Friday, November 14, 2008
A Modest Proposal Regarding Proposition 8
As regular Robert Frost’s Banjo readers know, I was recently in the Golden State, & along with many pleasant times, I also heard a number of folks express dismay about the recent passage of Proposition 8, which essentially bans same-sex marriage in the state. This proposition was put forward in response to an earlier California Supreme Court decision stating that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue & should be allowed.
Now, before we wade too far into this quagmire, let me say a couple of things very much in the “for what it’s worth” column (& if you’re afraid you’re headed into a quagmire, you might read yesterday’s post introducing this issue). For what it’s worth, most of the people I heard express dismay are straight—these aren’t people who are directly affected, though they may well have friends or family members who are. Second—again for what it’s worth—I’m straight, & am married in a “traditional marriage” to a woman I love dearly—so again, in that sense I’m a “disinterested party,” though in the interest of full disclosure, I also have very close friends who may be affected, so these events do have a personal face for me.
I first thought about a Proposition 8 post suggesting in a satirical way that California could fix its current budget crisis by revoking the tax-exempt status of the Church of Latter Day Saints; after all, the LDS Church played a large role in financially backing Proposition 8, despite the fact that LDS Church members only account for about 2% of California’s population. Apparently, I’m not the first one to think of this—see the following link. However, it appears that freedom of speech considerations trump separation of church & state. This is outlined on the following very conservative site, but it appears from other sources that the info at that link is generally correct. & I suppose I can accept this, because if we want churches to be free to fight for justice (which they have done, & continue to do), we have to allow them to fight for injustice.
& of course, one could point out that the LDS Church has had its own “issues” with traditional marriage over the years—the very witty Christa Faust did so in this post to Deadlier than the Male; & for those who claim this is an anachronistic attack, check out the following: here or here.
But no, I thought I’d take a different slant altogether. One of the main Biblical texts used to condemn homosexuality occurs in the book of Leviticus (by the way: I’m aware it’s not the only such text). This is third book of Torah in the Judaic tradition, & the third book of the Christian Old Testament. Traditionally, the authorship of Leviticus has been ascribed to Moses, though Biblical scholars generally reckon it was composed between 500-400 B.C. by a member or members of the priestly class. Leviticus is very concerned with taboos & with proper ritual procedures, such as detailing the manner in which sacrifices should be carried out. In addition, Leviticus proposes a number of dietary & sexual restrictions. Interestingly, most (though admittedly not all) Christian denominations seem to “cherry pick” quite freely amongst these restrictions, despite a generalized insistence that the restriction against homosexuality put forward in Leviticus must be absolute (this restriction occurs both in Lev. 18 & in Lev. 20). As examples, other restrictions include the following:
1. Don’t eat rabbit or pork (Lev: 11: 4-7)
2. Don’t eat shellfish (Lev. 11:9-12)
3. Anyone who touches an insect or a dead animal needs to go through ritual purification (Lev. 11:24-40)
4. Practice circumcision (Lev. 12: 3)
5. Absolutely refrain from sex (apparently including any form of touching) during menstruation (Lev. 12: 1-2; also 15: 24; 18: 19; 20:18—which proposes exile as the punishment)
6. Don’t plant more than one crop in any field or wear any clothing sewn from more than one type of thread—goodbye to your cotton/poly blends, pal… (Lev. 19: 19)
7. Execute adulterers of both sexes (Lev. 20: 10 –this of course would be illegal under U.S. law, & if carried out would have a rather devastating impact on the population, including some religious leaders—hello, Jimmy Swaggart)
8. Stop lending money for interest (Lev. 25: 35-37; also in Exodus & Deuteronomy; interestingly, in The Divine Comedy Dante places the usurers in the inner ring of the seventh circle of hell with the blasphemers and homosexuals.)
