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COLUMN

Gay Marriage: Social Progress

Andrew C. Thomas

It almost seems unthinkable that people would take issue with the happiness of others. This happens all too regularly in our society when someone thinks they know what is best for others or out of protectiveness, jealousy or disgust. These feelings are on the rise as certain gay rights issues are making the headlines. Canadian editorial pages are abuzz after an Ontario court ruled that marriage licenses could not be legally kept from same-sex couples.

As a result, the definition of marriage was changed in Ontario statutes from the union of a man and a woman to the union of two people. Debates are ongoing in newspapers and kitchens across Canada. We’ve seen similar debates here in the States, long before Vermont legalized gay marriage.

But nothing draws more controversy than offending the sensibilities or sensitivities of the common citizen. The idea of two men or women “abusing” the privilege given to traditional couples is more irritating to some than, for example, famine and genocide in Africa, two terribly important issues that continue to broil without a great deal of attention.

We have a far bigger problem at the root of this debacle; the entire concept of Western morality has found a new battleground. Pat Buchanan put it succinctly as the “relentless drive to overthrow the moral code that has guided Western civilization since Constantine” on the part of gay activism. I couldn't agree more, but what Buchanan and other idealogues cling to so desperately is the notion that morality is an immutable entity handed down from above, untampered by the actions of mortal men, while failing to realize that even morality cannot remain fixed. Science has been intertwined with morality since morals were codified. Among other examples, the prohibition of pork in the Jewish faith was largely due to the high risk of trichinosis when prepared by an inexperienced chef.

The attitude is not limited to the past; many, including Buchanan, suggest that homosexual behavior, particularly sodomy, is immoral since it propagates HIV and other viruses. This again is a severe blurring of fact with fear. The spread of HIV comes from a lack of responsibility, just as teen pregnancy does. And before I receive all sorts of colorful hate mail on this, I recognize that this is an intractable argument; Buchanan and his cronies would no doubt apply the same arguments to (or rather against) premarital sex for exactly the same reasons.

Buchanan's appeal, however limited, is grounded in the basis of tradition. Comfort has always been taken in things that do not change, which is why so many people continue to cling to the dangerous judicial concept of an eye-for-an-eye, no matter how generally they choose to apply it. Plenty of other decisions have been made in history that break the established “moral code” for pragmatic reasons. Slavery was an accepted practice for far too long; I suspect that the prime pragmatic reason for its continuance was a need for cheap labor, one that became easier to shake off with the advent of industrialization, no matter how much compassion the church body had for the earthly situation of slaves.

There are valid questions to be asked about the issue of gay marriage. Far too many people think that the most important purpose of marriage is to produce children. Take this definition at face value and you discriminate against the infertile, and discount adoption. Others see marriage as a financial union, an angle that shouldn’t even factor into a discussion of morality.

So we almost naturally come to the prickly issue of sexuality, and suddenly the pragmatic reasons for opposing gay marriage disappear. This is why people are offended at seeing pictures of gay couples kissing in the newspaper, which The London (Ontario) Free Press was brave enough to publish last week, but for some reason are not nearly as offended by pictures of war and death.

The debate now seems hopelessly quagmired. If any change is to come, it must be an internal one. Someone in the church must stand up against dogma and help to reinforce a more idealistic, inclusive notion of morality, not one tainted by outdated pragmatic concerns.