I’m not a lawyer, and I’m enough of an oldish fogey to harbor lingering beliefs (prejudices?) that the best formula for child-rearing, all else equal (and that’s a really big qualifier in this instance), is a heterosexual “traditional” marriage. But the marriage equality issue is not about my own individual preferences and hunches – or anyone else’s. More important, the more I think about the issue, the clearer it becomes that what should trump all other aspects of the marriage equality issue that the Supreme Court largely settled yesterday is a consideration that seems largely overlooked.
As made stunningly clear by the reactions of marriage equality supporters, and particularly those in the LGBT population, the Court has just provided the nation with a terrific yardstick for judging public policy: Any government decision that makes this many people so thoroughly overjoyed for all the right reasons boasts a powerful claim to be the law of the land.
This isn’t an argument for authorizing government at any level to satisfy the desires of every individual or group, no matter how numerous or large, whenever political or social or cultural or economic forces line up in their favor. Much less is it an argument for any overriding human right to happiness. It is instead an argument to appreciate the form of happiness the Court has just made possible.
It’s not happiness at the expense of the material possessions or rights of any individuals or groups. It’s not happiness that directly or intrinsically denigrates or insults anyone or any collective or institution. It’s not happiness that rewards hatred or selfishness or shortsightedness or hatred or jealousy or lust or greed or any other sins, deadly or otherwise, that I can think of, on the individual or group level.
Yes, there’s a case that it validates selfishness and shortsightedness – in the sense that it threatens a vital underpinning of any successful (and ultimately, enduringly happy) society. It’s not a case that should be dismissed out of hand, either. But it’s imperative to recognize that it’s a case based on nothing more than speculation. And any intellectually honest invocation of this future possibility must also recognize that the evidence of an outbreak of moral and social decay tied to the legalization of marriage equality where it had hitherto been established is pretty meager, if it exists at all. Such evidence is similarly threadbare at best in those U.S. states where same sex couples have existed for many years even though lacking the new rights and protections created yesterday.
Moreover, on the other side of this ledger must be placed the virtues that the Supreme Court decision reinforces, that the favorable popular reactions celebrate, that exist in the here and now, and that are surely not passing fancies – like love, and strong, stable families, not to mention liberty, equality, and dignity. In other words, the kind of happiness created by the marriage equality decision is the kind we could use a lot more of.
More specific, and more easily addressed, is the claim that Judeo-Christian values undergirded America’s founding and remain its essential moral lodestars. I actually agree, contrary to libertarian thought, that any successful and decent society, even one that (rightly) prioritizes individual liberty, needs a shared (though necessarily general, given this nation’s size and diversity) moral consensus. And though they aren’t perfect, the evidence abounds that Judeo-Christian values have been an excellent choice. Looking around the world, I don’t seem too many societies not based on these beliefs where I’d like to live.
But it should be abundantly clear by now that the ancient Old and New Testaments have been much better at identifying worthy, and indeed transcendent, guides for individual behavior than at identifying which political and social institutions should be created and maintained. Nor should anyone be surprised. Their teachings originated at a time when democracy or any form of popularly accountable government was barely known, where slavery was common, and where polygamy was often the norm. Indeed, many leading Old Testament figures were polygamists and slaveholders. That’s not the case with the New Testament. But no offense intended to my Christian friends, that isn’t the only Testament, it’s not mine, and it deserves no official status in this country.
Interestingly, I just came across an evangelical website that tries to explain and justify the above Old Testament feature by arguing that all of its bigamists and polygamist ran into some form of major trouble, or their descendants did. Therefore, the Lord clearly disapproved. But here’s what certainly much more important: None of these figures was consigned to damnation or any form of eternal punishment, or even vilification because of how their marriages were structured. Indeed, in my Sunday school classes, they were treated as honorable patriarchs who (of course) displayed some entirely human failings. Why don’t Americans today who also choose to form non-traditional marriages deserve the same tolerance and understanding?
Indeed, that point made by the website, and the Old Testament, about complications, is worth keeping in mind by all sides of the marriage equality debate. There will inevitably be complications, unforeseen consequences, and even counterproductive results. Broad social and economic change tends to work that way. The above interpretation of the Old Testament suggests that the Creator recognized that, and even so was more than willing to continue the story of humanity, and of these individuals.
This Divine decision in fact strongly reminds of a leading view of justice – as involving a weighing of the scales. This concept, which is surely on target, inherently holds that for the most part, an admirable system of justice doesn’t, and perhaps can’t, seek verdicts that achieve perfect results. Instead, it seeks results in which the good achieved exceeds the problems created. The jubilation touched off by the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision, and the lack of visible, remotely comparable downsides, adds up to compelling evidence that the Justices in the majority got this balancing act right.