This edition of Nurturing Justice is in response to the Australian Christian Lobby on-line campaign to raise a petition to present to the ALP National Conference in December on the issue of gay marriage. See http://vimeo.com/31071412
The world-wide demand for "marriage equality" for homosexual relationships comes from an extremely well-financed and highly organised movement that has been gaining momentum for decades. While we can learn much from this movement about how the long-term commitment needed for any alternative political viewpoint to gain political clout, we need to ask whether it is actually promoting political debate, particularly about the institutional impact of the changes it proposes to the way governments, within their own realms of competence, will henceforth define what constitutes a lawful marriage. Nurturing Justice has continually drawn attention to the underlying sentimentalism, ideological manipulation and statism propelling this movement, no less in this country and the region. We have repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that proponents are somewhat less than forthcoming about the political and institutional consequences that they anticipate will result from such a change. In this writer's opinion, the movement itself has run blind, propelled in large part by a politicised post-modernist aspiration to "seize the day", to "run on the wild side", to see just how far you can get before things start to crash completely around you. Deep-down inside this movement is a religious commitment to a blind fate, a piety that is essentially anarchic and nihilistic. The irony is that despite taking cover in the shadows of environmentalism, the "marriage equality" movement does not engage in any comprehensive institutional impact assessment of its own far-reaching proposals.
The above should provide readers with a summary of my view of the inadequate political arguments put before us by those proposing "gay marriage" a proposal which has now morphed, in political terms, into "marriage equality". And yes, Nurturing Justice has hitherto spent a lot of time on this issue not least because Christian responses to the demand have been politically inadequate and have not actually entered into what we might call political debate. In this edition, still seeking an authentically Christian political assessment of the movement and its demands, I draw attention to a serious misunderstanding that continually blurs what is going on.
In this polity, proponents of marriage equality have not faced up to the fact that what they are demanding is actually a change to our way of public governance. The marriage equality demand is a demand that Government now mandate a definition of marriage to which, presumably, everyone must henceforth adhere. A failure to do so must violate the civil rights of some persons. The problem is that that is not the legal state of affairs pertaining to the way the current definition of lawful marriage functions in our civic life. The definition of marriage that now pertains is such that it enables governments (State and Federal) to do justice to marriages, namely to permanent, life-long-committed bonds mutually entered into between a man and a woman, bonds that can indeed bring children into the world. This definition does not require all citizens to define marriage in this way. Nor does it require them to define marriage, still less to prefer it. This is Government's own guide for how, in its public-legal dealings with its own responsibilities, it makes laws to promote justice for citizens in their marriages and families. It has needed and still needs such a definition to properly and appropriately deal with this institution. It has to define this institution in some way because it is not an institution of its own making; marriage qua institution is not created by legislation.
The current state of affairs does not require Government to ignore a relationship of any other kind; it simply tells its office bearers how it should interpret the reality of marriage that it, with its citizens, confronts. The definition as it stands has been found necessary in our legal past in order to discriminate between forms of marriage and government thus needs to have this definition in order to ensure justice, and to identify and thus prevent unjust ways by which people are forced into, and forced to remain in, marriage by means other than the mutual consent of the man and woman concerned.
This definition as it now functions in our law does not require that two people, a man and a woman living together, must refer to themselves as married. They may be in what used to be referred to as a "common-law" marriage (living together), and for certain social reasons they may want to say to their family and friends, employers and anyone else, that they are not "married". That is, they do not consider themselves married "yet" or until they have gone through a wedding ceremony, or even because they consider the marriage institution itself to be a fake and failing residue of capitalist false consciousness and want to assert their alternative approach to life. They may not want a "for-life" relationship. But, as we have found in our legal history over the past decades, with the extension of public entitlements, even Marxist and revolutionary couples are fully entitled to be viewed as "de facto" couples if they so desire, (choose your dialectical ambiguities carefully!), and come under the Government's definition. The current definition of marriage doesn't require such a couple to come under its definition - to some extent they don't have to apply for entitlements but they will be legally required to care properly for their children. But, from the government's side, the government is required to administer justice also to these citizens and to do so it has not, and should not, re-define marriage in terms of "de facto" indeterminacy.
