Recently, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, denounced the Coalition Government’s proposals to introduce same-sex marriages as “madness” and a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right”. Alas, it gets worse. He also compared the measures to slavery: “Imagine for a moment that the Government had decided to legalise slavery, but assured us that ‘No one will be forced to keep a slave’.”
Yes, that’s right. One of the most prominent members of one of the most powerful organisations in the country likened gay marriage – an institution which will harm no one – to slavery – a brutalising, debilitating, oppressive, unjust system which compels thousands to a life of servitude. You couldn’t make this shit up. The two are inherently different. Gay marriage is by definition a personal communion of two willing people; slavery is by definition a system in which most are involved against their will – the legal property of another.
Not only it is the statement idiotically insensitive, it is also hypocritical. In the analogy he clearly employs slavery as a moral absolute with which everyone will agree – attempting to shock them into thinking similarly about gay marriage – which is ostensibly not a bad tactic. The irony is his own organisation, the Catholic Church, has an undeniably shady record on the subject. As Greg Jenner astutely points out in a Huffington Post article in which he claims O’Brien has the ‘philosophical subtlety of a pot plant’, some of the biggest slave owners were churchmen. And both the Anglican and Catholic Church were stoic in their opposition to abolitionist claims, on the basis that since the Bible didn’t prohibit slavery, it was morally acceptable (it doesn’t explicitly condone it either). Using the Bible as a sole arbiter of moral decisions would also lead one to not eat shellfish (Leviticus 11:10), not have women touch anything while menstruating, not wear any polyester (Leviticus 19:19) and not allow any descendant up to ten generations down of an ‘illegitimate person’ in a Church (Deuteronomy 23:3). Damages the credibility of attempts to use the selfsame book to support calls for the prevention of gay marriage, no?
But maybe his reservations based on the tradition of marriage have more sticking power? Nope, they’re all bollocks too. The idea that marriage is a concept inherently linked to the Church is also complete baloney. The ancient Egyptians, Romans and Spartans all had their own versions of marriage well before a load of hitherto Jews started worshipping a supposedly zombie Jew with divine powers and inspiration. Even under Catholic ‘control’, the institution of marriage has undergone massive change. It was only since around the 17th century that marriages were conducted in churches and encompassed even vague religious importance (previously, they had only really taken on political and economic importance). When the institution’s rocky, and often less than utopian, past is considered, extending it to cover those who just happen to express their love (or lust) by merely sticking their bits in different places seems a positively boring progression.
O’Brien’s reasoning is that, since civil partnerships already grant gay couples the same legal rights as marriage, the moves must amount to a direct “attempt to redefine marriage for the whole of society at the behest of a small minority of activists”. Yep, you guessed it, he’s wrong again. He’s fallen prey to the classic Catholic fault of assuming that everyone’s – or at least the vast majority’s – moral compass is the same as his. At least Keith’s in the right ballpark for this one. It is true that civil partnership grants the same legal rights as marriage. But the contention of many in the LGBT community is that, while this is a significant step in the right direction, their exclusion from marriage is unjustly incommensurate with a now predominantly secular institution in a (thankfully) egalitarian, secular society.
As for “small minority of activists”, it is true that majority support for civil union (of some sort) is a relatively new thing, and even now by no means comprehensive. The most recent UK survey, conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion in July 2011, shows 43% of Britons support gay marriage. But this figure appears stronger when viewed in conjunction with the 34% who support civil union (and the 8% of votes unaccounted for). Also, a Times survey in 2009 – which had a 61% overall approval rating for gay marriage itself – showed the support to be markedly higher among those aged 25-34 (78% for gay marriage, with 3% unaccounted). Now, I’m not suggesting by any means that the views of the older are invalid, but the figures do suggest that a marked cultural shift is underway. And, of course, the measures are being suggested “passionately” by David Cameron, a Conservative – a far from stereotypical supporter of such an idea (though there has been strong opposition within the party). Cameron, in an admirable stance, said: “I don’t support marriage in spite of being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.”
What’s for sure is that it’s not a matter of, as O’Brian paints it, a few troublemakers spoiling the party for everyone else, and pushing plans that would “shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world”. I can only speculate, but he may have got his impression because there is only a minority actively campaigning for gay marriage – typically those it directly affects i.e. gay people. But, as the figures show, this does not mean even most of the rest are against; just that they have no direct need to go out of their way to campaign for it. (People can be very self-interested and insular. Watching the Beeb’s brilliant The Tube, a station manager told of how he once saw commuters just stepping over a man who it transpired was dead!)
