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Let us have gay marriage – but not yet!

by Sean Gabb

Bearing in mind its nature, I think anyone who writes about the gay marriage Bill, now before Parliament, has more than a usual obligation to be honest about his underlying beliefs. Mine are easily stated. I have never shared or understood the moral prejudice against homosexual acts. Even as a boy, I thought the legal penalties were unjust. A quarter of a century ago, I wrote an essay in which, among much else, I called for gay marriage to be allowed. I have a long and consistent, and open, record on gay issues.

I have not changed my mind. Ignoring the attendant circumstances, I am still in favour of gay marriage. If two consenting adults want to live together in close union, and can find a consenting minister of religion to bless their union, who are we to object? I will make the same point about polygamy, polyandry, incest, or any other kind of union between consenting adults. Indeed, I believe Shiite Islam allows marriages for a fixed term. Given free consent, I see no problem with that. To a libertarian, the sole function of state marriage laws is to offer individuals a package of legal agreements and declarations that they could make for themselves if they wanted to find the money and time. I accept that there are religious dimensions to heterosexual marriage, and that there are utilitarian benefits, so far as strong and stable families give meaning to our lives and are a counterbalance to what might otherwise be the overwhelming power of the State. But these religious dimensions are something for religious believers to embrace. As for the utilitarian benefits, I cannot see how opening the package of legal agreements and declarations to other than monogamous heterosexuals should, in itself, weaken family life. If two men are allowed to get married in front of a priest, I just cannot see how this devalues my own civil marriage. I also accept that gay marriage is not part of our traditions, and that tradition – especially the traditions of English civilisation – should not be attacked. But tradition is not a static force. It changes in the light of new facts. Changes in the law regarding homosexuality have largely followed changes in the social acceptance of homosexuality. David Cameron is nearly as despicable as the three Prime Ministers who preceded him. But there is much sense in his call for conservatives to support gay marriage not in spite of their beliefs but because of them. We are not talking about the abolition of marriage, and the bringing up of all children in state orphanages. All that should be involved, I repeat, is the opening of a package of legal agreements and declarations to other than monogamous heterosexuals. As for recognition of such unions, I see no problem in itself. The principle is that legal facts must be taken into account in any matter where the legal status of individuals becomes relevant. Let us suppose that I am a doctor who undertakes to save a man’s life. Let us further suppose that he needs an operation, but is unconscious. I must then get the consent of his next of kin. Do I approach his male partner? Or do I announce that I find his union abhorrent and start looking for his nearest blood relative? It is the same if I am administering a pension fund or an insurance company. One of my clients dies. Do I make payment to his male partner? Or, once more, do I look for someone else? The answer is that I must take account of his marriage. It would be the same if he had a black wife, or a disabled wife, or an unfaithful wife, or any other wife of whom I might disapprove. Indeed, it should be the same even if there has not been a formal marriage, but if the individuals concerned had made all the other agreements and declarations that have always been available. It is the same for workers employed by the State. Some while ago, a registrar objected on religious grounds to conducting civil partnership ceremonies. He lost his case before the employment tribunal. More important, his objection was morally frivolous. His duties were to conduct such ceremonies as are allowed by law. If he objected to the law, he should have sought other employment. If you are a devout Catholic, or a devout member of various other denominations, you may believe that civil marriages, even between heterosexuals, are state-recognised fornication. You may also deny the validity of any marriage not solemnised by a minster of your denomination, or the validity of a marriage between persons previously divorced. If those are your views, you should not become a civil registrar. If those are not your views, your objection to homosexual unions is probably not consistently religious. In any event, civil marriage exists for people who are, for whatever reason, indifferent to religious sanctions. There is no place for religious scruples in conducting the ceremonies. Of course, where legal facts do not need to be taken into account, I see no reason why anyone should be obliged to recognise homosexual unions. If I offer any kind of accommodation, and object to gay marriage, I should have the right not to allow two men to sleep with each other in one of my beds. If I am a pubkeeper, I should be at liberty to throw two men out if I see them kissing. If I run any business at all, I should not be required to employ known homosexuals, or to keep them on if I later discover their tastes. Nor should I be required to invite their partners to any social events I may organise. Other people should have the right not to do business with me if I want to do any of this, and to counsel others not to do business with me. But my right to do as I will with my own must be unquestioned. The overall guiding principle here is that we have the right to life, liberty and justly-acquired property. From this are derived specific rights to freedom of speech and association, among others. But there is no right here to be loved, or included, or treated as equal in our private dealings. The English liberal tradition is about the right to be left alone, not about the right to make unilateral claims against others. The problem is that we are not currently looking at gay marriage in itself. I have spoken so far of what should be the case, or of what, in itself, is the case. I have ignored all attendant circumstances. However, we live in a politically correct police state. Freedom of association has been largely abolished. Freedom of speech is not far behind. Our ruling class makes hardly any new law unless it can be used to subject us to more total control. Regardless of what safeguards on conscience are now promised, I suspect that the Bill before Parliament is the beginning of a process that it is hoped will end in the state control of religion. We are moving towards this because Christians believe in a source of authority separate from and higher than the State. Until recently, it was the custom of absolute states to make an accommodation with whatever church was largest. In return for being established, the priests would then preach obedience as a religious duty. Modern absolute states, though, are secular. Such were the Jacobin and the Bolshevik tyrannies. Such is our own, as yet, mild tyranny. In all three cases, religion was or is a problem. Though a Catholic, Aquinas speaks for most Christians when he explains the limits of obedience:

