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Tuesday, June 6, 2006
The Marriage Protection Amendment, Part III

Here I discuss a recent letter from the First Presidency of the LDS Church, which doesn't say exactly what a lot of folks think it says, and list a host of reasons thinking people might cite for opposing both gay marriage and the Marriage Protection Amendment.

This is Part III of a short series of articles on the Marriage Protection Amendment and, more broadly, the question of reinforcing or expanding the legal definition of marriage. Part I looked at the proposed amendment itself and some procedural details. Part II began our journey through the reasons people give, or might give, for their support or opposition. That journey continues here.

For Latter-day Saints (Mormons): Did the Church Tell Us to Oppose the Amendment?

The First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Church's presiding council, sent a letter to be read to all congregations in the United States. We read it in mine on Sunday, May 28. It briefly summarized the Church's doctrine that the only proper marriage is that of one man and one woman. (The historical polygamy thing is a topic for another day.) Then they asked us to do something.

Most of the folks I've heard talking about the letter think they told us to contact our senators and demand that they support the Marriage Protection Amendment. That's not what I heard or read. Look at this excerpt from the letter and see what you think:

In 1995 we issued a Proclamation to the World on this matter, and have repeatedly reaffirmed that position.

In that proclamation we said: "We call upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society."

We urge our members to express themselves on this urgent matter to their elected representatives in the Senate.

They could easily have said something like, "We urge our members to express this view to their elected representatives in the Senate." But they didn't. They said members should express themselves.

You might think I'm splitting hairs, here, but I'm not. These statements are carefully worded.

I'm fairly confident that the majority of Church members who contact their senators about this will support the Church's position, but some -- probably a significant minority -- will not. Besides the fact that the Church is tolerant of diverse political views among its members, I think there's more going on here. The First Presidency clearly has a position on this issue, but I think promoting that position in the form of the proposed amendment is not their only motive. I think the message is as much or more, "Whatever your view, get involved in the debate," than it is, "This amendment is how things must be."

There are some very astute political minds in the Church Administration Building, so the substance of the next section of my discussion here will surely have crossed their minds.

Is the Definition of Marriage Something the Government Should Decide or Impose?

Some folks oppose the Marriage Protection Amendment because they favor gay marriage and think the government should allow it. This is obvious and requires no further discussion in this context. Some people favor the amendment because they oppose gay marriage and think their government should, too. This, too, is obvious and requires no further attention here. The most interesting common case is the person who opposes both gay marriage and the amendment. In the LDS Church's terms, these are the people who don't see the proposed amendment as a measure which will "maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society."

Some things simply are not the government's business, true. But marriage is. Local governments issue marriage licenses, subject to state regulations, so marriage is definitely the government's business. But it's not that simple, either. Some of the thorniest and most delicate questions about the proper bounds of government occur where government intersects with the family. And when you throw religion into the mix, matters only get more complex.

In fact, where the family is concerned, in such matters as marriage and adoption, governments in the United States have tended to allow churches to share their authority in limited ways, in cases where individuals wish it to be so. This is not as scary as it sounds. I simply refer to the facts that ministers are authorized by the state to perform marriages -- I have performed them in New York and Utah -- and that church organizations are often licensed to handle adoptions. (In both cases a secular avenue also exists.)

Some thinking people oppose gay marriage but also oppose the Marriage Protection Amendment. Their reasons vary, but include at least the following:

  • They don't think government should impose a narrow definition of marriage. This is a reasonable position; a fundamental premise of free society is that government should not forbid everything which might be bad for individuals or for society in general. Genuine freedom includes the freedom to choose self-destruction (even if it's not a wise choice).
  • They think the federal government has no business removing this matter from the states' jurisdiction. This is a reasonable position; federalism -- our multilevel scheme of government, with local, state, and national governments -- is an essential structural defense of our freedoms.
  • They think not that we should never legislate morality (see above), but that the government ought to keep its nose out of something so essentially personal as one's chosen (yes, I said chosen) sexual identity. This view of limited government, too, is a rational position, though it is not mine.
  • They think the proposed amendment will not have the desired effect or will produce side-effects more harmful than gay marriage itself. Ineffective legislation is quite common. Sometimes it is (openly or deceitfully) intended to be merely symbolic, and I wonder, what's the point? Moreover, unintended consequences are the stuff of politics everywhere. In this case, I don't know what those terrible unintended consequences might be, but others may have ideas. (Note that I come to my position on anti-abortion legislation -- a position which surprises some -- through concern for very predictable side-effects and an awareness that government is not the only available engine of change.)
  • They think that the proper or effective way to oppose gay marriage is through moral persuasion, not government force. I'm not sure this is untrue; I am sure it is rational.
  • They fear the amendment's defeat, either on Capitol Hill or, if it goes that far, by the states, and think that a defeat would only give further momentum to the activist gay agenda. Like the other reasons listed, this is rational. The deck is stacked against new amendments by design. If 66 of 100 senators vote for the amendment and 34 vote against -- a large majority in favor -- it still fails. If 289 representatives vote yea and 146 vote nay -- another large majority -- it fails. And if it passes on the Hill, and then 37 state legislatures ratify it, but 13 don't, it fails.
  • They think that a different political tactic or a different time might yield a greater or more likely victory. (Come to think of it, there are probably some proponents of gay marriage who would prefer that this issue not come to a vote for a few more years, because they think the time is not yet ripe.)

I'm not saying that the only sensible position for opponents of gay marriage is to oppose the Marriage Protection Act. I'm just saying that those who do oppose it have a case, too. This is far from a no-brainer. As for the LDS First Presidency, their commitment to the family as the basic organization of society is beyond question. But I think we also ought to note with approval and appreciation that their commitment to democratic government and their respect for diverse political opinions is very deep indeed. Here is part of an official Church statement dated April 24, 2006, on the same issue:

Because national campaigns on moral, social or political issues often become divisive, the Church urges those who participate in public debate -- including its own members -- to be respectful of each other. While disagreements on matters of principle may be deeply held, an atmosphere of civility and mutual respect is most conducive to the strength of a democratic society.


Next time I'll tell you what considerations sway me on this issue, and in which direction.

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