Now I’m aware that items 1, 2, 4, & 7 were addressed in the New Testament either explicitly or implicitly. Any argument about whether these later moral revaluations were culturally expedient or the result of an improved revelation must be by definition interminable—i.e., these are questions of belief, & not subject to “proof.” However, the change in attitude toward lending at interest (which used to be called usury) is a relatively recent development that’s become increasingly acceptable through the rise of capitalism. This practice was condemned not only by Dante, but also by St Anselm & St Thomas Aquinas among many others, because it was seen as “unnatural.” Nowadays, lending at interest is a cornerstone of our society’s economic structure. To see the real damage this practice is capable of causing, one only has to look at the current financial meltdown that snowballed from the predatory lending practices used during the earlier real estate boom. Given the very real devastation to both individual lives (bankruptcy, home foreclosure, vanishing retirement accounts for our senior citizens etc.) & to our society as a whole, I’d love to see some groups begin circulating petitions to outlaw this Biblically-banned practice that indeed tears at the very fabric of our society—let’s face it, folks: the only ones who’ll lose in this are the banks, & the banks are institutions, not people. So why do I suspect that the Leviticus-quoting folks in California & Arizona, & yes, in Idaho, aren’t going to be jumping on the anti-usury bandwagon I’m proposing? On the other hand, there’s no evidence that sanctioned same-sex marriages have had adverse effects on the social fabric of Spain, Belgium, Holland & Norway, or that legal same-sex civil unions have been detrimental to most of Europe.
On a serious note: One thing that’s neglected in this debate about same-sex marriage: in legal terms, marriage in the US isn’t a religious ceremony; it’s a contract. This legal contract may or may not be entered into through a religious ceremony. After all, some percentage of marriages (it’s difficult to determine how high a percentage through cursory internet research) are entered into through civil ceremonies, & exist outside the provenance of religious authority. In this sense, marriage in U.S. law is a contractual agreement—it involves certain financial benefits & certain financial obligations. It seems highly questionable whether churches have any say in dictating who can enter into legal contracts; & while I don’t believe churches should be obligated to perform marriages they consider contrary to their beliefs, I don’t see how these churches should have any right to dictate how these beliefs affect a large number of citizens who don’t share their worldview. Sharon Kyle of the LA Progressive has a thoughtful editorial about this subject here. In addition, while I’d agree that at its best marriage has a strong spiritual component (though I vehemently disagree with the view that this component can only be present in heterosexual marriage), I’ve seen enough married couples in my time to know that this spiritual component is neither a requirement (legal or otherwise) to stay married nor even to get married in the first place.
The Constitution promises a right to “the pursuit of happiness” (not happiness per se, but its pursuit). For many people, the right to marry is integral to the pursuit of happiness. I haven’t seen versions of the Constitution that guarantee this right only for straight folks, or only for Christians, or only for any one segment—however dominant—in our population. In fact, the rule of law ideally is established for the protection of minorities, not for their suppression or oppression.
As Dani Leone & I were driving around Sonoma County, we came across a picket line of college age kids. They were protesting Proposition 8 in a peaceful but boisterous way. Afterwards, Dani & I discussed how the kids may save us after all (the Whistling blog has a post on this same topic here)—you know, even a short while ago I wouldn’t have believed that a black man, especially one with a name like Barack Obama, stood any chance of getting elected president; & speaking of President-Elect Obama, let me make one final point. Mr Obama was the child of an interracial marriage. Until 1948, 30 of the then 48 states enforced what were known as miscegenation laws—i.e., for young folks out there, interracial marriage was illegal. This continued in law in 16 states well into my lifetime (& in fact into Mr Obama’s lifetime) until the Supreme Court decision in “Loving v. Virginia” struck down the last of such laws in 1967. There's further discussion of links between miscegenation laws & same-sex marriage bans here. Consider this wording from a legal decision invalidating a marriage between a black man & a white woman in 1878: “…connections and alliances so unnatural, that God and nature seem to forbid them, should be prohibited by positive law…”
My last thoughts on the subject? The quality & depth of love isn’t dictated by anatomy but by what two people have in their hearts, & by the commitment they’re willing to make to each other’s welfare.
Amor Omnia Vincit: Californian feminists and gay-rights activists Del Martin, 87 and Phyllis Lyon, 84 got married in June 2008, after a 56-year romance.