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The Iona Blog

Too big an issue to surrender

Author: Tom O'Gorman
Date: 26th June 2012

The news that David Blankenhorn, a leading defender of marriage, has decided to stop arguing against same-sex marriage, is very disappointing.

In a column in the New York Times, he said he took the decision “in the interest of comity”, and with a view to creating alliances with people interested in building stronger families.

He writes: “So my intention is to try something new. Instead of fighting gay marriage, I’d like to help build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same.

“For example, once we accept gay marriage, might we also agree that marrying before having children is a vital cultural value that all of us should do more to embrace? Can we agree that, for all lovers who want their love to last, marriage is preferable to cohabitation?

“Can we discuss whether both gays and straight people should think twice before denying children born through artificial reproductive technology the right to know and be known by their biological parents?”

In other words, Blankenhorn feels that, by giving ground on the same-sex marriage issue, he can win some allies on these other issues.

Writing in the Public Discourse website, Maggie Gallagher, a friend of Blankenhorn, expresses the hope that his wish is granted.

But there are a few problems with his new stance.

The first is that marriage is too important to allow it to be redefined for the sake of a peaceful life. And Blankenhorn himself understands clearly why it is so important.

Gallagher's own blog makes this point eloquently: “Institutions, David taught me, arise to address social problems. If a problem is merely individual and personal, individuals solve or don’t solve their personal problem. Nothing is at stake for the larger society so they are left on their own, in freedom, to succeed or fail at solving their problem.

“Social institutions arise to address social problems: when the problem is big enough and affects the good of the whole society, individuals aren’t just left on their own to figure out for themselves where the good lies. Social institutions arise and are embedded in a matrix of public norms that serve to direct the minds and the hearts of individuals toward some urgently necessary good.

“The problem that marriage as a social institution is designed to address is that sexual unions of male and female create children. Only in and through marriage will these children come to know the care and love of both their parents.”

Blankenhorn's own life's work had revolved around the insight that children need both a mother and a father. But if we redefine marriage, we're sending a message to the culture that marriage is not about ensuring that as many children as possible are raised by their biological mother and father. Instead, we send the message that marriage is about state recognition of the sexual love between two adults.

The second problem is that the other issues that Blankenhorn continues to uphold (his insistence that children fare better in marriage and his opposition to children being conceived by assisted reproduction technology) are also controversial. Many consider that these stances are also intolerant and motivated by irrational prejudice. Why draw the line on these issues, and cede the same-sex marriage point?

Will comity end up forcing him to cede all these other issues too?

The third point is that Blankenhorn's reversal seems to have been, at least in part, a reaction to the abuse he received in response to the testimony he gave in the Proposition 8 case, defending the amendment to the Californian constitution which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.

In an interview explaining his stance, he says that some of his former friends attacked him: “I had an old community organizing buddy who wrote a note to me after the trial and said how does it feel to be America’s most famous bigot?

"I used to think you were a good person. Now I know you’re a bad person. How does it feel to know that your tombstone will read that you’re just a bigot? My response to him is not repeatable on radio, but I told him what I thought he could do with those thoughts … but it was very painful.

"Now, you’re asking is there a fear that it’s true? Well, don’t you think any person who is at all self-reflective would have to worry about that? Sure, I think anybody would, and so I think I probably do, too. Sure, wouldn’t anybody if people were saying this about you?”

The problem is that Blankenhorn's reaction encourages just this sort of bullying. As Maggie Gallagher points out, his change of position “will be treated as a recantation and his own voice will be drowned out by people who claim to speak in his name to say things he does not believe”.

Gallagher sums it up best: “But here’s what I want to say to David and to you: a comity that is bought by surrendering principle is submission, not comity at all. The truth about something as important as marriage cannot be the price we pay to live with each other.

“The challenge of our time—and it is a deep challenge, not an easy one—is to find new ways to combine truth and love. Giving up marriage is too high a price to pay. And it is not the last good we will be asked to surrender, unless we find the courage to stand.”

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