“I believed it was important to act because the institution of marriage was being changed by courts. . . .I believe that marriage has served society well. And I believe it is important to affirm that, that marriage between a man and a woman is the ideal. And the job of the presidency is to drive policy toward the ideal.”
President G. W. Bush explaining his opposition to gay marriage & his promotion of a Constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman.
President Bush’s job is not to enforce his ideals but the Constitution’s. He attempts to make the two one by proposing to amend the Constitution. Many argue he’s pandering to his political religious base, much as his father (and mother) disavowed abortion which they had formerly supported. The issue of ideals and sexual legislation is more serious than political positioning and very volatile. The conservative instinct to value privacy often conflicts with a moral desire to safeguard society.
With regard to marriage, what ideal does President Bush invoke? Adam and Eve I presume, as strengthened by Christ and amended by Protestantism. That is, according to the Genesis story, man and woman, the heterosexual couple, forms the radical base of society. Opposers of gay unions often say, ‘it’s not Adam and Arthur, or Edna and Eve.’ the Genesis text is seen to embody the original ideal and to ordain the root social bond. The Genesis text comments “thus it is that a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh.” This is not what happens in the actual Adam and Eve story where God makes Adam out of red clay and later puts him to sleep to make Eve from his rib. It’s prescriptive, not descriptive; the story itself is interpreted as a paradigm immediately.
Many philosophers like Thomas Aquinas commented that woman was obviously made for procreation as for any other purpose a man would be a better companion. That ‘one flesh’ was taken both as the marriage bond whereby two become one, and the one child which comes from the union of two. So traditionally in both Hebrew and Christian interpretations, marriage is seen as divinely ordained, as male/female, and linked to offspring. People have opposed gay unions as ‘unnatural’ on the grounds of not being able to produce children. Conservative forces in many religions have opposed any interference with the ‘natural’ sex act and child production-contraception, artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, implantation, surrogate parentage, stem cell research, abortion, and cloning to name some.
Even people who read the biblical stories as symbolic rather than literal often see the marriage ideal as deeply religious and cultural code necessary for human development. Unlike our near DNA kin the bonobo apes, for example, we curb our sexuality. They have highly sexualized communities, multiple partners, same and different sex coupling, extensive solitary and social sexual activity. We have far more violence and infanticide and anxiety, but we own the zoos and travel to Mars and consume Madonna and ‘Sex and the City.’ Darwin and Freud, who didn’t believe in Genesis, ‘scientifically’ thought that sexual restriction and control were worthwhile and necessary prices of civilization.
Christ reinforced the Genesis pair ideal when he was queried about the acceptability of divorce. When asked the question of whether he allowed divorce as Moses had, he replied that Moses allowed it because of the hardness of their hearts but that it wasn’t ideal, not as in the beginning, male and female, “And they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let no man put asunder.” That became the mouth-of-Christ standard that most orthodox positions still enforce. Henry the VIII in England created the Anglican Church to legitimize his divorcing. The Catholic Church, despite a Byzantine annulment sophistry which allows the wealthy to reorganize nuptially, officially refuses the legitimacy of divorce and remarriage. Where Judaism and Islam have historically legitimized divorce, especially for males, most Christianity came later to it (with some colorful exceptions). The rationale was to interpret Christ’s stricture as ideal, and therefore as exceptionable. The idea is it’s the ideal, but we’re fallible. Many things Christ commanded got the same treatment. Consider how “love your enemies, do good to those that hate you” has been followed. There is far more emphasis on sex in Bush’s Christianity than on violence.
Ralph Nader announced that he supports gay marriage because he thinks love and commitment are valuable and in short supply. The real underminer of marriage, he said, is divorce. California, in openly sparking challenges to the law prohibiting same-sex marriages follows a general philosophy of encouraging marriages. You can perform marriages in California with almost any credential because California, like Nader, believes it’s in the interests of the state to encourage marriage.
Many are nervous about that, however, saying yes to civil unions but no to marriage. They are comfortable giving partners legal couple benefits without religious sanction for sex. Because marriage is in a deep way about ideals of sexual practice and family. In Catholic sacramental teaching the real officiants of marriage are the couple, and without the consummating sex act the marriage is not solemnized and can be annulled. This follows a biblical notion of sex as relation-forming and societal. The incest taboos in Leviticus, for example, are given apodictically-absolutely: don’t do it-but also socially. God says you shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother, she is your mother, I am the Lord. But the text elaborates-you shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother, to uncover the nakedness of your mother is to uncover the nakedness of your father. That is, the act is forbidden, wrong and also destroys family.
Similarly today. Warning of sexually transmitted disease, people say every sex act you have with someone is with all the people that someone had sex with. Sex makes fluid family. The biblical injunction is more like Freud’s–the whole family is involved in sexual encounter and part of the social fabric which you rend or weave.
If sexual acts create bonds of marriage outside the present norm and drive legality, many are terrified of the consequences. The current panic about gay marriage is partly about the fear of sexual power and losing control of the control of it. This is not just from a pragmatic psychological anxiety that suddenly everyone’s fair game, but from a worry of where it will lead. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is a version of this.
The President not too long ago thought the government should fund education for marriage, to stem the divorce rate. He is answering deep social and religious worries about sexual and social change. But the President may find sexual terror as tricky as terrorism. He promised us a humble foreign policy and became an arrogant warrior, believing God on his side. He promised us compassionate conservatism and can’t speak beyond his narcissistic righteousness. He’s promising an ideal now which sounds narrowly prescriptive and intolerant.
Good intentions are useless. We must not impose religious ideals. We need to renounce cruelty and affirm kindness. We need as a complex society to figure out sex and violence. It is not as easy as making love not war-though that may well be an ideal worth striving for.