes and demonizing gay people and instead identified the central theme of the conflict between gay people and those whose religion condemns gay people: human dignity and the future of our civilization.

I found his second commentary to be less insightful. In this effort he sought to use argumentum ad populum to support his theological position. He divided the world between those persons – and then those nations – that are supportive of gay people and those that are not, claiming that his majority status supported his theological thinking. Sadly, he did not notice that this put him in the company of Muslim theocracies, dictators and despots, and third world nations. Nor did he not notice that – in contrast – he had to a greater or lesser extent placed gay people in the company of all of Christendom.

But in his third discussion on gay marriage, Mohler returns to an intellectual and perceptive analysis of what legal gay marriage may mean to the community in which we live.

Now, Mohler simply cannot resist repeating the myths, misstatements, and fabrications that are churned out by the anti-gay industry. Some he debunks (in a polite way), some he “clarifies” so as to make them less false, and some he accepts at face value.

For example, Mohler does note that California schools do not necessarily teach sex education; but he still repeats the talking points about marriage licenses containing “Partner A” and “Partner B”. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he simply has not been informed that “Bride” and “Groom” are returning to the forms in less than a month, regardless of the results of the election.

But setting aside the anti-gay mantra of imagined grievances that flood his third installment, Mohler makes a point which is, to me, about the only argument against marriage equality that merits attention.

Language is, as we now know, integral to a culture. In fact, anthropologists such as the influential Clifford Geertz refer to human culture as a “cultural-lingustic system.” The language and the culture are inseparable. Each influences the other, and together they produce an entire system of meaning.

Mohler, in essence, concedes that the difference made by legal marriage is one of vocabulary and explains why this issue of nomenclature is worth anti-gays contributing tens of millions of dollars.

Given the state’s huge population and cultural influence, all eyes are now on California. But so should be our ears. Do we hear a shift in the language coming? If so, the language will change far more than vocabulary and word usage.

Civilizations are built on careful and necessary distinctions. As an institution, marriage has been defined throughout history as a heterosexual union. Marriage is so central to our civilization that its related words have become equally essential. Words like “husband” and “wife” have been necessary to understanding our stories, our laws, our families, our social arrangements, and our aspirations. Transform marriage into a homosexual institution, and the vocabulary no longer works.

Mohler is saying the same thing that those who favor equality are saying: words have meanings. And the word marriage carries a cultural association far more important than just hospital visitation and inheritance rights.

And in this Mohler has identified the one real change that truly impacts opposite-sex couples: ownership of language. No longer does “husband” denote heterosexuality. To say that someone is a family man or a newlywed or happily married no longer can serve as code for “he’s employable” or “he’s one of us”.

I agree with Dr. Mohler that words define our stories, our laws, our families, our social arrangements, and especially our aspirations. But his underlying premise is one that I find abhorrent.

Distilled to its elements, Mohler’s argument is this:

Marriage is a differentiating term. And limiting the use of that term to heterosexuals will justly place limits on the stories, laws, families, and especially the aspirations of gay people. And that is a good thing. If gay couples are restricted from calling their relationships “marriage” they can be set apart and condemned. They should not aspire to be treated like me.

Now, of course, he does not put it in those terms. He’s neither a fool nor intentionally insulting. But behind his insistence on owning the words “marriage” and “husband” and “wife” is a proprietary instinct not based on his own reflections but rather on gay exclusions.

He wants not only to retain the word “husband”, which he undoubtedly would, but to retain it to the exclusion of those who are not married to a woman. He sees this label as something that sets him apart and if same-sex couples can use it then he’s lost a tool to identify and exclude them.

However, within Mohler’s warnings, I take encouragement.

For I look around me and see that culture has already accepted the notion of same-sex couples. Television, movies, music, and literature all make the assumption that gay people form couples under the same terms and conditions as heterosexuals. And, as Mohler noted, the relationship between culture and language is inseparable.

As more Americans come to see gay couples as identical to their relationships, language will adjust. Marriage will be accepted terminology which will, undoubtedly, result in continued adaptation of stories, laws, families, and aspirations.

