The Winning Way To Fight The Ban On Gay Marriage
State sanction or sacred sacrament?
By Rabbi Michael Lerner
Now that President Bush has endorsed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages, those who hope to stop it need to understand why their strategies have been so unpersuasive in the past.
Gay and lesbian groups have tried to use the language of “equal rights” as their launching pad for mass support, posing themselves as a victim of discrimination akin to that suffered by African Americans. But while many Americans stand with them in relationship to issues of non-discrimination in hiring or equal rights to visit their partners in hospitals or inherit their partner’s property, they draw the line at marriage.
The opposition to gay marriage comes from two different kinds of concerns, each of which can be effectively fought if the supporters of gay marriage stop placing all their eggs in the equal rights basket and instead seek to understand what might be reasonable in the position of those who oppose gay marriage, and how to respond to those reasonable concerns.
There are two such concerns. The first is that there is a huge crisis in family life today, and the Right has been able to convince people that the crisis is in part generated by homosexuals. A movement to defend gay rights must address that family crisis.
That is why the Network of Spiritual Progressives, which recently held a national gathering and teach-in=to Congress in D.C. in May to reconstitute a religious left made the first plank of its eight part Spiritual Covenant with America a commitment to build a world based on love and caring-to counter the ethos of materialism and selfishness that are rooted in the world of work and in the me-firstism and “looking out for number one” that have increasingly become the yardstick of “common sense” in advanced capitalist societies.
All day long people work in corporations that teach them that their own worth is dependent on their ability to contribute to “the bottom line” of maximizing money and power. People quickly learn that their own ability to succeed requires learning how to see other people through a utilitarian or instrumental frame: “how can these others be of use to me in showing the people who have power over my employment that I am going to be useful to them in terms of contributing to their bottom line?” People who spend all day long learning how to use others to maximize their own advantage bring home with them a consciousness that tells them that “everyone is just out for themselves” and that it is self-destructive and irrational not to be a maximizer of self-interest.
It is this way of seeing each other that undermines loving families. Increasingly people make commitments to each other within this kind of utilitarian framework: “I’m with you as long as I think that you are able to satisfy MY NEEDS better than anyone else who is likely to want to be my partner or spouse.” Instead of seeing the other as an embodiment of the sacred who deserves to be loved and cherished, the legacy of the old bottom line of the marketplace is to teach us to think in terms of how others will satisfy our own needs, and to discard them if we can ever find someone who wills satisfy yet more of our needs.
No wonder, then, that so many people feel insecure in their families. And the homophobic sections of the Right have then used that insecurity to blame the problem on homosexuals. Yet there is nary a family that has ever broken up because there were homosexuals in the neighborhood.
Those of us who oppose the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage would be far more effective if we were to become the progressive pro-families movement that sought to advance a “New Bottom Line”: corporations, legislation, government practices, social institutions should be judged efficient, rational and productive not only to the extent that they maximize money and power, but also to the extent that they contribute to our capacities to be loving and caring, kind and generous, ethically and ecologically sensitive, and capable of responding to others as embodiments of the sacred and respond to the universe with awe and wonder.
Spiritual progressives could show that this New Bottom Line, when applied to our economic and social institutions, could actually make a difference to families, while no families at risk of break up will be helped by a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
The second objection to gay marriage comes from those who point to marriage as a holy sacrament whose dimensions have for most of human history been set by religious communities. They are correct, and for that very reason marriage ought to be taken out of the state entirely and replaced with civil unions with agreements like other contracts enforced by the state. Let all marriages be conducted in the private realm with no legal sanction by the state, and then those religious communities that oppose gay marriage will not sanction them, and those like mine that do sanction gay marriage will conduct them, and the state will have no say one way or the other, nor any role in issuing marriage certificates or divorces. It will enforce laws imposing obligations on pepople who bring children into the world, and it will enforce contracts between consenting adults (civil unions), but it will get out of the business of giving state sanction to what had always been a sacred sacrament.
This strategy could prove far more powerful. Imagine if we could create a culture of resistance to state power over personal life that led tens of millions of liberal heterosexuals to simply stop using the state’s marriage as a legitimator, and instead had spiritual ceremonies (some based in religious communities, others based in secular spiritual communities or friendship circles that affirmed marriage, using their own criteria for who could be married. These couples could then draw up their own legal contracts that were the equivalent of a "civil union" and enforceable by state laws just as any other contract would be. As this movement spread, the power of the state to accept or deny homosexual marraiges would become irrelevant, because gays and lesbians would be getting the same kind of marriage as everyone else--the one that heterosexuals were voluntarily getting in order to protect and identify with homosexuals. Within a decade this would create tremendous pressure on the state to either rescind its anti-homosexual legislation or validate this new kind of reality in which most people were not going to the state for marriages but instead going to their own spiritual community to insist that marriage is a sacred and not state-power-dependent relationship.
But of course in the meantime, with the struggle being waged in the public sphere to explicitly deny homosexuals the rights granted to heterosexuals, there needs to be a powerful movement against those offensive measures. If that struggle focused on the commitment of both hetero- and homosexuals to lead a campaign in defense of the family by challenging the Old Bottom Line and demanding changes in all our institutions to foster in us the capacities of love, caring, etc. that nurture our abilities to be loving, and rejecting the ethos of the marketplace that undermines those capacities, we’d be far more effective than with any struggle that was simply an attempt to demand "equal rights" and frame the struggle entirely in the language of "rights."
This approach is far more likely to be a winning strategy for those who wish to beat back the ongoing assault on gay rights.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine, National Chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP), Rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco, and author of ten books, most recently: The Left Hand of God:Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right .