There is a strange rhetorical asymmetry in the so-called culture wars. (I don’t much like that term, but it’s the one that’s current.) It’s most salient in the marriage question, and it goes like this. Compare I’m for same-sex marriage with the opposing, I’m for man-woman marriage. Or if you prefer, I’m for traditional, true, or biblical marriage. There really isn’t any one short word or phrase that fits that slot in the sentence as neatly as same-sex does. One effect of that is that to be for same-sex “marriage” seems somehow to be more of a “for” position than to be “for” strictly man-woman marriage.

This calls for analysis, some of which I’ll do here. First, to say one is for “traditional” marriage is to take a terribly weak position. Other than Chesterton’s wisdom of the fence, tradition alone is a weak reason to support anything, especially in the context of current debates. Yes, it promotes social stability, but if that’s the point, then let’s say so: “I value stability of society and culture, and I believe a certain kind of marriage supports it,” not, “I support traditional marriage,” where “traditional” is left hanging by itself without defense or explanation. Even stability is not by itself the summum bonum: the antebellum South had a certain stability in race relations. It desperately needed de-stabilizing.

Second, the alternative terms true or biblical marriage have their own asymmetry in this debate. Everyone knows and agrees what same-sex means. Not everyone knows or agrees what true or biblical mean in this context. We can’t use those terms without explaining and defending them. As shorthand they are next to useless, except where everyone agrees on what they mean.

The terminology of man-woman marriage requires less explanation or defense, for, like same-sex, everyone knows and everyone agrees what man-woman means (set aside some extreme gender warriors’ disagreement). Nevertheless—and this is my third point—to support a strictly defined man-woman view of marriage is to take an obvious limiting stand. It is to give a clear yes to some things but an obvious no to others; it is automatically to be against that which does not fit the definition. Yes to same-sex “marriage” seems therefore to be a more inclusive yes than yes to strictly defined man-woman marriage.

This is an illusion, however, supported by conceptual proximity. Same-sex “marriage” proponents focus just on marriage and the various ways they want to say yes to it. More conceptually distant, but just as real and relevant, are the things to which they are saying no: no to God and his clear instructions, no to the clear witness of history that genuine marriage strengthens a culture, no to raising one’s own children in a biologically-connected family.

I could extend that list; it would be a worthwhile study to do so. But that’s not my purpose in this blog post. My point is that to say yes to one thing is always to say no to another; but that saying yes to man-woman marriage leads to a conceptually accessible “no,” which opponents can easily capitalize on rhetorically. I admit it: it’s easy to posture my position as an against position. Saying yes to same-sex “marriage,” on the other hand, leads to no’s that take more work to bring to the surface of discussion. That makes them more difficult to manage for rhetorical purposes. It does not make them less significant in reality.

Adapted from Thinking Christian

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