What might Lincoln and Euclid have to say about same-sex marriage?

Last night I heard Bible verses quoted with abandon.

I heard God’s will invoked in defence of the cause.

I heard that some things are against how God created nature.

I also heard a man quote Euclid, “things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other”. I saw a man who for the greater good denied the strength of his commitment to racial equality: to free the slaves he was prepared to limit his conviction that all men are equal.

Last night I went to watch Lincoln after watching the parliamentary debate on the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill. And I’m well aware that Jennie Pollock has already made precisely this comparison, perhaps it was why my ears pricked up at the relevant moment.

tommy-lee-jones-linconln-thaddeus-stevens EJFAdvocates of same-sex marriage argue that this is an issue of equality on a par with the struggle for racial equality which won a huge leap through Abraham Lincoln and then lurched on in fits and starts for the following century. I do not, however, think this is an appropriate comparison, and maybe Euclid can help us out. Man, both black and white, equal a human, they are therefore equal to each other.

To achieve the same result with same-sex marriage and heterosexual marriage requires some linguistic gymnastics. It involves emptying marriage of much of its meaning and then refilling the shell which is left with what ever we choose, only then can we suggest that the two are equal. If marriage was only about love and commitment between two people, then Euclid’s notion might provide some comfort, but to achieve that you have to remove much of what makes up marriage and turn it into little more than a contractual agreement. This is why I agree with those who say you can only achieve marriage equality by changing what it fundamentally is. For marriage to be extended beyond it’s heterosexual bounds it requires first turning it into something which it currently is not.

I would have a great deal more respect for the government if they were honest about this, what bothers me is the insistence that this is no great change, just the extension of something to a previously excluded group. But no one is excluded from marriage, people only become excluded from marriage when it is first changed into something different, something that is defined solely by love and commitment and not also by male and female, and conjugation and the potential for children. Only once you have changed this definition can the institution of marriage be considered to be restricted. But the government jump to the end and use their own definition of marriage to pretend their plans are no big deal, moreover that they are a vital step towards equality..

But as Philip Blond and Roger Scruton put it: “The pressure for gay marriage is therefore in a certain measure self-defeating: in seeking equality with something unlike yourself, the thing that you join to is no longer what you joined.”

* * *

Maybe it was the experience of following the debate that made watching Lincoln immediately after a slightly strange experience. But I couldn’t help but watch the many scenes of the House of Representatives debating the thirteenth amendment and wonder whether future generations might look back at yesterday’s debate in the same light. I wondered whether those who oppose same-sex marriage would be viewed in coming years as behind the times, stuck in the mud, on the wrong side of history – as some observers have suggested this week.

I also wondered what I would have said and done had I been in either of those chambers. Whether I would have stood and spoke of the equality of man, or sought to protect my prejudice or financial interest. I wonder whether I would have compromised my beliefs in order to see a greater wrong righted. I wondered what constituted a greater wrong.

I wondered if I would have said what I believed despite the critics howling at the door, I wondered if I would have had the courage to make my own mind up and not hear threats of no promotion, or being ousted by the voters at the next election. I wondered if I would have taken the calls from the media, stood outside the steps of parliament and found the words of grace that did not deny what I believed to be true.

And I saw the hostility of the 1860s and the legacy it left in its wake stretching nearly a century until the 1964 Civil Rights Act achieved much and left much more to do. I saw the bitter wrangling over reconstruction as the Confederate leaders sued for peace.

If I was in that chamber in Washington DC 150 years ago I would hope to have been like Thaddeus Stevens. Many others thought peace was more important that equality but he stood for freedom and justice. But if I was in the House of Commons yesterday, I don’t think I would have been so strident. I wanted understanding, and I wanted peace. I wanted space for different views. And I wanted some understanding that just because something is claimed in the name of equality, that doesn’t automatically make it a good thing.

I didn’t pray enough for peace during the debate yesterday, but I will in the coming weeks. I know not what the weeks and months to come hold but I hope for a future where we can have civility and peace even if we think fundamentally different things. Perhaps I hope that those with the strongest of views can find a way that is better for all of us. Perhaps.

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4 thoughts on “What might Lincoln and Euclid have to say about same-sex marriage?

  1. Very well put, Danny. I think when one MP said something along the lines of ‘All equality should be equal’ that summed up the sheer inanity of much of the discussion around that particular issue. The analogy that came to mind for me was of someone trying to put on a jumper that doesn’t fit them – they can try and squeeze into it and will eventually manage to fit inside it, but afterwards while the jumper will look similar in some ways, it’ll be a very different shape than it was before. (Not a perfect analogy I know…)

    Makes me want to go and see Lincoln now though! We went to see Les Mis last night, which was probably less philosophically profound, but did leave me with a sense that whatever is said and done, the Gospel story of grace and redemption is just a better story than anything else out there…

  2. The following quote from Hayek is pertinent here:

    The most effective way of making people accept the validity of the values they are to serve is to persuade them that they are really the same as those which they … have always held, but which were not properly understood or recognized before. The people are made to transfer their allegiance from the old gods to the new under the pretense that the new gods really are what their sound instinct had always told them but what before they had only dimly seen. And the most effective way to this end is to use the old words but change their meaning…. Few traits of totalitarian regimes are at the same time so confusing to the superficial observer and yet so characteristic of the whole intellectual climate as the complete perversion of language, the change of meaning of the words by which the ideals of the new regimes are expressed…. If one has not one’s self experienced this process, it is difficult to appreciate the magnitude of this change of the meaning of words, the confusion it causes, and the barriers to any rational discussion which it creates… And the confusion becomes worse because this change of meaning of words describing political ideals is not a single event but a continuous process, a technique employed consciously or unconsciously to direct the people. Gradually, as this process continues, the whole language becomes despoiled, and words become empty shells deprived of any definite meaning, as capable of denoting one thing as its opposite and used solely for the emotional associations which still adhere to them.
    The Road to Serfdom, p. 157-158
    Friedrich von Hayek

  3. Great post. I was thinking to myself that the issue in te UK was substantially different to that in the US. In the US there is an argument to be made for equality – because of an absence of legal rights/next of kin etc etc. but we already had civil partnerships so this wasn’t about rights this was about labels. This became an argument over who was allowed to call what marriage. Perhaps more importantly there is now a question whether Christians are allowed to disagree that homosexual marriage is not marriage. This is what concerns me – that school kids will be firmly corrected for their lack of inclusive language, that my vicar husband will not be able to refuse to marry gay couples. Etc. it seemed to me to be not a battle for equality in terms of rights but labelling. And as you so rightly say, this required a change of definition. Thanks for this- it’s hard to write on.

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