A Good Man Tries and Fails
December 16th, 2010
Ron Sider is a prominent evangelical Christian who opposes marriage equality. He doesn’t seem to be a hateful bigot at all. I never sense that he was murmuring perverts, perverts, perverts as he typed his recent article, “Bearing Better Witness.” He’s shown me two things with that piece: First, a reminder that some people who promote discrimination are decent, well-meaning human beings. And second, even their best-intentioned arguments can’t withstand scrutiny.
Sider begins by arguing there are secular reasons for opposing marriage equality:
Even a state such as ours, which does not use the law to promote or discourage particular religious beliefs, nevertheless has a huge stake in marriage. It is not simply a religious issue. The law is a moral teacher. Most people assume that if something is legal, it is moral—or at least not immoral. What is legal soon will become normal.
That’s both untrue and dangerous.
Really, most people would brand something like self-serving deceit as immoral. Even a trivial selfish lie betrays someone’s trust. But while some lies are illegal — fraud, libel, slander, perjury, and the like — most everyday lies are not. Sorry, I got caught in traffic. Or, I wasn’t flirting with him. Or, I don’t know who ate the last piece of pie (that one’s egregious in the extreme!).
In fact, you can create a whole catalog of immoral-but-not-illegal acts:
- Drinking a 6-pack every night while giving your children barely adequate care.
- Calling in sick to work and spending the day at the track.
- Letting your boyfriend move across the country to be with you while you’re sneaking around behind his back.
These aren’t typically illegal, but immoral? Sure. If Sider claims, Most people assume that if something is legal, it is moral, he’d best back that up with data, because people see lousy behavior everyday that doesn’t, strictly speaking, break official rules, much less laws.
But if Sider believes this, why does he stop at same-sex marriage? He believes homosexuality is wrong — wouldn’t his reasoning demand that he try to outlaw homosexuality itself? The idea that The law is a moral teacher runs counter to America’s live-and-let-live tradition, but it’s a great way to justify theocracy.
Sider might duck this by arguing we should only outlaw things that do demonstrable harm to society, and he tries to make a case that marriage equality does just that:
Children grow best into wholesome adults when they live with their biological mother and father. Marriage law is a crucial way in which the state promotes the sound nurturing of the next generation of citizens.
Legalizing gay marriage would weaken the connection between marriage and procreation—and the connection between biological parents and their biological children—which is why court cases in support of gay marriage typically downgrade the role of procreation.
Okay, four problems.
- Children, yes, generally do better with their biological parents than in single-parent homes or in homes with a step-parent. However…children often do even better than that with adoptive parents, as the expert witness for Prop 8 testified. But Sider ignores this subtlety, and (perhaps unintentionally) plays into a classic anti-gay strategy: Say something often enough and people will think it’s true.
- Sider offers no evidence that Legalizing gay marriage would weaken the connection between marriage and procreation. He just says it. The 50 states allow all sorts of non-procreative marriages. Why will same-sex marriage be so different — especially if (as our opponents love to point out) gays and lesbians are only a small portion of the population?
- Do court cases in support of gay marriage “downgrade” the role of procreation? Or do they merely acknowledge procreation is not essential to marriage, and that people marry for reasons that don’t involve kids at all?
- Because Sider is erroneously hung up on “biological parents,” he focuses entirely on child-bearing and ignores child-rearing. Gay and lesbian couples rear children, and those children deserve the legal protections of family law.
Mercifully, Sider abandons the procreation argument (for now). Unfortunately, he takes up religious freedom instead. The results are disastrous.
Most legal scholars agree that if gay marriage receives the sanction of law, “gay rights” will be pitted against the rights of religious freedom—and, more often than not, will win. Gay activists will argue that government cannot “subsidize discrimination,” and the courts will generally agree. Religious institutions will find that freedom to practice and even say what they believe about sexuality and marriage will increasingly be restricted. Already, in Canada and Sweden, pastors have been taken to court and charged with hate crimes because they preached sermons condemning homosexual practice as sin.
