Part One of A Critique of MARRIAGE AND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: Fundamental Goods That Stand or Fall Together
My initial comment pointed out the absence of Mainline Protestants, who have long represented the mainstream of the United States, and still do, in a country where 51% support marriage equality.
The promotion and protection of marriage—the union of one man and one woman as husband and wife—is a matter of the common good and serves the wellbeing of the couple, of children, of civil society and all people. The meaning and value of marriage precedes and transcends any particular society, government, or religious community. It is a universal good and the foundational institution of all societies. It is bound up with the nature of the human person as male and female, and with the essential task of bearing and nurturing children.
As religious leaders across a wide variety of faith communities, we join together to affirm that marriage in its true definition must be protected for its own sake and for the good of society. We also recognize the grave consequences of altering this definition.
Let us first state a simple historical fact -- marriage has evolved over time and has been different in different cultures and ages. This is empircally proven and cannot be rationally disputed. For instance, polygamy is not just an ancient practice, but continues in many places around the globe even today (even among Christians in Africa, for instance). But it is not the only variation. Humans have, through society, law, and/or religion, structured relationships and family units in multiple ways.
Even same-gendered relationships and households. There is evidence of same-gender unions in ancient Egypt and ancient Rome. There is evidence of same-gender unions in early Christianity, see John Boswell's Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe. Some Native American tribes had more than one gender (even the gender binary itself is a cultural artifact) and evidence of relationships we would consider same-sex. I believe same-sex unions are still practiced in primitve tribes of New Guinea even today. And in America, the pre-Revolutionary Virginia House of Burgesses allowed for same-gender domestic partnerships -- one had to in a new land populated mostly by young men on the frontier.
So, first off, they are blatantly lying and ignoring historical fact and empirical evidence.
Second, their position that marriage is "a universal good and the foundational institution of all societies" is itself a religious belief and not one shared by all people, even all religious people. It should be viewed as a doctrine and one conception of the good in an array of differing conceptions of the good. A pluralistic democracy must balance multiple conceptions of the good (see John Rawls' A Theory of Justice).
It is not a conception of the good that I share. Marriage is not a fundamental metaphysical unit nor a fundamental theological category. It is a social construct that can be of benefit to individuals and societies but holds not sacred place within secular, civil society.
Only some religions view it is as sacrament, most do not. The history of marriage and Christianity is also complex, and this document ignores that as well. Jesus was unmarried, of course. It is strange to hold marriage to such an ideal as a universal good if the incarnate God did not participate in it. In fact, I find a philosophical contradiction here for the Roman Catholics who would hold that God contains all perfections, including all moral goods.
For more on the complex views of the New Testament on issues of marriage and sexuality, I highly recommend Dale Martin's Sex and the Single Savior. St. Paul, of course, had very negative things to say about marriage, even recommending that those who were not married stay unmarried.
The early church did not promote marriage. It did not become a sacrament officially well into the middle ages (I forget the exact date). Of course the Roman Church has historically privileged celibacy and still does, so it is strange to see their promotion of marriage as a "universal good." I wrote some earlier this week countering Pope Benedict's strange, paranoid views on marriage. In the 16th century it was Protestants who promoted marriage and encouraged former priests, monks, and nuns to wed, as Martin Luther did, for instance. I can't imagine Luther ever calling marriage a "universal good."
Boswell, in the book I linked to earlier, argues that the early church did not bless opposite-gender marriages because those were viewed as secular, property contracts and it would demean the sacred functions of the church to be involved with an economic transaction such as this.
So, even Christianity has a complex history and varying teachings about marriage, all ignored or lied about in this letter.
Let me zero in on this tricky sentence:
It is bound up with the nature of the human person as male and female, and with the essential task of bearing and nurturing children.
What looks at first to be a straightforward sentence is actually bound up with many philosophical assumptions and empirical claims that are themselves either matters of dispute or blatantly false.
First off, I am a little puzzled and put-off by the metaphor bound and am not sure what all it is supposed to convey. But, remember, it is a metaphor.
Next up is nature. This is the Catholic's doing, I'm sure, sneaking in a Thomistic worldview that is not shared by most of the signatories to this letter. I'm a little surprised that religious traditions which do not adopt Thomistic philosophy or theology would sign this. Thomas is a natural law theorist and Protestantism has generally been skeptical or rejecting of this worldview. Nature, in this sense, is wedded to a teleology -- the "nature" of a hammer is to drive nails, so any other use for a hammer is "unnatural." I also happen to believe it is empirically, scientifically false -- it is, at least, not the currently operating scientific paradigm. If human's have a teleology (itself a controversial, disputed claim), then that teleology is a matter of disagreement based upon one's religious, philosophical, scientific, and ethical worldview. Again, in a pluralistic democracy there will be multiple conceptions of the good.
"Essential" hass the same problem here. Nature and essence are both metaphysical terms. Many metaphysicians, in fact problem most current ones, would reject that humanity has an essence. It is not that the metaphysical view of this sentence isn't within the range of metaphysical options, it is that there is a range, it this does not acknowledge that. I, for instance, am a Process philosopher. We reject substance theory and do not believe that humans or any other actual entities possess an essence or a nature. Rather, we are processes of becoming engaged in the creative process.
There is also the problem that they define the essential task as "bearing and nurturing children." How many human beings feel that that is their essential task? Or even the essential task of society? And remember, essential here is a quite specific metaphysical term. It does not mean important, signficant, vital, of a high priority (all in dispute themselves). They mean that the purpose for which humanity and society is created, its end goal, its meaning, who it really is at the core of its being is defined by the "task of bearing and nurturing children." That is a wild claim!
It is also insulting to the infertile, the post-menopausal, the eunuch, the celibate, those who have lost their children, and those who don't want children.
Finally, for part one, human persons are not limited to male and female. These authors are ignoring intersex persons. There are at least five different kinds of intersex persons, leading me to often startle people by saying that there are at least seven human sexes. The existence of intersex persons is not a matter of dispute, they actually exist. Joan Roughgarden's Evolution's Rainbow is a good book for learning about the sexual diversity throughout nature.
And that doesn't even get to the more controversial claim that sex (not just gender) is a social construct. Judith Butler, building on the work of Michel Foucault and others, has been one of the leading voices arguing for this. A good summary of this claim (Butler and Foucault are difficult to read) and others important for this discussion are found in Riki Wilchins Queer Theory, Gender Theory.
Okay, I had intended one long post, but as I got near the end of this and had only dissected the first few sentences of the letter, I knew I needed to make this a series. So this is only Part 1. I'll try to get to the rest later today, but I do have errands to run and chores to complete.