Social liberals are heartened by these developments as a sign of growing societal progressiveness. At the same time, they are often bemused by conservative angst over gay rights, gay adoption, gay marriage—really the entire “gay agenda” that is “pushed” in our schools, government and now even our churches. What is all this Sturm und Drang over such a non-issue, liberals wonder? Even more than civil and women’s rights, legalizing gay marriage would seem to present a classic Pareto-improving solution, in which a new equilibrium (here, a legal norm) exists that would make at least one player (gays) better off while not leaving anyone (heteros) worse-off. After all, how can anyone reasonably argue that John and James’ homosexual marriage hurts Bill and Susan’s heterosexual marriage? And wouldn’t allowing gay people to marry do much to reduce the net amount of extra-marital fornication—something religious conservatives get very exercised over? Why, indeed, does it make any sense to support civil unions for gay people, but not marriage (Obama’s position as well as Romney’s—what actually is the big difference between the two?) If, as they claim, civil unions provide all the same benefits as marriage (they don’t), why not let gay people legally marry?
In sum, what is the big effing deal?
This post is aimed at social progressives rather than conservatives, since this is really only a puzzle for liberals who do not understand opposition to gay marriage. To liberals, blocking same-sex marriage appears to be little more than discrimination against out-groups while imposing traditional values on the rest of us. It is my claim, however, that social (and especially Christian) conservatives stand to lose a great deal if gay marriage becomes the law of the land. Gay marriage poses something like an existential threat to the conservative Christian moral universe and thus the integrity of their temporal and spiritual communities.
Well, they can just adapt, no? Like any other social institution, churches and other religious communities change all the time to reflect ever-changing social values and new scientific discoveries (although it may take a millennium or two to do it—I’m looking at you, Catholic Church).
The problem is that there is probably an upper limit to the adaptive flexibility of some churches and other religious institutions. This is because gay marriage challenges the bedrock principle of the traditional Judeo-Christian family—the basic building block of the wider communities in which conservatives live. There are at least three components to the traditional family structure:
(1) Patriarchal rule over the family
(2) Matriarchal and filial subordination to the patriarch
(3) Reproductive multiplication as the family’s raison d’etre
Of course, it is clear to all (social conservatives more than most) that we are no longer living in the 1950s. Divorce has become normalized, and no longer carries the stigma it once did. Single-parent (usually women) households are no longer stigmatized, even though they deviate from the idealized two-parent norm. Increasingly, childless couples and even gay couples—with or without children—are viewed as families with all the same rights as the Cleavers of TV-land.
To their credit, religious communities have begun to accommodate the changing face of the American family. The willingness and ability to adapt is not uniform, however. Conservative Christians have bucked the trend, fighting against growing societal tolerance and acceptance for unorthodox family structures--even as alternative family forms proliferate within their own communities. Two churches in particular have militated strongly against the movement toward legalized gay marriage--using their considerable resources to defeat state-level ballot measures to legalize gay marriage. These are the Catholic and the Mormon churches.
What do Roman Catholics and Mormons have in common? More than meets the eye, I assure you. Indeed, what sets these two churches apart from every other sizable church in contemporary America is that their leaders (the Catholic pope and the Mormon prophet) exercise absolute authority over their adherents, conveying ongoing instructions from God about how their congregants should navigate their most private affairs—from family planning to achieving a balance between the demands of work and home life. These servants of God are selected in secret by a small number of top church officials (the College of Cardinals and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, respectively). Beneath these leaders sit vast hierarchical structures based on patriarchal rule. The role of women in these ecclesiastical communities is generally confined to charity, education, child-rearing, cultural affairs, and family management. No special powers are conferred upon women to perform these roles.
It will be obvious to readers that both churches are marked not only by strict hierarchy, but patriarchal hegemony. Mormon leaders (bishops, stake presidents, regional authorities, Quorums of Seventy and the Twelve, not to mention the church presidency) and Catholic leaders (the pope, archbishops, cardinals, bishops, and priests) are all men. Without patriarchal rule—not only in the church, but in the family—the legitimacy of these institutions is cast into doubt.
The Patriarchal Family
Patriarchal rule is the core organizational principle of the traditional Judeo-Christian family and, by extension, the communities that are composed of these families. Simply put, patriarchal rule in society is a natural extension of patriarchal rule in the family--the later justifies the former. John Eidsmoe, a conservative Christian author, writes, "the basic unit of authority in human society is the family. The husband is the head of the wife (1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:23), and children are to obey their parents (Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:2)."
What is a patriarchal family? Nothing less than the executive authority of men over women and children in the household. In the Mormon Church, the link between patriarchal authority in the home and the community is most evident: every adult Mormon male in good standing exercises the “priesthood,” which means that he can anoint his wife and children to heal sickness or provide comfort or even instructions from God as to how to resolve a given problem. Women have no such authority, and their major life decisions are subject to review by men. GOP Presidential Candidate Michele Bachmann, an Evangelical Christian, subscribes to this view. In a public address, she explained how it was that she made her choices in life: “But the Lord says be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.” Bachmann’s husband instructed her to become a tax attorney, which she did, even though she “never had a desire for it.” In the end, however, she “was going to be faithful to what I felt God was calling me to do through my husband.