- It’s true this happened to pastor Stephen Boissoin in Canada. I wish it had not. I also wish Sider had noted the pastor was ultimately acquitted. Not that his legal ordeal was trivial. But here we see Sider leaving out key information that undercuts his case. Now I trust him less as an objective seeker of truth.
- Canada and Sweden are not comparable to the US. Neither has a First Amendment protection of speech and religion (and religious speech). If we’re bringing in other countries, I could point to executions in Iran as what happens when a country doesn’t grant gays and lesbians full civil equality. Fortunately, the US is not Iran. Neither is it Sweden or Canada.
- Hate crime laws don’t just protect gays and lesbians. They protect Christians, too. A pastor denouncing homosexuality faces the same legal risk as an atheist denouncing Christianity. And that risk is zero. American hate crime laws don’t make anything illegal. They merely add enhanced penalties to actions that are already considered crimes, like assault, vandalism, incitement to violence.
- Sider’s worst error in this paragraph is offering evidence that has nothing to do with his concern. His alleged dangers to liberty involve hate crime law, but gay marriage and hate crime law are not the same thing. One might as well argue that legalizing interracial marriage jeopardized the freedom of pastors to argue that Blacks are the eternally cursed descendants of Noah’s son Ham.
Sider tries to offer more evidence:
Faith-based organizations eventually may lose their tax-exempt status. Even the threat of such a disastrous development will move many Christian organizations to silence or change. In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that Bob Jones University [BJU] could lawfully be denied its tax exemption because of its policy on interracial dating. I vigorously agree with that decision because racism is wrong. But more and more people accept the misguided argument that opposition to homosexual practice and gay marriage is just like racism.
Again, this has nothing to do with same-sex marriage — it’s about non-discrimination laws. Sider still isn’t presenting relevant evidence.
Blogger Mark Thompson has a great piece about the alleged conflict between marriage equality and religious freedom:
First, the conflict here is definitively not between gay marriage and religious liberty. It is instead between laws regarding private discrimination and freedom of association, or perhaps between licensing laws and freedom of religion. As they affect the private sphere and specifically religious organizations, gay rights, and specifically same-sex marriage, represent at most an expansion of existing conflicts rather than any new type of conflict. Even here, the conflict arises not from whether or not same-sex marriage is permitted, but instead from whether or not statutory laws recognize sexual orientation as an impermissible basis for private discrimination (whether in an employment context, public accommodations context, or otherwise), which is independent of whether same-sex marriage is permitted.
The whole thing is worth a read. I want to focus on something else, though. Did you think me dramatic earlier when I wrote of theocracy? It’s creeping in here, too. Sider’s religion tells him that Bob Jones University’s practice is wrong while opposing homosexuality is right. But Sider doesn’t think BJU should be allowed the religious freedom he demands for himself. Why? Because he thinks BJU’s precepts are wrong.
This is not an argument for religious freedom. This is an argument that the government should enforce Sider’s religion through the force of law.
Does Sider’s religion say something is wrong?
— Then the government should penalize religions that disagree.
Does Sider’s religion say something is right?
— Then the government must give it free reign.
Don’t call this a double standard. Double standards are cute and fluffy creatures compared to this. This — this is theocracy with Sider’s religion in charge.
I’m sure Sider opposes theocracy. He’s fallen into this trap because he finds racism abhorrent. He struggling to find grounds for outlawing racial discrimination while still allowing discrimination against gays. He simply goes horribly astray without even knowing it.
Frankly I think you could make a principled, religious-liberty argument that both racist and homophobic religious groups should be allowed to keep their tax-exempt status. Or that neither should. What I don’t see? How you can argue that one policy is okay while the other is not.
Next Sider admonishes evangelicals for their treatment of gays. It’s heartfelt and refreshing, and explains how they’ve squandered their own moral authority:
Tragically, because of our own mistakes and sin, we evangelicals have almost no credibility on this topic. We have tolerated genuine hatred of gays; we should have taken the lead in condemning gay bashing but were largely silent; we have neglected to act in gentle love with people among us struggling with their sexual identity; and we have used the gay community as a foil to raise funds for political campaigns. We have made it easy for the media to suggest that the fanatics who carry signs announcing “God hates fags” actually speak for large numbers of evangelicals.
