We need to resist Cameron’s privatisation of marriage
The recent CSM contribution to the redefinition of marriage debate by Tom Harris MP has been helpful in stimulating Christians on the left to get involved, and the characteristically gracious and intelligent response by Malcolm Brown provides some useful pointers.
As a ‘recovering evangelical’ Tom makes much of his experience of faith. For myself, as a Labour party member and a practising Christian (hoping one day I’ll get it right) from a very atheistic background, I’m probably best described as a ‘recovering human being’ or even a ‘lapsed heretic’.
So, what’s happening with this debate, and what do Christians on the left have to contribute? Following David Cameron’s announcement that he was going to introduce ‘gay marriage’, the Home Office has run a sham consultation on the issue (sham because it was about how and not whether the law should be changed). Misleadingly named the ‘consultation on equal marriage’ (misleading because marriage is not presently unequal, it is complimentary between two sexes), the misleading rational was to ‘lift the ban on same-sex couple getting married’ (misleading because same-sex couples have never been banned from marriage because it has always required a union between a man and a woman). Constantly seeking to frame the issue as being about ‘equality of rights’, our detached, ruling, liberal elites have pursued their agenda with what can best be described as ‘ruthless naivety’.
Cameron says that he wants to ‘extend’ marriage to same-sex couples because we need more loving relationships, but adultery is incompatible with marriage because it is not possible to have three people in a marriage. Marriage is therefore not just about 'commitment' and 'love'.
Cameron says that marriage should be a ‘right’ for same-sex people, but civil partnerships (which Labour should take credit for introducing) already provide for all the rights of marriage – so what injustice is being remedied?
Importantly, the rights argument reflects a common error of secular politics, namely a confusing of equality with uniformity – a flat-ironing of human distinctiveness by proposing sameness. In terms of extending the right to marry to same-sex couples, this is like saying ‘football is clearly a more popular sport than basketball, so we want basketball to now be called football’. The point being that football is football, and basketball is basketball. They are different, and their difference does not require a value judgment.
It seems that, over the secular century the left has progressively forgotten that marriage is a social good – not a just another private contract between consenting adults. As the life-long union of a man and a woman for the procreation of children, it is one of the few solid foundations that the poor can build on. The governments’ proposals reflect a long-running liberal political agenda of pitting individual rights claims against any social institutions. Critically, in the name of consumer choice they would see marriage change from being about children to being about adults (the consultation fails to mention anywhere the impact on children or their human rights to be brought up by their birth parents).
If only the left could see that Cameron is a neo-liberal looking for ways to align economic liberalism with social liberalism. His obsession with the libertarian paternalism of the ‘nudge’ book by the economists Sunstein and Thaler has even resulted in a unit for behavioural sciences being established in the Cabinet Office. Indeed, it should worry us all that the penultimate chapter of his favourite read is entitled: ‘privatizing marriage’. This social engineering is not about simply adding something to the institution of marriage. It is a wholesale redefinition that is being proposed – a redefinition in which consumer choice supplants the role of the state – a role which should be caretaker, not headmaster. As Archbishop Sentamu has observed:
“Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman, I don’t think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are”.
Even so, in playing politics with marriage it seems that, as Cameron seeks to gain new friends, he is losing many of his old friends. It was the New Statesman that noted that the local elections where decided by abstentions, and the abstentions where decided by the ‘gay marriage’ issue. With Tory party membership over 60% down since the general election, the faithful are leaving in their droves. Yet, although the Tories are staring into the abyss, the Labour Party is conveniently staring into an open goal. As our political obsession for supporting rights-claiming individuals against (any) social institutions continues unabated, the left responds with only silence or nonsense. While this issue further dissolves our solidarity with the poor and the religious (many of whom are the same people) it seems that we are heading towards a US-style culture war scenario – and therein a left largely consigned to representing an ever diminishing secular humanist constituency.
If indeed, ‘there is such a thing as society’, who will provide some vision for a plural and democratic future in which the dignity of difference is respected and in which a common good can be articulated? As far as my upbringing in Liverpool has shown me, the left should not be about increasing the individual rights of those with the wealth and education to enjoy them while being evermore unaccountable. The reason the left exists is to help the poor – to support working people and their families. Marriage is a stable, trans-generational social good that predates the state and even predates Christianity. Among working class communities, it’s not hard to imagine how redefining it to include same-sex couples would further diminish, not enhance the institution as a social aspiration.
As for the hermeneutical ambiguity that was displayed in Tom’s article and some other contributions on this subject, let’s be clear here: In the beginning God created … marriage. We are made in the image of a Trinitarian God – a God of different, but equal and complimentary parts. This pre-fall, physical-spiritual compatibility of a man and a woman is strongly affirmed by Jesus. Notably, starting (and finishing) his ministry at a wedding, when quoting the marriage model of Genesis, Jesus prefaces the scripture with the fact that we are gendered beings – men and women – and he cites this as the reason that we have marriage (Matthew 19:4-6). The consequence of which is that marriage would not exist without difference in gender. In other words, this is a spiritual-universal thing and two of the same simply cannot become one.
This is why, as an expression of God’s eternal nature – unity and complimentary difference – marriage is centrally important to Christians of all stripes who take seriously who God is and what he says.
Putting aside Tom’s preoccupation with homosexuality; the oft deployed literal/levitical thing, and his erroneous division of civil and religious marriage, it is heartening that he concludes his contribution by acknowledging that he no longer bothers to even try and square his own liberal views with scripture. This frankness would be laudable but for the fact that this is precisely what he attempts to do in the article. Tom’s entirely right that no-one wants a theocracy, but as Pope Benedict observed in Westminster Hall last year: ‘What will be the ethical basis upon which we make our political decisions?’ Given that secular neutrality is a myth, neither do we want a ‘seculocracy’ imposed upon our social relations.
The Christian left should vocally be defending marriage; not supporting it’s re-packaging for consumer choice. At the very least, with an attitude of grace, we should be speaking truth to power.
 See: Julian Rivers (2011) ‘Uniformity or mutuality? The new equality law in Christian perspective’, Cambridge Papers, Vol 20, Number 3, September 2011: http://www.jubilee-centre.org/document.php?id=420
 Sunstein, N & Thaler, C (2008) Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Yale University Press, USA
Dave Landrum, 10/08/2012