Later in the year, Australia is going to have a plebiscite about changing the definition of marriage. So far it has been a brutal debate from both sides. I would like to be able to have a calm discussion on it with people who disagree but I fear that will never happen. So, here is the conversation that I would like to have about marriage with someone I disagree with. These are people who have made up their mind on the matter and I am not seeking to persuade them, but help them understand me and why I would vote against the plebiscite. I have put their side of the conversation in bold italics.
“You’re a bigot”
I get that you might feel and think that I am. But when you say that, apart from hurting my feelings which may be your intent, what I hear is “I don’t have a coherent, rational argument and so I will call you names”. If you are my friend, and you think I am a bigot then please convince me and show me that I should change my mind on this. I.e. argue your point without calling me a bigot, even if you think it. (Later I will explain why this is so important for us both).
“Don’t you believe in equality?”
Absolutely, it’s part of my Christian worldview to see all human life in the image of God. In fact I would argue that this idea of equality in the Western world has strong Christian roots. You should take some time to investigate this1.
It is one thing to say “All people should be treated equally” (which we both agree with) but you should be able to answer why this is so important. While we both agree that people should be treated equally, it might make it clearer as to why we disagree when you to articulate why it is so.
“So, don’t same-sex couples have the right to have their relationship recognised?”
They do! Well, in NSW they do and that is where I live. The NSW Family Act 2008 and following legislation recognises couples and gives them all the same rights as a married couple whether they are a heterosexual or homosexual couple (in fact they no longer even need to be co-habitating!). Same sex couples can have their relationship recognised legally, adopt, divorce, all the same as any other couple2.
“Well, if marriage is about two people who love each other, why not change the definition?”
I agree with this argument, but it is the presupposition that I disagree with. That is, if marriage were about two people who loved each other, then I would be in support of changing the definition of marriage. But what if marriage was more than that?
Just like God determined that we should treat people equally, He also gets to determine what marriage is. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian pastor executed for opposing Hitler, started to expand on this.
“In your love, you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal – it is a status, an office. “
By which I think he meant that marriage is more than merely two people who love each other. For one thing, it is meant to be an illustration of the relationship between the love that Jesus has for his church (Eph. 5:22-33).
“But I don’t believe in God and I don’t agree with your presupposition of what marriage is.”
Yes, I understand that. This is why we are having the debate.
While I respect your position, I would like you to consider the last time we modified the definition of marriage from a traditional (Biblical influenced) in the 1970s. It was a “covenantal commitment to another person” and with the introduction of no fault divorce it was changed to “a commitment to another person, until something changed”. The argument was that people would be happier if they were not stuck in unhappy marriages. Makes sense right?
Did it make people happier? The study To Have and To Hold investigated this in the 1998 and heavily criticised the change in laws and the effect it has had on health, mortality, adverse effects on children, suicide rates, economic deprivation, etc3.
I don’t want you thinking that I think people stuck in unhappy marriages is a good thing. My point is that changing the definition of marriage may not have the desired results you are looking for.
“So, what are you afraid of?”
Firstly, one of the main arguments for changing the definition of marriage is that recognition of Same Sex Marriage (SSM) will reduce the number of people struggling with their sexual identity who will seek to take their lives. Let’s be clear here, no-one wants to see more suicides. I am afraid that Australia will be like other countries e.g. Denmark where SSM marriage has been around for a while and the number of suicides of people struggling with gender identity has not gone down, or if it has it has it still remains incredibly and dangerously high4. If acceptance of SSM is supposed to be the sliver bullet to save lives, it hasn’t in other countries. I would like to see both sides of the debate work towards saving lives here.
Secondly, I am afraid that the hostility of the debate will become an issue in itself (i.e. reducing your argument to “You are a bigot”). My fear is that because of the hostility, the debate will shift from being about changing the definition of marriage to what freedom of speech is. This means there will not be a ‘winner’, only a ‘loser’. That is to say, that if the plebiscite decides against a change, the left will argue that this is because the debate became about freedom of speech and so is not accurate. If the plebiscite decides for a change, the right will argue that people were bullied into the position.
Thirdly, I am afraid of what will come next. This might sound paranoid to you, but I fear that this is a part of a larger cultural war that is determined to make people like me 2nd class citizens that have no rights. Rights will be determined not on equality, but based on values that you hold.
“Can we still be friends?”
I hope so, there is more to Christianity (even the ACL!) than questioning the change of definition of marriage. Some of it we will agree with and others we won’t. At the centre is the death of Jesus, the greatest act of love in history. I would love you to understand why that is so important to me.
1. I would recommend as a starting place Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book that Made Your World (Nashville, Thomas Nelson: 2011) especially Chapter 5 or Roy Williams, Post God Nation (Sydney, ABC Books: 2015) for a more Australian focus. For more academic work look for Prof. Edwin Judge’s writings.
2. The Births, Deaths and Marriages website has a very helpful summary, in easy to understand language, of how that works, but all the legislation is online.
3. See chapter 3 of To Have and To Hold.
4. This is not a easy thing to study. Yes, people are taking their lives and sexual identity is a factor. This study is a good example of a) how hard a study like this is, b) that suicide rates are alarmingly high in the homosexual community and c) recognition of SSM is not going to save them. We need something else.