Andrew Sullivan and Erick Erickson recently agreed on something having to do with gay marriage and community life. Well, sort of, anyway. The nature of Sullivan’s agreement is productive of further discussion.
Erickson pointed out, quite sensibly, that Christians who are photographers or bakers are not seeking to reject any and all business from gay customers. Rather, he noted, that Christian photographers and bakers object specifically to participating in a gay wedding. A wedding, for many people and certainly for Christians, is an explicitly religious activity. It is really not unreasonable for people with a particular religious view of marriage (such as Christians well within the mainstream of Christian belief) to not want to participate in something they believe to be wrong.
Bravo to Erickson for making a subtle point clear and to Sullivan for recognizing the point has merit, or at least is worth further thought. There is a hitch here, however. Sullivan argues that gays can afford to cede this discretion over thought and action to Christians who object because such people are obviously losing. Given the fact of tables being suddenly turned, surely champions of gay rights can afford to “leave the fundamentalists and bigots alone.”
How gracious of Sullivan to make such a charitable offer. But is the characterization of such people fair? We are experiencing a change in the way we define the good society. In the past, it was uncontroversial (and biologically pretty natural) for communities to think that in a good society men marry women and that same sex pairs do not marry. Rather, the appropriate mode for same sex pairings was friendship rather than sexual intimacy. At this point, it is clear that our definition of the good society is changing and that the majority are at a minimum saying that people have to decide these things for themselves and that men can thus marry men and women can marry women. But here is the essential question: What exactly is it about a social tipping point that turns yesterday’s commonsensical person into today’s bigot?
I think one way I could try to defend opponents of gay marriage from charges of rank bigotry is to examine the moral intuitions of children. In the course of raising mine, I have noticed that they had no underlying matrix of reason by which to understand racism. When they were a little younger, they never talked about a child as being black or white. The racial awareness simply wasn’t there. If I heard them telling a story about a classmate and wanted to know more about the child, I would ask them to describe the child. They would then include a description which might include something like light skin or dark skin, straight or curly hair, tall or short, etc. The implication is that bigotry must be cultivated.
Same-sex marriage is susceptible to a similar analysis. Because of a situation in our extended family, my children became aware of a man who wanted to be with other men instead of women. They simply did not understand why a man would want to share romantic love with another man. The idea violated their concept of what a man is. A man shares romantic/marital love with women rather than men. I learned this about their reasoning before I ever tried to explain things to them or to help them understand it. Just as a child’s natural understanding tilts away from racism, I would suggest that it tilts toward a complementary view of the sexes. In other words, men go with women and women go with men. Just as bigotry must be cultivated, so, too, must the appreciation of same sex pairings. In other words, bigotry is the result of intentional cultural work and so is the appreciation of same sex pairs. Neither is a natural understanding from the child’s point of view. (Please understand that I am not morally equating bigotry with cultural advocacy of gay acceptance. That is not the point.)
In the case of racism, we would see the culture’s work in the child to be pernicious. Creating an awareness of racial difference is not a good thing. The question, then, is whether the culture’s current work to change the understanding of marriage is good. I would suggest that the answer is not as obvious as it appears to have suddenly become. Is it really so difficult to understand the people who do not think that it is? Is it necessary to demonize them as “fundamentalists and bigots,” especially when their view was uncontroversial as little as ten years ago? The physical complementarity of men and women is powerfully suggestive to the ordinary conscience, is it not? And yes, religious understandings run in that direction, too. God is the designer. People infer intent from the complementary design of men and women. The underlying point here, though, is that the perception of same sex marriage as something that is improper is not only religious in nature, it is intuitive and has been for thousands of years.
Are those who have not acclimated themselves to the cultural moment, then, really “fundamentalists and bigots?” Or are they people who have legitimate reasons to think what they think? You, the reader, may not be convinced by them, but does your lack of assent invalidate the viewpoint entirely? I think a little more respect is in order, especially from those who are building a case primarily on the logic of freedom. Free people have to be thinking people. And free people must also be generous toward those who dissent.
As a final side note, I recognize that the points I have made about the moral intuitions of children do not constitute some kind of bulletproof defeaters of arguments for same sex marriage. Just remember that I have not proposed to win the argument. Rather, I have sought to give pause to those who would run roughshod over the consciences of those who protest the current cultural movement. It seems to me that the burden of establishing respect for a conscientious standpoint should be lower than the burden imposed on one who seeks to completely prevail in argument.
Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is dean of instruction at Union University and the author of The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student’s Guide. For the record, he majored in economics at Florida State University nearly a quarter century ago because he thought it sounded career-worthy. He got lucky. It was great.