Things To Act
Friday, February 27, 2004
Marriage, Society, and the Latter-day Saints
For a long time, the same-sex marriage issue was one I didn’t particularly want to discuss. Many people who discuss the issue utterly fail to persuade me, and many people who endorse views close to my own either endorse views anathematic to me or defend their views so speciously that I want to disagree with them. I also was unconvinced that the issue was significant enough in the short-term sense to justify spending tons of time on it.

Strangely, recent events have begun to change my mind. I don’t mean that in the trite “oh look at what MA/SF is doing, I’m shocked into action” sense of the phrase, though I’m sure it could come across that way. Those developments neither terribly surprised nor terribly threatened me. President Bush’s endorsement of a Constitutional amendment was more surprising, and adds an element of urgency to matters (see below). However, in all of the reaction and hubbub surrounding these issues, my views began to change in some ways that I think are important. The issue of same-sex marriage has become more relevant to me, not in and of itself, but as a catalyst or flashpoint in evaluating how society deals with marriage and the family.

I’ve heard comments to the effect that ‘even the Brethren who participating in warning the Church about the decline of the family through writing the Family Proclamation have been shocked by developments since 1995.’ I’d always taken such statements with a grain of salt, partly because things didn’t seem demonstrably worse, at least not in any ways that weren’t more or less obvious projections of existing trendlines. However, I think the FP does serve as an important warning, as many of those trendlines are decidedly negative. In essence, members of the Church do not seem to be doing an adequate job in either maintaining their own families or in defending family-friendly policies. I think, by and large, we don’t even understand the relationships between family, society, and law well enough to convincingly defend our position (such as it is). Until we know what we believe, why we believe it, and how we can best put our beliefs into action, we are severely limited in our ability to do much more than sit back and whine about how bad society is getting (an activity which has always utterly failed to impress me as productive).

A few related insights:

*Viewing the issue as a ‘culture war’ strikes me as unproductive. We do believe that Satan is working to undermine mankind. However, we also believe that we are not called to judge who is being influenced by Satan and to what degree. If we cannot find common ground with those not of our faith, and if we cannot manage to express our preferences in terms they will understand, we will not only contribute to hostility and misunderstanding, but we will likely fail to convince enough others to share our policy preferences to enact them into law (or prevent them from being overturned). Remaking society in an image more to our liking is a participatory process, not a withdrawing process. We cannot be overwhelmed by or take our cues from the world, but we are called to interact with the world on many significant levels on a constant basis. Instead of overly polarizing our view of our ‘enemies,’ we should look for ways to keep them from being our enemies.

*Many members of the Church are likely in a bubble with respect to family related issues. I grew up in a fairly healthy home and took it for granted. The older I got, the more gradually aware I became that others not only had quite different views of the world/morality/etc, but had formative experiences shaped in vastly different ways. For me, a strong marriage, a large family, and extensive extended family ties are the norm. This is not the case for large segments of society today, which, to a degree, puts me at a disadvantage in understanding others. As long as I take my upbringing for granted as ‘normal,’ I will not only be handicapped in communicating with others who do not share my narrow frame of reference, but I will fail to see the extent of the social problems caused by unhealthy deviations from what I consider to be the norm.
**Corollary: To the extent that significant numbers of BYU students have less experience with divorce and no experience with people who deal with same-sex attraction, their views on these subjects will be unrefined and possibly misguided, in the absence of a deliberate attempt to educate themselves on the issues.

*Framing is important: As the debate over same-sex marriage plays out on the national stage over the next few months, a critical mass of people will form opinions based on the way information is presented and framed. If the dominant frame is one of tolerance versus bigotry, it is obvious who will win. Even on more subtle issues, the public perception at earlier stages will influence final decisions. For example, recent speculations by some law professors (though not the only ones, see here here and particularly here) about how the courts are likely to interpret the ‘legal incidents’ phase of the FMA are being seized on by SSmarriage advocates as evidence that FMA supporters are trying to bar all ‘civil union’ possibilities. Without endorsing or opposing the FMA/Musgrave amendment, any of the alternatives, or the concept of civil unions, it seems obvious that the amount of correct information about what various people do and do not support, as well as the value frame surrounding the tradeoffs, is important to getting one’s preferred policy outcome.

*Now that Bush has endorsed a Constitutional amendment, the timer is running faster than before. Not only are more people paying attention to the issues (thus causing the process of shaping both elite and mass opinion to begin in earnest), but the status quo has changed [I am indebted to some online pundit somewhere for this idea, but can’t even remember which site I read it on]. Before, the status quo was ‘no SSMarriage, maybe civil unions in some liberal states.’ Now, thanks to the 1-2 of MA/SF and Bush’s endorsement of an amendment, the status quo is in flux, but civil unions suddenly look like a downright conservative approach, while the extremes duke it out over whether SSMarriage will be constitutionally prohibited or protected. Now that the concept of an amendment has been endorsed, backers must move quickly. Once an amendment starts moving, then stops, its failure will become a permanent part of the status quo. The ERA is a dead issue. Similarly, if the FMA (or its equivalent) fails to clear Congress, the issue will likely be shouted down the next time anti-SSMarriage politicians try to bring it up.
**This is not to say that I necessarily support an amendment just yet. But if I decide I like the idea, now is the time to act. More analysis later.

*Satan may be more devious than we think. The target we’re defending may be different from the one he’s aiming at. This idea occurred to me after reading yet another proposal to get the government out of the marriage business entirely. It seems an obvious compromise—since differing sides will never agree on what marriage ought to mean, get the government out of the business of doing anything except civil unions, etc, and allow religions to define marriage however they want. This idea is a tempting compromise (as are several other civil-union style compromises), but I suddenly wonder: will more harm come from a few same-sex couples getting married, or from a complete governmental repudiation of much of family law? Perhaps Satan is really aiming at completely delegitimizing the family as a legal institution, and those who are eager to compromise to stop the specter of ‘gay marriage’ are playing into his hands. I do not know if this is the case or not, but I am not comfortable supporting any policy position (including the status quo) without being a lot more sure of its probable outcomes.

Several interrelated questions I plan to try to look at:

Theology: What do we really believe about marriage and families? What do these beliefs imply about how society and the state structure family relations?

Policy: What policy proposals are on the table? What are the likely consequences? Which ones yield the highest expected utility for members of the Church [EU = value of outcome times probability of achievement, or “an 80% chance at half a loaf is better than a 1% chance at the whole thing”]?

Advocacy: Who is in favor of what? What significant things are being said about the issue? What, if anything, can we LDS do to influence matters?

Outreach: How are we doing at framing the debate? Which significant ideas are not being heard, and which fallacious ideas are getting too much credence?

Responsibility: Now, while the issue is in flux, what ought we to do? Assuming we get a less-than-preferred outcome, then what?

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