Now onto O’Brien’s suggestions that “In Article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, marriage is defined as a relationship between men and women” and this a “fundamental”, “universally recognised” human right. The supposed universally recognition can be disproved merely by dint that I (and many, many others) are arguing against him. And the rest isn’t strictly true, either, because, tut tut, he’s manipulating facts for his own ends again. The declaration, a remarkable piece of politics which has become a touchstone for progressive law and democracy, does grant men and women the right to marry, but doesn’t actually state marriage must be between them. It states: ‘Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.” Granted, it does not stipulate ‘without any limitation due to sexuality, but neither does it state ‘with restriction on sexuality’. Given Article 2 entitles all creeds and colours to the rights set forth, it is logical to deduce that gay marriage is acceptable on this count. Article 2 reads: ‘ Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.’ (All emphasis mine.)
Frankly, the Cardinal can think whatever he wants of gay people…privately. Authoritative members of the Church claim the concept of gay marriage – even with no religious association – is an attack on their traditions, which it may be. But consider for a moment the furore there would be if a fiscally/organsitionally similar association – a youth club or singing group, say – actively promoted views seen to be discriminatory on grounds of sexuality (or other). You might protest that it’s a ridiculous comparison but, with the perfectly reasonable step of taking this supposedly existent God fella out of the equation (more on this later), they are really not that different. When this is considered, the Church should perhaps count themselves lucky to even be able to spout some really quite (negatively) discriminatory stuff (though often subtly and between the lines so it’s not much picked up on). I, for one, actually think that if people freely choose to go church, then frankly they should know what they’re letting themselves in for, the good and the bad (Keith O’Brien is letting people know in pretty uncertain terms right now). So this isn’t particularly troublesome. But given the cultural protection they receive, surely it should not be too much to ask for the church to uphold their end of the bargain by letting those who want gay marriage have it. Albeit away from them…you know, just in case they get infected.
The Church may well get offended by gay marriage, but it is clearly not harmed. If gay marriage is prevented not on general consensus but on a little mere offence caused, then we might as well forget about that great little tag of ‘liberal democracy’ (which for sake of argument we can take as a good thing – by dint of it being desired by nearly everyone). This is the Harm Principle, or the principle of liberty, which underpins all liberalism. Coined by John Stuart Mill in his seminal On Liberty, it holds actions of individuals should only be restricted – by laws – to prevent harm to others (social pressure is appropriate for mere offence). Democracy simply doesn’t work without this neat distinction. Imagine asking for people to be prosecuted every time someone, say, littered, swore in front of a kid, or ate bacon in the presence of a practising Muslim. Madness, t’would be. One’s just got to tolerate offence for the greater good. Logically, there’s no reason this shouldn’t apply to gay marriage.
For homosexuality (male at least), if not offend me, certainly weirds me out. The idea of a bloke sticking his dick up another’s rectum, personally, is very odd. Why one would do so is baffling as even many straight women say the female form is far more appealing than the unseemly male one. BUT, and this is the crucial ‘but’, homosexual relationships and practice have absolutely no immediate bearing on me. And in all likelihood, nor you, dear reader. (Unless of course you are one of the aforesaid homosexuals – in which case, it obviously does, but it is by definition subjectively pleasurable, so all’s good.)
Think of it like music if you will. Many people love, say, Coldplay and many people hate them and can’t understand why anyone likes them. But do the latter camp ask for Coldplay fandom to be outlawed. No, they don’t, because it’s a subjective fucking preference, which causes no harm to anyone.
And now excuse me if you will in pre-empting a criticism: that I shouldn’t be saying this stuff because it is somehow blasphemous. Well, yes, you – if anyone is indeed reading this, and disagrees – are correct; it probably is by current vogue. But in a true democracy, blasphemous really should be a meaningless accusation, especially if the accused has been well-reasoned as I hope I’ve at least somewhat been. We critique institutions every day – educational, political, judicial, philanthropic. Quite how religious institutions and figures should receive special deference just because they – often mutually contradictorily – profess ownership of some nebulous, (officially) unobserved being is beyond me. If anything, this dubious belief should make them more subject to scrutiny, especially when they make ethical commands stemming from their belief in their deit/ies which will impact millions who don’t share their belief in those deity/ies.
The idea that religion is above reproach because of the permanency and popularity of religious ideas and ideals is also nonsensical. Firstly, Christianity’s span of approximately 2,000-year history is nothing compared to the estimated 50,000 years humans have lived (as distinguishable as such – basic primates have lived for around 150,000 years more). And an idea’s popularity is not in direct correlation with its veracity. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite – we used to think, for example, the earth was flat, slavery was morally acceptable, the telephone wouldn’t catch on, appeasement would work and the earth was the centre of the universe. And as for the idea O’Brien’s opponents (hi there) should play fair; well, I think he forfeited that privilege when he asserted all of us were in the grip of “madness”.
With that in mind, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, you’re a tool. As Texan Country singer, Kinky Friedman, said: “I support gay marriage. I believe they have the right to be just as miserable as the rest of us.”