Same-Sex Marriage: The End of Rights?

First published October 27, 2005, in Between the Lines.

During a recent debate in Bar Harbor, Maine, I was confronted with a seemingly novel argument against same-sex marriage. Rev. John Rankin of the Theological Education Institute of Hartford, Connecticut, claimed that same-sex marriage, far from being a civil right, actually undermines the very foundation of civil rights.

His argument is detailed in his document Yes to Man and Woman in Marriage, No to Same-Sex Marriage or Civil Unions, published in the Hartford Courant in April 2005. It reads, in part:

1. In the United States, the civil rights which we all enjoy are rooted in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” in the unalienable rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness.

2. The unique source for unalienable rights is the Creator, the God of the Bible.

3. The Creator defines true marriage as one man and one woman in mutual fidelity. The health of society and well-being of children are rooted in this foundation. Thus, the Source for unalienable rights also gives us the true definition of marriage.

4. In human history, no society rooted in the approval of homosexuality has ever produced unalienable rights for the larger social order.

(The full text is available at Rankin’s website.)

The core of Rankin’s argument is the second premise: the unique source for unalienable rights is the God of the Bible. From this, he derives the conclusion that we ought to define civil marriage according to biblical teaching.

If I understand Rankin’s argument correctly (and during our debate he admitted that I did), then it’s the worst kind of argument: it proceeds from what is not true to what does not follow.

It is not true that the unique source for unalienable rights is the God of the Bible. The notion of “unalienable rights” was introduced during the Enlightenment, when philosophers and politicians rejected appeals to biblical revelation in favor of the sovereignty of human reason.

Among those philosophers and politicians were our nation’s Founders, who quite deliberately made no mention of God in our Constitution. Indeed, when Franklin (himself quite skeptical about religious authority) proposed during the Constitutional Convention to begin each session with a prayer, Alexander Hamilton reportedly quipped that this was no time to seek “foreign aid.”

While the Founders were not atheists in our sense of the term, neither were they biblical literalists. Quite the contrary, they considered much of the Bible to be, in Jefferson’s words, “defective and doubtful.” Which is why, even if one grants Rankin’s historically confused premise about the source of unalienable rights, it does not follow that we ought to define civil marriage according to biblical teaching. For it could be that the Bible is right about unalienable rights—or would be, if it actually contained that notion—but wrong about various other things, such as slavery, or homosexuality, or the status of women.

More generally, Rankin’s inference is an example of the genetic fallacy, which confuses the historical source of an idea with its justification. Thus, for example, from the fact that many abortion-clinic bombers have been inspired by biblical teaching, it does not follow that the Bible actually provides any support, much less the sole support, for abortion-clinic bombing. Same for unalienable rights.

Besides, the Bible has historically inspired as many rights-abusers as rights-supporters. One could just as easily argue that the unique source for the divine right of kings is the God of the Bible, and then advocate replacing our democracy with a monarchy.

Rankin’s argument also depends on a suppressed premise, namely, that if the Bible teaches a doctrine, it ought to be made a matter of civil law. Put aside debates over whether the Bible actually contains a blanket condemnation of homosexual conduct. Taken to its logical conclusion, Rankin’s position entails that I have no right to sleep in on Sunday, since the Bible clearly teaches us to keep holy the Sabbath. Yet Rankin claims (inconsistently) that he supports freedom of religion.

One premise I do accept is Rankin’s fourth: no society rooted in the approval of homosexuality has ever produced unalienable rights. But that’s because no society has ever been “rooted in the approval of homosexuality.” One might as well argue that no society rooted in the approval of left-handedness has ever produced unalienable rights—or anything else, for that matter. Non-existent societies don’t produce anything.

If, however, Rankin means that societies tolerant of homosexuality have been more hostile to unalienable rights than those intolerant of homosexuality, then his claim is simply false. If there is any correlation between tolerance of homosexuality and respect for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the correlation is a positive one.

A resounding lesson of history is that we ought to be very careful when people try to make their interpretation of God’s commands the basis for civil law. In that sense, Rankin’s position is unfortunately not very novel at all.