[For further exploration of this vital side of the debate about marriage equality let me refer readers to an article "The Russian Effort to Abolish Marriage" about a state of affairs that should be more widely appreciated. It certainly should be required reading for ALP party delegates at their next party conference when "marriage equality" is up for debate. It's likely that some left-leaning anarchists might feel uneasy about this historical example in which the Bolshevik's having abolished marriage, shortly thereafter declared, in the face of widespread social breakdown, that marriage was every party member's duty! Sic transit gloria mundi!]
Moreover, and more to the point, the current definition of lawful marriage is a guide to government in its necessary work of coming to terms with our society's ongoing emergence in its very complex institutional fabric. It does not mandate that two same-sex people refer to themselves as unmarried. It does not prevent two same-sex people with a commitment to permanent cohabitation for life from referring to themselves as "married", as "husband" and "wife", as each other's spouse, as "hubby" or whatever terms they may choose to use. In fact, the current definition doesn't mandate that other people - who may or may not approve - refrain from calling them a married couple.
In this context, the device of a "civil union" may indeed function as an appropriate way for everyday discourse to remain harmonious including for those who find such relationships distasteful or immoral or whatever. But a "civil union", while it may indeed be appropriate to designate a "gay couple" or a "lesbian couple" in public legal terms, can not be exclusive to homosexual couples.
That is also why the responses of some Christians who reject "civil unions" - as "the thin end of the wedge" - present a confused political response. Our society is indeed complex and differentiated in ways that cannot be properly accounted for by trying to suggest that a moral society is solely composed of either households of married people or of households of single people living together. That ideological view may hold sway briefly when conservativistic and reactionary political options prevail, but it has little correspondence with how we, citizens and government, actually experience social realities, how we live with all our neighbours, whatever their lifestyles may be.
Yes, the term "civil union" might be an appropriate for homosexual couples, but not exclusively for them. Should any two people contract to live together on a such a permanent, supportive basis, and the crucial legal issue of such unions is certainly not that they should at some point or other share the same bed. The crucial issue, as we have discovered with the development of legal entitlements, is to exclude unjust discrimination when Government is required by its own laws to distribute entitlements with true equity for all partnerships that are supportive and long-term (i.e. not just those who are lawfully married). Again our society is sometimes much more complex than our own ethical perceptions, and also much more complex than the simplistic undifferentiated "running blind" view entertained by the "marriage equality" lobby. Government in fulfilling its task needs great wisdom in reckoning with this complexity and differentiated responsibility in the public-legal domain.
The term "civil union" is also important because it can help all people in such a complex society as ours to rightly, fairly and justly give due respect to all non-married people living together, homosexual partners included, without mandating a use of language that implies universal moral agreement with anyone's lifestyle. In that sense it would seem that a government's endorsement of the language of "civil union" to cover such partnerships is a positive contribution to social harmony. It doesn't mandate that such language be used, but it does assist people who may have an moral disagreement to fulfill their own responsibility to do justice, ascribe due respect, without compromising themselves in their own eyes. That is, as a matter of fact, what the current way of viewing the government's definition of lawful marriage makes possible for people who reject marriage as an institution or for homosexual people who want to refer to themselves as married. They break no law if they openly say that marriage is a farce or if they use such "marriage" terms to describe themselves!
