On 6 December 2011, the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered what has been described as her historic speech on LGBT rights in Geneva. Clinton spoke eloquently and passionately about the unconscionable atrocities that LGBT people have suffered due to societal discrimination. She spoke of lesbian or trans-gendered women who were subjected to ‘corrective rape’ or hormone treatments against their will. She spoke also of gays who had to flee their nations in order to save their lives and forced to seek asylum elsewhere. And she spoke movingly of people who are denied equal access to justice and banned from public spaces because they are gay. ‘No matter what we look like, where we come from, or who we are’, she asserted emphatically in this wide ranging speech, ‘we are all equally entitled to our human rights and dignity’.
These unjust and cruel acts against men and women because of their sexual preferences must never be countenanced by any society. They are gross human rights violations that must be condemned, and their perpetrators must be brought to justice. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights promulgated in 1948 unequivocally states that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’ (Article 1). In Article 3 of the same document, we read: ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person’.
These principles are universal in that they should be applied to all human beings, regardless of race, gender, status, nationality, and sexual preferences. As I have argued elsewhere, Christians should have no difficulties embracing these principles because they resonate with the biblical teaching that every human being is created in the image of God, and must therefore be valued and respected (Genesis 1:26-28).
In her speech Clinton parrots the rather tired slogan that gay activists have repeatedly employed: ‘gays rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights’. There is, however, some truth in this slogan. Looked at from one angle, it simply states that gays have rights because they are human beings. But if this is true, why is there the need to speak of gay rights at all? Why not just speak about human rights? Why the need to make this distinction when gay rights and human rights mean the same thing and is nothing but a tautology? As it turns out, when gay activists speak of gay rights, they wish to emphasise certain rights that must be accorded to gays or LGBT people that society does not ordinarily recognise as a universal human right.
A case in point is the ongoing and often bewildering debate on gay marriage. For the Christian, the biblical and theological response to this issue is clear (or at least it should be). The Christian faith maintains that marriage is an institution ordained by God, and that everyone should have the right to marry (or the freedom not to). This principle is enshrined in Article 16 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which clearly states that: ‘Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family’.
Although the Christian understanding of human rights may be somewhat different from secular accounts, the Christian should have no problems with concurring fully with Article 16 of the Declaration. This basic principle surely applies to gays and lesbians.
But the Christian is opposed to replacing the traditional concept of marriage, which is the union of a man and a woman, with same-sex marriage. In the context of the discussion on human rights, we may put it this way: while everyone of full age has the right to marry, no one has the right to change the fundamental structure of marriage. The confusion in current discourse on gay marriage is that the redefinition of marriage itself – not just marriage – is presented as a right.
Thus, according to the Christian view, homosexuals have the right to marry members of the opposite sex. But no one has the right to redefine marriage, either for themselves or for a whole society. Many gays and lesbians have indeed married members of the opposite sex. No state or legal system has hitherto barred people with same sex preferences from marrying people of the opposite sex. In the same way, until very recently, no society throughout history has recognised or legalised same-sex marriage.
The traditional structure of marriage as the union between a man and a woman is older than the Church and the state. It is found in ancient societies, and, according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, it can be traced to the earliest history of man (Genesis 2:23-25). Revisionists have often failed to appreciate or ignored the fact that marriage has to do with more than the love and commitment of two people. It has primarily to do with its basic structure, namely, the union of a man and a woman.
As a result the debate on same-sex marriage is often obfuscated by invalid arguments, non sequiturs, and misleading analogies. They give the wrong impression that marriage is only about commitment and equality when in fact it has to do with much more. Just two examples of such erroneous approaches would suffice to bring this out.
The first is the argument that two adults who love each other and who have pledged their commitment to one another should be allowed to marry, even if they are of the same sex. This argument is often very persuasive, and when supplemented by the observation that heterosexual marriages sometimes end up in divorce because of lack of love and commitment on the part of the parties involved, the argument is made all the more compelling. But this argument fails because marriage is more than just love and commitment, important though they are.
The second example is inter-racial marriage, which was once despised because of racism and discrimination. Gay activists have often used this as an analogy, sometimes with good rhetorical effect. Just as the prohibition of inter-racial marriage is an inexcusable act of discrimination, so the argument goes, so is the ban against same-sex marriage. But this analogy fails because inter-racial marriage does not transgress the basic structure of marriage in the way same-sex marriage does. As Robert George, et el point out in their excellent article, ‘What is Marriage?’, in the case of inter-racial marriages, the ‘antimiscegenation was about whom to allow to marry, not what marriage is essentially about’. In both cases, the fundamental nature of marriage as the union between a man and a woman is ignored.
To conclude, if ‘gay rights are human rights’, as Clinton and many others have insisted, then there is a sense in which it is superfluous to speak of ‘gay rights’ at all. Its persistent use by gay activists, therefore, must signal that some else is afoot, a surreptitious agenda. It appears that gay activists are attempting to push the envelope through the language of rights. This is seen in the debate on same-sex marriage, where the goal is nothing short of the redefinition of marriage. Christians – and many outside the Christian community – maintain that no one has the right to do this.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today (June 2013).