September 2015 Pulse
On 24 May 2015, the citizens of Ireland voted to legalise same-sex marriage, making the predominantly Roman Catholic country the first in the world to do so by popular vote. 1,201,607 or 61% of the voters said ‘Yes’ to same-sex marriage in a landmark referendum, while 734,300 voted against.
Ireland’s political leaders of every stripe were united in welcoming the decision. Prime Minister Edna Kenny said that the vote ‘disclosed who we are – a generous, compassionate, bold and joyful people.’ Deputy Prime Minister Joan Burton agreed and called it a ‘magical, moving moment’, while Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said that it was ‘a huge day for equality.’
The Irish referendum has much to teach us about religion, culture, morality and public opinion.
But the one important lesson that stands out is that this incident makes clear that, despite its obvious merits, the democratic process does not guarantee that morality will be upheld and that democracy in and by itself is unable to provide a clear moral compass for society.
One glaringly obvious weakness of the democratic process and indeed of democracy itself is that it is premised on opinions. Voters may feel that they are in control because of their active participation in a process that allows them to determine the outcome by choosing from an array of options and viewpoints. But in reality, it is those who set the agendas – sometimes by reducing complex issues to simplistic sound bites – that are in control.
In a sense, voting is akin to the capitalist economic system that is often allied to democracy. The producers dictate the agenda, and the consumers are simply taken up in choosing from the different opinions available in the competitive marketplace of ideas.
In addition, the sloganeering that sometimes accompanies the democratic process often obscures and obfuscates important issues even as it impedes rational deliberation on these issues.
For example, supporters of same-sex marriage portray themselves as passionate and uncompromising champions of equality. Same-sex marriage is all about equality, they emphatically declare. It is about allowing two people who love each other to enter into this union called marriage regardless of their sex or gender.
The traditional view of marriage, they insist, violates the principle of equality because it discriminates against same-sex couples who wish to get married. They therefore often compare laws against same-sex marriage with antimiscegenation laws that support the unjust system of white supremacy by prohibiting interracial marriage.
But the analogy to antimiscegenation, and with it the appeal to equality, fails on a fundamental point. Antimiscegenation has to do with whom one is allowed to marry, and not with what marriage is essentially about. The issue with same-sex marriage, however, concerns the essential meaning of marriage.
Put differently, antimiscegenation laws are not put in place to change the fundamental definition of marriage. They are there in order to prevent the possibility of a genuine interracial marriage from being realised or recognised.
The same-sex marriage debate is different. By insisting that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, the proponents of same-sex marriage are not simply expanding the pool of people eligible to marry; they are redefining marriage itself.
In using the analogy of antimiscegenation, supporters of same-sex marriage are in fact implying that race and sex are equally relevant to the essence of marriage.
This assertion is simply false! Race is never relevant to the intrinsic nature of marriage. Sex, however, always is.
In addition, if equality is the only basis for determining who can marry whom, then proponents of same-sex marriage must also support open, temporary, polygynous, polyandrous, polyamorous and incestuous unions as long as they are between or among consenting adults who love each other.
Rational argument and sound judgement are sometimes submerged under the loud sloganeering, aggressive lobbying and charged emotions that many times accompany the so-called democratic process.
For the Christian, marriage is not a social or legal construct. It is a special covenantal relationship between a man and a woman instituted by God (Genesis 2:22-24). In this union called marriage, the man and the woman are permanently and exclusively committed to one another.
Marriage provides the proper relational context for the man and the woman who have become ‘one flesh’ to bear and rear children. It is not only a union that makes procreation possible, but it also provides the natural social order for children to be raised and nurtured.
The structure of marriage is so basic that it is found universally across cultures and religious traditions. As Robert George has rightly pointed out, ‘the demands of our common human nature have shaped (however imperfectly) all of our religious traditions to recognise this natural institution.’
If this is indeed the case, the question that must be put to modern societies is whether the meaning and structure of marriage can be radically revised by a ballot box? Or, to put the question differently and more generically, can morality be democratized?
The answer must surely be ‘No’. The Christian understanding of human sinfulness suggests that morality must be based on more impeccable foundations than the fleeting views of the majority. Human sexuality, marriage and the structure of the family must be established on the design and purposes of the Creator.
As Robert Kraynak has so perceptively put it in his intriguing and provocative book, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: ‘We must face the disturbing dilemma that modern liberal democracy needs God, but God is not as liberal or as democratic as we would like Him to be.’
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.