Freedom of speech gives people room to move and make judicious, fair and consistent moral judgments also about marriage, about that permanent relationship between a man and a woman that may issue in children. As I have said, freedom of speech allows people to say marriage per se is a farce. Citizens, under freedom of speech, can make judgments about the healthiness of this or that marriage, or this or that relationship, so long as these judgments are fair and just. In Christian terms we would say citizens should strive to make a positive contribution to the lives of all their neighbours by the way they speak and the terms they use. But that doesn't mean they have to use a particular set of terms. They may even make public declarations about the marriage institution itself. It may be viewed as a capitalist invention, a patriarchal device for controlling women and children, or as a trick foist upon us by bourgeois sentiment. There are no such restrictions under the current definition of marriage, including the current way in which government views its own defining responsibility as its goes about its task, proscribing negative and critical views of marriage. Nothing at all.
But should Government change the definition of lawful marriage to mandate the requirement that all citizens henceforth define marriage in the ambiguous way proposed (i.e. to include those homosexual partnerships which claim such legal marriage status for themselves), then we will have made a fundamental change to how we understand freedom of speech. To mandate such a view will also change the way Government views itself in relation to speech itself because such a definition will not simply be about marriage - it will be about government's view of its own power. Why? Because the grounds given for such a change by "marriage equality" proponents is usually in terms of equality of civil rights. But that is where the argument continues to fall apart, completely. Marriage is not, and has never been, a civil right. And there is also no discussion from these advocates that allows their opponents to see how they cloak this false and dogmatic presupposition. They simply presume it. It is hidden from view as if it is a self-evident reality of which only the willfully blind will not see. In fact it is a thoroughly false presupposition. That is where Nurturing Justice confronts the "marriage equality" movement with a fundamental conflict. Well given that politics is about ongoing political debate over these disagreements, we better figure out how we are going to keep on talking to each other as fellow citizens. And we are not going to be able to do that if Government mandates the aforesaid false and ambiguous definition of marriage. Freedom of speech will be altered significantly. That's the reality that isn't being adequately talked about in political terms to counter this movement's demands.
Government's responsibility to rightly and justly define marriage between a man and woman who mutually enter into that life-long bond, will still be upon government after any such attempt to "correct" the current "politically incorrect" definition. Public respect (suum cuique) cannot be rightly ascribed to marriage by merely trying to enforce a moralistic requirement that it be henceforth compared with a life-long homosexual commitment. The advocates of "marriage equality" avoid this situation, and are therefore merely confronting governments and civil society around the world with their serious misunderstandings of public justice.
When was government mandated to define what is self-evident for everyone? Marriage is no civil right, and the argument for "marriage equality" has not explained how marriage will avoid becoming a creature of state from the proposed changes. Such changes must also ring in changes to how we understand Government's responsibility to rightly define the social relationships and responsibilities that are present in our complex, differentiated society. "Marriage equality" demands remain that; mere demands which avoid discussion of the religious commitment that government foist this allegedly self-evident correction of the definition of marriage upon all citizens. No. Government must make its own legal definitions in order to do what governments are called to do - maintain and uphold public justice for all.
In responding politically to this movement, Christians need to learn wise political discernment. Such discernment for us as citizens has to do with the way Governments provide legally enshrined definitions of things for themselves in the administration of public justice. For Christians to enter into comprehensive political debate we need to be much more alert to the way in which a non-Christian definition of reality - of the reality of government, the reality of government's responsibility to rightly define things, and the reality of marriage and family - drives this and the allied political movement of liberal humanism. Indeed the confusion and lack of clarity in this debate prevents genuine political debate, and needs to be overcome. And it won't be overcome without a comprehensive political vision that can do justice, and promote justice for all in our complex, differentiated society. It is precisely with such a vision of justice for all that we can begin to serve our neighbours politically with Christian love.
is written by Bruce Wearne, Point Lonsdale, to encourage a sustained Christian political contribution by seeking justice in the gentle and merciful rule of Jesus Christ, the ruler over all of the earth's political regimes.
October 2011 © The contents of this email are copyright. Editions may be photocopied or retransmitted in their entirety but not otherwise reprinted or transmitted without permission. "Nurturing Justice" is a project to encourage Christian political reflection based upon wise and loving civic participation. Comments are welcome and should be sent to