Senator Kerry’s Marriage Contortions

First published October 1, 2003, in Between the Lines

In a recent Advocate interview Massachusetts Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry told reporter Chris Bull that, despite his otherwise strong support for gay rights, he could not bring himself to support gay marriage.

In a previous Washington Post interview Kerry had stated, “Marriage is an institution between men and women for the purpose of having children and procreating.”

Whoops — wrong answer. If marriage is for procreating, what’s the story with Kerry’s current marriage (his second), which is childless?

Having been confronted on this point, Kerry backtracks in the Advocate interview: “I don’t make a procreation argument. I was explaining the historical background. Someone was asking me where my opposition came from, and I said it’s basically from an old religious belief of what defined marriage. Procreation has nothing to do with my argument.”

Whoops again. Religious belief? While Kerry might be right about why most people oppose gay marriage, the reporter was asking for Kerry’s reason, not most people’s. More precisely, the reporter wanted to know Kerry’s political position on the issue. And as Kerry himself recognizes, religion and politics don’t mix well. In the same Advocate interview he states, “In 1960, President Kennedy [another Roman Catholic] distinguished between those things secular and those things religious. He drew the line between his church and his state. It is a bright line, and I do not take my articles of faith and seek to legislate them against people who don’t share them. The establishment clause regarding religion is clear… ”

Confused yet? So was the reporter, who asked, “Doesn’t church-state separation apply to marriage?” Kerry’s response is a textbook example of arguing in a circle:

“So many people in the country view it as the cultural component of it, the religious component of it. That’s how people view it with the religious component of it.”

So, just to make sure I’m clear on his point: We ought not to legislate people’s religious beliefs except in the case of their religious beliefs.
Got it.

I don’t mean to pick on Kerry here. He’s been a solid supporter of gay rights, even voting against the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in an election year. (It passed anyway, and President Clinton signed it into law.)

Moreover, every other Democratic presidential hopeful goes through the same verbal contortions when pressed on the issue of gay marriage. Even Howard Dean, who went to bat for us on civil unions in Vermont, is officially opposed to “gay marriage.”

It’s an issue they’d all much prefer to avoid. They want to support gays, but they also want to win the election. And thus they must face one of the great paradoxes about American life: We are simultaneously one of the most secular and most religious societies in the world.

Do we support freedom of religion? Oh yes, absolutely. Except when it gets weird. Like that Mormon polygamy thing. And gay marriage — ick.

Marriage and religion are intimately tied in most Americans’ minds. Most marriages in this country are performed by clergy — to whom the state gives the power to perform not merely religious but also civil marriage.

Politicians know this. And they have a hard time talking about civil marriage without talking about religion, for two reasons: (1) they want to appeal to a largely religious electorate, and (2) they are themselves largely religious.

And so Kerry, in the same interview, talks about both his religious view of civil marriage and the separation of church and state, without noticing the contradiction.

Similarly, when discussing the (anti-gay) Federal Marriage Amendment, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist calls marriage a “sacrament” and President Bush mentions “sinners.” Meanwhile, here in Michigan, Jackson County has passed a resolution against same-sex marriage in order to protect the “sanctity”of traditional marriage, and Lapeer County has passed a similar resolution citing “God’s intentions for mankind” and “faith in God through Holy Scriptures.”

Kerry had it right when he said that articles of faith ought not to be legislated. By definition, articles of faith go beyond rational evidence (hence “faith”); they are learned through revelation. Law, by contrast, is supposed to be based on reasoned argument.

The problem is that the secular arguments against gay marriage just aren’t very good. And so opponents of gay marriage — including politicians — resort to the one area where they may respectably abandon reasoned argument: religious faith. You can’t really argue with “God says so.”

Writer Michael Woodson asks,

“Suppose the government declared a particular mode of communion, baptism or circumcision to be valid, and required all valid communion, baptism and circumcision to be licensed by the state. Certainly, there would be an uproar — and should be a rebellion. Why is marriage different?”

Damn good question. Don’t hold your breath for an answer.