Worst of all, we have failed to deal honestly with the major threat to marriage and the family: heterosexual adultery and divorce. Evangelicals divorce at the same rate as the rest of the population. Many evangelical leaders have failed to speak against cheap divorce because they and their people were getting divorced just like everyone else. And yet we have had the gall to use the tiny (5 percent or less) gay community as a whipping boy that we labeled as the great threat to marriage.
Then Sider gets creepy. He writes of Ed Dobson, the evangelical former vice-president of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, who ministered to AIDS patients when it was a controversial thing to do, and Sider wishes more evangelicals had followed his example:
Then, maybe, when non-Christians heard the word “evangelical,” they would think, “Oh, they are the people who love homosexuals and care for them when they are dying of AIDS.”
If there’s a more condescending, self-serving, passive-aggressive expression of Christian love for gays, I haven’t heard it. Though I have to agree it would have better positioned evangelicals in their political campaigns against us.
Sider now segues into what marriage is for. He repeats his earlier mistake:
If the central concern of the state in marriage law is to secure a good relationship between a child and its biological parents, then by definition marriage can only involve a man and a woman.
Other things being equal, it is better for children to grow up with their biological parents. Marriage to the mother is by far the best way to ensure responsible fatherhood. When not married to the mother, few men are effective fathers. As far as the state is concerned, the first concern of marriage law must be to protect the interests of children and thereby create an ongoing, stable, wholesome social order.
First, let’s note again that his claims about biological parents have no support — at least not when you’re comparing biological parents to adoptive parents. Just recently, the Family Research Council (never eager to do gays a favor) published a literature review on the effects of adoption:
Adoption is life-alteringly beneficial for children. Such is the general conclusion from a review of the literature.
Adoption in the first 12 months of the child’s life produces the best outcomes, but all children will benefit, regardless of their age at placement. Adopted children outperform their non-adopted peers and non-adopted siblings.
Sider’s core facts are simply wrong.
Next he writes:
It has been argued that, if the state’s central interest in marriage is the raising of wholesome citizens, it should not grant a marriage license to sterile couples, those who choose not to have children, or older people who no longer can conceive children. Because the advocates of traditional marriage will not say this, the argument goes, their claims are invalid.
Excellent. I’m eager to see what he’s got on this:
In fact, we do not say this because our argument actually does not imply it. The state cannot know which married men and women will be sterile. By granting couples who do not want children…
Whoa, let’s go back to his point about sterility. That’s it? The government can’t know who is sterile? What if the government could know? Would he favor denying them marriage? If so — wow. If not, then he hasn’t explained away the contradiction in his policy.
Furthermore, sometimes the government does know which couples are sterile. Five states allow first cousins (or first cousins once removed) to marry only if the couple is beyond a given age or can prove they can’t bear children.
Let that sink in. In some states, certain couples can marry only if they’re sterile.
Yep, America has a history of permitting some couples to marry while forbidding them to procreate. So much for the idea that procreation is the “essential public purpose” of marriage.
By granting couples who do not want children the status of marriage, the state recognizes that they have the kind of union that characteristically produces children, even if they choose (at first) not to have any.
I’m not sure what this means. Couples who don’t want kids are the kind of couples that “characteristically” produce children? I suppose he’s arguing that they could, if they change their mind or have an accident. But he still doesn’t explain why he allows them to marry before then. So the contradiction in his policy is still there.
By granting that status to older people no longer capable of conceiving a child, the state encourages the view that sex should be limited to married persons because that strengthens the likelihood that children will be raised by their biological parents.
This is where the logic train grinds to a halt.
Does granting seniors marital rights encourage the view that sex should be limited to married persons? I don’t see the connection. I think he’s saying that such a policy signals the elderly to wait until marriage before having sex (which I doubt). And that this in turn signals the young to wait, too (which I deeply doubt).