As, indeed, in many ways it already has. Young kids coming out today dream of marriage and a fairytale life not unlike that of their classmates. They aspire to honesty, self worth, and advancement based on their merits, unhindered by discrimination or bigotry. And heterosexual kids today have expectations of their gay friends and siblings that mirror those placed on themselves.

Our stories, our families, and our aspirations have already been changed. In time, law and language will have no choice but to follow.

Ben in Oakland

October 24th, 2008

What he really means, in a nutshell, is that if gay people are allowed to be married, then gay people are by default normal. can’t have that.

The myth of heterosexual superiority in service to the desire for heterosexual hegemony in service to the reality of heterosexual privilege.

Or on a more personal level: I’m better than you.


October 24th, 2008

Well, the language-creates-culture theory has been around a long time and has mostly been rejected. Sapir-Whorff hypothesis is what I seem to remember it being called in anthropology.

I read Mohler’s essay as an admission that it’s all not about the family itself or the true good of the children, or even about the notion of marriage for the Christian Right at bottom (so to speak). It’s really only about maintaining childrens’ belief in the distinctions and definitions that underly the traditional patriarchal family roles and its divisions of authority/power. In short, it’s about propping up the traditional patriarchy at the expense of gay people.


October 25th, 2008

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was based on the idea that a language’s grammatical constructs can control a person’s ability to comprehend a cultural concept. Timothy Kincaid was talking about how culture and language create and control each other through the meanings of individual words.

Language exists to communicate cultural concepts, and the concepts a word carries are controlled by culture – a candle flame is good (it provides light) while an inferno is bad (is destroys and kills) yet flame and inferno are in practice the same thing – fire. New concepts generate new words (internet, homosexual, photograph) or co-opt existing ones (google, gay, camera) in order to be communicated. Words’ meanings are not set in stone, and in some cases different groups who attach similar but distinct meanings to a single word.

For example, both scientists and the LGBT community take “homosexual” to mean “someone attracted only to the same gender” – which includes ex-gays and excludes bisexuals & transsexuals. For the Religious Reich “homosexual” means “someone who has sex with the same gender” – which excludes (some) ex-gay people, but includes many bisexuals & transsexuals. The Religious Reich’s meaning is based on voluntary action, allowing them to perpetuate the idea that being gay is a choice; ours is based upon involuntary emotion, which precludes that same idea.

In the case of the word “marriage”, for me it is where two adults have made promises to love, care for and support one-another as equals. For many moderate Christians the definition is similar, but restricted to a man and woman. For the Religious Reich it is the same as for moderate Christians, but with the man dominant and an explicit expectation of reproduction. Go back further and marriage is the means by which a man comes into material possession of a woman and her property; further still and the man is able to take possession of several women in this way; yet further and women are treated in a manner similar to cattle – marriage was a form of purchase, with women traded as breeding-stock to produce heirs. In each case as you go down that thread, the meaning of the word marriage (or its cognates) has changed slightly to reflect changing cultural attitudes, with successive concepts supplanting older ones until the oldest concept of “marriage” bears little resemblance to mine.

The Religious Reich fears losing control over public discourse regarding homosexuality, and the fight for gay marriage is right at the core of this: for them it is a battle over the definition of a word which symbolises their public influence. Lose the battle and they lose the war – even those who hold to their idea but are happy to let others define marriage differently are a threat. This is why they say gay marriage will be the “end of civilisation” – it will, but only their restricted definition of “civilisation”. For everyone else, civilisation will carry on regardless.


October 25th, 2008

Over 10 years ago in New Zealand my heterosexual married Christian friends rarely referred to a spouse as “husband” or “wife”: they said “partner”. This was long before Civil Unions were legalized for homosexuals.

Mohler is incorrect if he says throughout history marriage has been [solely] defined as a heterosexual union. It has not. If he meant to qualify that to just civilizations, then he still appears to be wrong. Same-sex marriage apparently became illegal in ancient Rome in the AD 300s, but it was not always so according to Boswell’s “Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality”. I believe it was Herdt who discusses Dorian same-sex marriages in ancient Greece.

Bruce Garrett

October 25th, 2008

Your distillation of Mohler’s argument about the meaning of the word ‘marriage’ is brilliant. It captures what this fight is all about perfectly. Thank you.

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