Earlier this week, Aaron Taylor published a thoughtful essay commenting on Thabiti Anyabwile's recent article "The Importance of Your Gag Reflex When Discussing Homosexuality and ‘Gay Marriage.’"
Let me begin by saying that I agree with Taylor, albeit for slightly different reasons, that Anyabwile's approach is not a sound (or charitable) one. His approach misses the mark because, as has been pointed out time and again, the current marriage debate is not about homosexuality—its genetic origins, morality, or social acceptance—but is about two competing visions of marriage: the conjugal view and the revisionist (or companionate) view, of which same-sex marriage is the most recent (and radical) expression to date.
My larger point of divergence with Taylor stems from other claims he makes in his piece, as well as comments that we exchanged in its aftermath. Here, I'd like to response more fully to that brief discussion.
To begin with his piece itself, Taylor asserts that
[t]his is one reason why so many attempts by Christians to present a defense of traditional marriage in “non-religious terms” fail abysmally. Arguments presented in non-religious language often still rely on a whole series of presumptions which are incomprehensible to non-Christians, and just because you’ve managed to make a case without the explicit use of theological terminology, it does not mean that a case has been made that is actually understandable and convincing to anyone except other Christians (I can’t be the only who has noticed that almost no non-religious defenses of traditional marriage are actually written by non-religious people).
I don't strictly disagree with this statement, but it invites qualification and further reflection on why defenses of "traditional marriage" are failing, and what should and should not be done about it.
Taylor advances the argument in his essay that our defense of "traditional marriage" (a term I myself find unhelpful and avoid using, for reasons I explain here) should be replaced by an explicit apology for "Christian marriage" (his emphasis), in part because our "solely non-religious reasons" for defending "traditional marriage" are actually implicit religious principles. Thus he concludes,
This is how Christianity shows its “reasonableness” in the public forum. Not by pretending it isn’t Christianity, but by showing that Christianity is, as Justin Martyr was fond of saying, “the true philosophy.”
I countered that reducing "traditional marriage" to an "essentially religious concept" would be counterproductive for the marriage effort, because (as Taylor and I agree and have written about elsewhere) the sort of framework or philosophy to which such an attempt would appeal is fundamentally lost on most people, especially in a modernity shaped and saturated by materialistic physicalism.
But more importantly, asserting that defenses of "traditional marriage" are in reality just concealed (albeit unbeknownst to their makers) appeals to religious concepts and reasons undermines and misrepresents the reasonableness of what is, especially on the Christian account, a human or natural institution long before it was (chronologically) a religious one and is (ontologically) a sacramental one. Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas sums this argument up nicely:
The natural institution of marriage, which exists for the good of nature to perpetuate the race, and is governed by natural law, is also a social institution, which exists for the good of society to perpetuate family and state, and is governed by civil law, and this can be raised to a sacrament, which exists for the good of the church to perpetuate Christianity, and is governed by divine law (Summa Contra Gentiles Book IV Ch. 78).
The authors of What is Marriage? sound the same refrain:
[O]ur argument makes no appeal to divine revelation or religious authority. There is simple and decisive evidence that the conjugal view is not peculiar to religion, or to any religious tradition. To be sure, the world's major religions have historically seen marriage as a conjugal relationship, shaped by its role in binding men to women and both to the children born of their union. But this suggest only that no one religion invented marriage. It is rather marriage—the demands of a natural institution—that has helped shape our religious and philosophical traditions (pp. 10-11).
As the same aforementioned book points out lucidly and unarguably, the legal and philosophical traditions of marriage that Taylor wants to call veiled appeals to "Christian" presuppositions both precede and—though often running parallel to—are distinct from Christian understandings of marriage: that is, understandings of marriage derived from knowledge that is only accessible through acts of divine revelation and is transmitted by religious authority.
Taylor then questioned whether a non-Christian could "have a teleological worldview," to which he answered, it's possible but not likely. He then concluded that given that non-Christians struggle to grasp the public reasons offered in defense of marriage, we ought to come out and acknowledge that those arguments do indeed rely on Christian principles.
His point here invites clarification. The question of whether natural principles of teleology must be ontologically dependent on a supernatural director is a contested one; avowed atheist Thomas Nagel makes a recent and interesting case for the negative in his Mind and Cosmos; most Christians, myself included, would say "yes."
But the question of whether belief in whatever principles are implicated in the defense of the conjugal arguments about body-soul composites, biological coordination and procreative structure—call them teleological principles if you will—is epistemologically dependent on belief in God (let alone the biblical God) is a non-question; these realities are knowable in principle upon rational reflection, and have been accepted by almost all the world until very recently.