Laws are often unjust…. They may be contrary to the good of mankind… either with regard to their end – as when a ruler imposes laws which are burdensome and are not designed for the common good, but proceed from his own rapacity or vanity; or with regard to their maker – if, for example, a ruler should go beyond his proper powers; or with regard to their form – if, though intended for the common good, their burdens should be inequitably distributed. Such laws come closer to violence than to true law…. They do not, therefore, oblige in conscience, except perhaps for the avoidance of scandal or disorder. (Summa Theologiae, I-II, 96, 4, my translation)

Bad laws do not bind in conscience. And there may be times when even the avoidance of scandal or disorder do not justify public obedience. Then, it will be the duty of the Faithful to stand up and say “No!” It will be their duty to disobey regardless of what threats are made against them. Any ruling class that has absolutist ambitions, and is not willing or able to make an accommodation with the religious authorities, will eventually go too far. It will command things that cannot be given, and then find itself staring into a wall of resistance. The French Revolutionaries were taken by surprise. The Bolsheviks knew exactly what they were doing when they hanged all those priests and dynamited those churches. Our own ruling class also knows what it is doing. The politically correct lovefeast it has been preparing for us throughout my life requires the absolute obedience of the governed – absolute obedience to commands that no devout Christian can regard as lawful. Therefore, the gathering attack on Christianity. This does not yet apply to the other religions. The Jews are untouchable. Besides, religious Jews are a minority within a minority, and involve themselves in our national life only so far as is needed to separate themselves from it. The Moslems and others are not really considered part of the nation. Or they are considered objective allies of the new order under construction. Or no one wants to provoke them to rioting and blowing themselves up in coffee bars. But it goes without saying that other believers must eventually be persecuted should the Christians first be humbled. Whatever its merits in the abstract, gay marriage must be seen in this light. I can see a time when two men will present themselves before a Catholic priest and demand to be married. When they are refused, they will take the priest to court, and he will be made to pay damages, or be fined, or be otherwise punished. Or, if he conducts the ceremony, he will be suspended by his bishop, and the whole Catholic Church will then be punished. It might be funny to imagine what would happen if these men were to convert to Islam and present themselves before an imam in Tower Hamlets. But this will not happen. It might be the Church of England first – but the Catholic Church will be the main target, because that is the default winner of the sixteenth and seventeenth century religious disputes, and it is now the main barrier against secular tyranny. It may be that gay marriage will itself be the line beyond which the devout will not be pushed. If so, this would be regrettable. It would be the wrong issue. It might only bring about a conflict in which the leaders on both sides were arguing from different premises against the liberal tradition. But I do not think this will be the line. The proposals are too reasonable in themselves, and there is an evident lack of passion within the country at large. Most likely, some churches would give in. Others would face years of internal strife. The rest could be smeared as nests of bigotry and be weakened – by loss of tax advantages and by public discrimination against their members. The purpose here of gay marriage is not to bring on a fundamental conflict, but to prepare for when it does come by dividing and weakening opposition in advance. I do not know if the test cases will begin after a further change in the law, towards which the present Bill is a staging post, or once the Bill has been enacted and then gone over by malevolent judges. But what I have described does seem to be a reasonable suspicion. Notoriously, hoteliers and other businesses that do not welcome even unmarried homosexual couples are already persecuted. All this being so, I suspect that the present Bill is less about liberation than about greater enslavement. In a libertarian society, there would be no bar to marriage of any kind between consenting adults. For all I know, some people might, once the proper means were available, want to change sex every couple of years, and contract temporary marriages to suit. But we do not live in a libertarian society. We must not lose sight of what ought to be. At the same time, we must take into account what is. The attendant circumstances must always be taken into account. For example, so long as they are not here for the welfare, I regard the arrival in this country, since 2004, of uncounted millions of East European with something between indifference and mild approval. It would have been a different matter had they arrived before 1989, and had they been wearing military uniforms. Does this mean I am against the Bill currently before Parliament? I am afraid it does. On the one hand, I strongly agree with the principle of gay marriage. On the other hand, I suspect the intended consequences of its implementation. This is my honest opinion, and I suggest it should be taken seriously by any homosexual who believes in freedom. Let me give a parallel case in support. In 1685, James II became King of England. His reasonably plain objectives were to undo the Protestant Reformation in England, and to make himself as absolute and unaccountable as Louis XIV was in France. At first, he tried to secure these objectives by relying on the support of his Catholic subjects and of useful idiots in the Church of England. After two years, he realised that this was not sufficient support. He therefore reached out to the Protestant dissenters – offering them a full toleration if they would give him their support. Some did take his offer. They had been long and vexatiously persecuted after 1660, and saw the immediate benefits of the deal. Most did not take his offer. They saw it as a first step to general despotism. After the Glorious Revolution, the dissenters did not receive the full equality that James had promised. But they did get an effective toleration in a country still free in its civil institutions. This should be how all libertarians, of whatever degree, should regard the present Bill. The law to enable civil partnerships was one of the few decent things done by Labour. Civil partnerships provide every unit in the package of agreements and declarations that legally define marriage. There is already no law to prevent civil partnerships from being blessed by consenting ministers of religion. Let this be enough until we have made better times in England – when allowing full marriage to all consenting adults will not be an enabling step towards the tyranny that our masters plainly have in mind for us. Unedited version of article published in TakiMag, February 2013. Dr. Sean Gabb is a writer, broadcaster, lecturer, and general publicist for the libertarian movement in England. He is the Director of the Libertarian Alliance. Dr. Gabb can be reached at sean@libertarian.co.uk.

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