Back to the thorny issue of gay marriage

I’ve cantered over this obstacle-strewn course before, and came out firmly in favour of gay marriage. So you might wonder why I’m not joining in the predictable chorus of “how awful” that’s erupted since Charles Moore’s Telegraph piece on David Cameron’s commitment to enabling gay marriages that he unveiled at the recent Tory party conference.

In part that’s simply because I rarely join in how awful choruses no matter what it is that’s so awful. I have a general distaste for this kind of intellectual collective bargaining, in which one’s condemnation or enthusiasm seems to have more to do with maintaining popularity amongst one’s friends, and proving one’s ideological purity, than it has to do with what one actually thinks, or with an argument one has personally constructed and been convinced by. And, because ideological purity (well, intellectual consistency, anyway), and the admiration of my friends, are no less important to me than to anyone else, I should of course point out that I am no natural soul-mate of Charles Moore. Nor should it be necessary to state that I don’t agree with him.

But rather than simply keep my membership of the liberal, gay-friendly elite intact by a blanket condemnation and general call for Mr Moore to be burnt at the stake as a heretic and enemy of the people, I thought I’d take the quaint and old-fashioned path of actually saying why I disagree with him, and where (I take my life in my hands) I in fact think he’s absolutely right. Those of a delicate constitution might like to take a moment to steady themselves, perhaps to take some deep but slow and calming breaths, as the shock of this last statement seeps in. Shall we proceed?

Charles Moore’s elegant arguments about the long and central history of marriage as between men and women, and civilisation’s dependence on that history for its health, are of course not that simple to make. This is more a projection backwards onto history than it is a derivation from history. But that is mostly an error of hyperbole. It is undoubtedly true that the recent cultural history of our society has made these very assumptions, and that to expand the concept of marriage to gay relationships is indeed a radical departure. In itself that is no argument at all for not making that departure, but it is an argument for thinking the change through with care.

The real problem with Charles Moore’s piece is contained in that very word, “real”. As he builds up his arguments, from history, from coalition politics, from cultural change, it suddenly all goes pear-shaped. The veil of sophistication slips momentarily to reveal the truth: that Charles Moore starts and ends from prejudice. He cunningly connects the gay marriage debate with the furore over the Human Rights Act and the Bolivian cat (actually, I think the cat was English) whose ménage à trois with two men was adjudged to constitute “family life”, or so Theresa May would have had us believe. Charles Moore, in considering this, casually contrasts this cat-based domestic arrangement with “a real family life – marriage, children, that sort of thing”. Ah. I see.

Charles Moore is wrong. But he’s not wrong to point out that what some people want is not a sufficient argument in itself for letting them have it. Society has to make a judgement about what we collectively think is best for our common health. He is right to make the case that sometimes this will mean that some sections of society will not get what they want. I’ve no idea if there is really much Muslim enthusiasm for male polygamy, and if there isn’t, then this was a tendentious argument to deploy. But that doesn’t alter the fact that allowing such polygamy would not be justified merely because some people might want it.

My support for gay marriage is predicated on a clear division between civil marriage and religious matrimony, because religion in a secular society cannot be the template for social relationships. I happen to think that it is religious tradition that is impeding change in this area, and we can cut this Gordian knot by allowing religion and the state to co-exist without forcing the one on the other. Charles Moore is seemingly not yet ready to make that separation, since he manages to bring both Islam and the Anglican Church to bear in his thinking. In disagreeing with him, it is not necessary to claim that he is wicked. By demonising him those who support gay marriage risk being both ungracious and unwilling to engage with those they happen to disagree with.

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