I suppose I can imagine an elderly widow saying to her suitor, “If we couldn’t marry I would have sex with you tonight, but since we can marry I shall wait until the wedding night,” though it would be a rare woman who would say both halves of that sentence.
But Sider’s going farther than that and asking us to imagine a woman of child-bearing age saying, “My grandmother believes that if she couldn’t marry her beau she would have sex with him tonight, but since they can marry she shall wait until their wedding night, and therefore I also will wait until my wedding night.”
Sider might think I’m setting up a straw man with this interpretation, but it’s the most sense I can make of it.
Get this, though: even you accept his tenuous notion that granting couples who can’t procreate marriage rights will signal that sex should be limited to married couples — that’s not a reason for excluding same-sex couples. In fact, phrased that way, it’s a reason for including them.
Then he deals with an issue I’ve always found particularly galling:
It also has been argued that arguments along these lines belittle adoption. My wife and I have a wonderful adopted daughter. In many situations (including abuse, neglect, and financial deprivation), adoption is much better for a child than remaining with one or both biological parents—but that does not change the fact that, other things being equal, it is better for a child to grow up with both biological parents. Even the best adoptive homes recognize that the absence of biological parents brings painful struggles.
Again, he’s simply wrong. You needn’t resort to abuse, neglect, and financial deprivation to defend adoption. There’s no evidence — and he doesn’t even try to present any — that “other things being equal, it is better for a child to grow up with both biological parents.” Remember, studies that proclaim the superiority of two biological parents generally compare them to single parents and step-parents, not to adoptive parents.
Some also argue that it is better for a child to be adopted by gay partners than to grow up in an orphanage or poor foster home. But even if it were, that does not warrant changing the historic definition of marriage.
End of paragraph. End of paragraph? Come on, Sider, don’t just state your conclusion. Give us some reason to believe it.
Perhaps he’s trying in the next paragraph:
The evidence, as we have seen, is clear: The legal redefinition of marriage would have far-reaching negative consequences. Abandoning what every civilization for millennia has understood marriage to be would harm children and undermine religious freedom.
No, Sider has not shown us clear evidence. He keeps repeating (and repeating and repeating) his claim about biological parents, but he gives us no evidence. As for religious freedom, his examples are unrelated to marriage equality.
He starts winding up the article after this: Evangelicals must stop elevating homosexuality above other sins. Evangelicals must get their own heterosexual behavior in order if they wish to speak with authority on marriage. Divorces should be harder to get. Gay people should be treated fairly. Same-sex couples should have civil unions with rights appropriate to their lesser status as partners who cannot both be the biological parents of the children they are raising.
Remember, I hoped to gain two lessons from Sider’s column. I’ve seen what it’s like for a committed evangelical to defend marriage discrimination while staying true to his deeper convictions. I’ve seen how it twists a good man up in contradictions, factual blindness, and unintended implications. There has to be a suffering in that. Would it be condescending, self-serving, and passive aggressive to say, “We love our opponents and care for them while they drown in their contradictions?”
Perhaps, though, we can respect them as they, like the rest of us, struggle for truth even as they struggle to evade it. I think that’s a universal human condition.
How, then, to answer this segment of our opposition that doesn’t hate us, that doesn’t speak in terms of perversion, abomination, and predation? Remember these five things:
- Don’t fall for the notion that legality equates to approval. There are too many counter-examples for that.
- When someone claims children do best with both biological parents, tell them that research says otherwise. If they offer studies, make sure the studies compare biological parents to adoptive parents rather than to single and step-parents.
- Insist that their evidence match their conclusion. They can only argue gay marriage endangers religious freedom if their examples are actually about gay marriage.
- Be ready to point out that procreation is not an essential part of marriage — that America has a legal history of allowing some couples to marry only if they can’t procreate.
The fifth item isn’t a debating point. It’s this: Remember that you’re gay, and you have a life, and you have the right to be open about it. The best Christians bring people to their faith by their living example. We can do the same in our fight for equality.