Do many non-Christians, or non-religious persons, buy the conjugal view of marriage?
Not many contemporaries do, though there are some. But more importantly, as What is Marriage? points out, many people living prior to the birth of Christ—and who had no contact with or knowledge of the divine and historical revelations unfolding in the midst of the people Israel—did.
I propose that it is a particularly modern intellectual impoverishment that underlies most persons' failure to grasp what heretofore been common sense for centuries if not millennia—that marriage is "based on the anthropological truth that men and women are different and complementary, the biological fact that reproduction depends on a man and a woman, and the social reality that children need both a mother and a father."
Taylor argues that we should be open about our "Christian motivations" for defending marriage, instead of being "the Christian who strains the bounds of credulity by claiming he is defending marriage for solely non-religious reasons."
This is a conflation of separate things. Nobody need be bashful about his faith informing his motivations and views, nor surrender his beliefs as irrational. That doesn't mean that one can't simultaneously argue—in consonance with the teachings of one's faith—that publicly-available (non-religious) reasons exist for defending conjugal marriage and that a compelling case can be made for marriage simply by appeal to those reasons, religious reasons notwithstanding.
In relation to this point, Taylor also argued in our exchange that
[b]y claiming that we are defending marriage for solely “non-religious reasons,” we simply lend support to the prevailing cultural prejudice that religion is a) irrational and b) a private matter that has no place in public life. Is this something that we really want to be doing as Christians?
But there is a vast difference between defending marriage for solely "non-religious reasons" and defending marriage with solely "non-religious reasons." In any case, many avid supporters of same-sex marriage defend it for, and with, explicitly religious reasons.
I see nothing wrong with defending marriage for solely religious reasons, and I see no reason why anyone should blush at acknowledging that he does, though such a person ought to be brought to see the broader reasons for doing so.
I also see nothing wrong with that same person defending marriage with non-religious reasons, if he thought it most prudent; and this juxtaposition of reasons-for and with-reasons in no ways constitutes deceit, dis-integrity, self-unawareness, or bad faith.
Again, from What is Marriage?:
We think it right and proper to make religious arguments for or against marriage policy (or policies on capital punishment, say, or immigration), but we offer no religious arguments here (p. 10, their emphasis).
It is perfectly valid to introduce certain truths—truths that are per se accessible to and graspable by human reason unaided by divine revelation or the transmission of that revelation by religious authorities—into public policy discussions. Why wouldn't it be? Why would a truth's being claimed not only by non-religious people, but also by people who are religious, disqualify it from participation in public discourse?
Finally, Taylor concludes with
Yes, an integral defense of Christian marriage has a limited cultural purchase, but given that the current approach taken by many traditional marriage defenders of relying on statistics and ubiquitous social science “studies” (which they treat with quasi-scriptural authority) has a) spectacularly failed, and b) resulted in everyone thinking Christians are bigots, is it really likely that the approach I advocate could be any *less* successful than the current one?
I can't speak for "many traditional marriage defenders," but I quote (in full merit) from What is Marriage? that
both social science and history play merely supporting roles in our argument. Children's need for intact families, amply confirmed by social science, is the hook that pulls the law into regulating marriage in the first place.
But once the state decides to recognize marriage at all, it is obligated to get marriage, right, so as to avoid obscuring its distinctive structure and value.
Our argument for that structure and value is mainly philosophical, and merely supported by social science at two points:
First, the outcomes of different parenting arrangements tend to support our argument that a man and woman's sexual relationship is specially related to rearing children.
Second, the practices of different kinds of relationships support our argument that male-female unions call for permanent and exclusive commitment—that there is a rational basis for these norms, quite apart from the spouses' preference—in a way that isn't true of other bonds (pp. 10-11).
As to the "bigots" comment: Anyone who is called a bigot for seeing the difference between male and female and for holding that male-female sexual-romantic relationships are different in kind from male-male sexual-romantic relationships, ought not feel too badly about that.
Prudence must always be at the service of truth. In my own opinion, defenders of conjugal marriage need to streamline and unify their intellectual approach to the debate and model it after the arguments espoused in What is Marriage?, but that won't be enough. Varied, creative and artistic efforts too are needed. A second look at our own sexual practices is essential as well.
Yes, we ought to strive to "raise the tone of public discussion," and should not "frame our case in secular utilitarian terms," but such a phrase does not describe the best marriage defenses currently being made, which identify marriage as an irreducible (i.e. not contingent) good, acknowledge the validity of religious reasons, and employ—as correlative expressions of philosophical truths—social science and data.
But to identify something as unnecessary (or even detrimental) just because it's insufficient will only hurt the good that needs supplementing.