So what is the connection with gay marriage? Same-sex unions by definition disallow patriarchal rule. No man can dominate a woman in a gay partnership. Gay spouses are de jure (if not de facto) equal, due to the equal status of the partners' sexes. While it is true that patriarchal rule is also impossible in single-parent households, these do not constitute the same threat to heterosexual marriage as same-sex unions because single-parent households are understood to be incomplete or in transition. They can easily be transformed into patriarchal families with the simple addition of a member of the opposite sex.
Christian conservatives get that same-sex marriage undermines the naturalized link between marriage and patriarchal rule; once this link is broken, patriarchal authority will no longer appear natural or normal to their adherents, threatening the very foundations of conservative Christian churches and communities. Some years back, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future pope and advisor to John Paul II) issued a lengthy letter that railed against the "‘distortions’ and ‘lethal effects’ of feminism, arguing that "the obscuring of the difference . . . of the sexes has enormous consequences," including inspiring ideologies that "call into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and make homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality."
Equalizing the status of women in the family is also anathema to Mormons, who fear that this would have consequences for patriarchal rule in the Church itself (extending the priesthood to women is inconceivable to the current Mormon leadership).
According to the Washington Post, a feminist theologian at Harvard Divinity School characterized Ratzinger's letter as follows: "It has some positive things in it, but the political function of the document is the same as the ones before...It's trying to make a theological case, which they're really not able to make, against the full equality of women in the church."
In fact, patriarchal rule is rooted in the very origins of the Church. The second Prophet of the Mormon Church, Brigham Young, was very clear on the status of women relative to men. According to Young, “I shall have women and wives by the million…and glory, and riches, and power and dominion” (Journal of Disourses, Vol. 8, page 178).
This is not entirely dated thinking in the Mormon Church. As late as the 1980s, Mormon marriage ceremonies included the vow that brides "keep the law of your husbands, and abide by his counsel in righteousness. Each of you bow your head and say "Yes." In marriage ceremonies still today, the prospective husband grasps his bride in a “patriarchal grip." After marriage, they are then sealed to one another to be joined in the next life. In the process, their “eternal names” (the names they will have in the afterlife) are revealed to each of them. While the husband may not reveal his name to anyone, the wife must disclose her name to her husband, so that when they pass “through the veil,” he can summon her by name if he wishes to live with her in the afterlife; she may not call him. He uses the patriarchal grip to bring her through the veil into heaven.
While contemporary Mormons no longer speak of patriarchal “dominion,” their position on women is not far off: a woman’s primary responsibility is to her husband and her children—all other activities, including paid employment, are secondary in a Mormon woman’s life. Marvin J. Ashton of the Quorum of the Twelve explained, "a woman should feel free to go into the marketplace and into community service on a paid or volunteer basis if she so desires when her home and family circumstances allow her to do so without impairment to them" ("Woman's Role in the Community." In Woman. Salt Lake City, 1979. p. 93). In other words, a woman may have a profession, if she must, so long as the needs of the family have been seen to.
Although the Mormon Church generally eschews active political involvement, it has made exceptions to oppose gay marriage legislation and, some decades earlier, the Equal Rights Amendment. What unites these two issues (gay and women’s rights) is that they are each perceived as a direct assault on patriarchal dominance, which is central to the Mormon faith.
Heterosexuality, Procreation, and the Family
Heterosexuality and procreation are also central to the traditional Judeo-Christian family. The Catholic Catechism states in part, “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved” (part II, section 2357). Instead of building families, homosexual persons are therefore ‘called to chastity.’
In traditional Christian communities, marriage exists for the main purpose of procreation. According to the Catholic Catechism, “The spouses' union achieves the twofold end of marriage: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life. These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated without altering the couple's spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family. The conjugal love of man and woman thus stands under the twofold obligation of fidelity and fecundity. (2363).”
The Judeo-Christian family structure treats procreation as the central purpose of the traditional family--a position that informs the Catholic Church’s long-standing opposition not only to abortion (a position that predates Evangelical Christian opposition to abortion), but also to birth control. Promoting heterosexual procreation and preventing women from achieving reproductive rights both serve to bolster patriarchal authority in the family, and, by extension, their wider communities.
As noted above, the Mormon Church (along with Catholics and other conservatives) have vigorously opposed the ERA; the Mormon Church also opposes abortion (although not so vociferously as the Catholic Church, and their position on birth control is generally liberal—a possible explanation is that the founder of the Church, Joseph Smith, may have used birth control and abortion to eliminate the evidence of his many clandestine “spiritual wives” before the principle of polygamy was revealed to the church membership).
Like birth control and abortion, gay marriage challenges the procreative raison d’etre of the family in the Judeo-Christian culture, as gay marriage unites individuals who cannot procreate with one another.
If homosexual partnerships (which forbid patriarchal rule and traditional procreation) are given the same status in American law as heterosexual partnerships, then the patriarchal ordering principle will become gradually outmoded in American family life, and hence American churches. It is for this reason that the Catholics, Mormons, and other conservative churches view gay marriage as their third rail.
The bottom line is that conservative opposition to gay marriage is less about discriminating against gay couples or shoving conservative values down the throats of secular Americans than the threat that it poses to the givenness of patriarchal authority in their own religious communities and thus to their moral universe. Simply, the health of these communities and the institutions around which they are organized hinges on the knee-jerk acceptance of patriarchal authority by their own membership. How long this retrograde principle will withstand the onslaught of increased secularization and egalitarianism of American society is anyone's guess.