The Logical Leaps of Anti-gay Marriage Arguments

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has an op-ed piece in today's Wall Street Journal entitled "One Man, One Woman: A citizen's guide to protecting marriage." It's a perfect example of the wild leaps of logic inherent in arguments against gay marriage. He starts out with a statement that he appears to think is uncontroversial:

No matter how you feel about gay marriage, we should be able to agree that the citizens and their elected representatives must not be excluded from a decision as fundamental to society as the definition of marriage.

This is a serious misrepresentation of the issue at hand. The issue is not the definition of marriage, but who gets to participate in it - and those are not the same thing. Until the last few decades, many states had laws banning interracial marriages, and many of those laws would probably have gotten majority support if they had been put up for a vote in those states that had them. Those laws were overturned by the courts, not by popular vote. Would Mr. Romney have been waxing eloquent in that circumstance about how the "citizens and their elected representatives" had been excluded from something so "fundamental to society"? I doubt it. Romney continues:

Contrary to the court's opinion, marriage is not "an evolving paradigm." It is deeply rooted in the history, culture and tradition of civil society. It predates our Constitution and our nation by millennia.

Well he's right on the general point that marriage predates our constitution and our nation, but he is wrong to imply that there has been anything like a consistent conception of marriage over those millenia and across cultural lines. The definition and limitations of marriage have varied dramatically over the centuries, both within and between different cultures. Some cultures have been polygamous (some still are, for that matter), and in fact the bible seems to assume that polygamy is the nature of marriage - for men, of course, not for women. The Quran allows polygamy as well - for men, of course, not for women. Different cultures come to different conclusions concerning where the line is drawn between incestuous and non-incestuous marriages (first cousins? second cousins? immediate family only?), and in fact the same culture may well have had different definitions at different times. In some cultures, marriages are arranged; in other cultures, the notion of arranged marriages is considered barbaric. Some cultures allow you to marry outside the culture, or ethnic group, or race, and some do not. So while Mr. Romney extolls the ancient nature of marriage, he himself dismisses the conceptions of marriage that go back centuries and eons in favor of the one we have had in the US only recently.

Here is perhaps my favorite sentence in Mr. Romney's screed:

The institution of marriage was not created by government and it should not be redefined by government.

Is it possible that he is incapable of recognizing the irony of making that statement in an article in which he is explicitly advocating that the "citizens" pursue new laws and constitutional amendments to enforce a specific definition of marriage? All of the variations I mentioned in the history of marriage, and more, have been matters of law, hence of government. Like it or not, government DOES define marriage, and it always has, whether that definition is motivated by religious belief or not. The fact that our government has long had a definition of marriage motivated by something outside of government does not mean that marriage was not heretofore defined "by government".

Now here is where that enormous leap of logic comes in. Those who oppose gay marriage seem to think, for some strange reason, that gay marriage will somehow affect straight marriages. Why else would they make the argument that marriage is a good thing? Advocates of gay marriage do not wish to do away with straight marriages, so why on earth does pointing out the value of marriage in general in any way argue against extending what both sides agree is a valuable institution to gay couples? Romney writes:

Marriage is a fundamental and universal social institution. It encompasses many obligations and benefits affecting husband and wife, father and mother, son and daughter. It is the foundation of a harmonious family life.

Yes, marriage entails obligations. Why then should gay couples be denied the opportunity to voluntarily undertake those obligations? Obviously, Mr. Romney cannot answer that gay couples can freely undertake the obligations of marriage without actually being married, for if he does so he undermines his previous argument on the value of marriage. Hence, the aforementioned leap of logic. Mr. Romney continues:

Because of marriage's pivotal role, nations and states have chosen to provide unique benefits and incentives to those who choose to be married. These benefits are not given to single citizens, groups of friends, or couples of the same sex. That benefits are given to married couples and not to singles or gay couples has nothing to do with discrimination; it has everything to do with building a stable new generation and nation.

Again, if allowing gay marriages meant outlawing straight marriages, this might be a compelling argument. And it seems to be an unspoken assumption among those who oppose gay marriage that this is so, but I've never seen one of them even attempt to explain why. I'd love to ask Mr. Romney what will change about HIS marriage (or any other straight marriage in this country) if homosexuals are allowed to get married. Will the obligations he freely undertook when he married his wife suddenly become meaningless? Will his family life suddenly become un-harmonious? Will the straight couple on Maple Street in Anytown, USA, decide that marriage is worthless and break up their family, or decide not to have children or not to attempt to raise them well, if the gay couple down the block is allowed to get married? I'm sure Mr. Romney, and his fellow anti-gay marriage folks, would answer no to all of those questions - of course nothing would change about their marriages. But that doesn't stop them from making the argument that gay marriage undermines straight marriage and thereby destroys the benefits of marriage. I presume they must think that if the gay couple down the block is allowed to marry, it would undermine someone else's marriage. But in reality I doubt they think about it at all in that kind of detail, they merely treat it as axiomatic without even attempting to fill in the missing logic that connects cause to presumed effect. Romeny ends his piece with this rather anachronistic statement:

People of differing views must remember that real lives and real people are deeply affected by this issue: traditional couples, gay couples and children.

Indeed, Mr. Romney. All the more important then to spell out exactly how and why extending marriage to gay couples will impact "real people" - i.e. straight people who are or will be married. If gay marriage won't change anything about any specific straight marriages, then it won't, logically, change anything about straight marriages in general. Which means - follow me on this, the logic is really quite simple - all of those benefits of marriage that you cited won't go away. And if they don't go away, then your entire argument against gay marriage falls apart, because the only argument you made was "marriage is good for these reasons". Which leads to the obvious question: if marriage is such a good institution and successfully imposes mutual obligations and commitments on those who enter it, why would it be a bad thing for gay couples to undertake such a commitment? Why does the logic hold true only for straight couples and not for gay ones? If commitment and mutual obligation is a good thing, why is it a good thing only for you and not for others?


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bravo! that was brilliant! if only you could just say that to his face! man that would be priceless! once again, that was awesome

Excellent piece Ed, and thank you Shelly, for bringing it back to the top.

In my view, the current furor over gay marriage is nothing more than thinly veiled gay-bashing.
Your arguements as to how gay marriage will effect straight marriage are all right on the money, but they are also all directly analogous to any gay rights that you wish to name. The Religious Right has finally just found a place, on what they consider the shifting sands of morality, where they can make a stand.

my 2 cents worth

P.S. did I use my commas correctly :-)

I'm always curious when an old post finds its way to the top again because someone found it and left a comment (at least when the comment isn't Viagra spam). I'm glad someone is taking the time to dig through the old archives to find things I've written in the past. And yes, your commas are fine, but your capitalization can use some work. :)