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Conservative arguments in favour of gay marriage


Protest in favour of gay marriage in QueenslandCory Bernadi's recent speech in the Senate linking homosexuality to bestiality illustrated how inverted and confused politics in Australia has become.

Bernadi and other so called common sense conservatives contend that amending the marriage act to allow gay couples to marry is a case of extreme left-wing politics. As if gay marriage is a radical and abstract liberal idea.

In fact, conservatism and gay marriage are no longer irreconcilable. Indeed the most persuasive arguments in favour of gay marriage are distinctly conservative.

The most cogent argument is based upon facts. Studies in psychiatry and neuro-psychology have for decades demonstrated that an individual's sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. Those who contend otherwise have a narrow understanding of the established science.

Pragmatism and established facts have never bothered conservatives. Facts are the domain of realists and help demolish loosely constructed theoretical ideas. In light of the facts the millennia old idea that marriage must solely be a heterosexual phenomenon collapses.

Second, those who take exception to perceived aspects of gay life should welcome the institution of gay marriage. Wouldn't the alleged promiscuity inherent within the gay community benefit from the edifying influence of marriage? Of course it is spurious to claim that gay couples do not equally value fidelity. At a time when heterosexuals are increasingly spurning commitment, here is a group that is championing the institution of marriage. Perhaps gay couples might even coax straight couples back on to the marital path?

Third, people choose marriage for a wide range of reasons, not just to start a family. In affluent societies young married couples are increasingly eschewing large families and instead focusing on advancing their careers. Others choose to not have children at all. We do not revoke the marriage certificates of those who decide not to be parents, or those who are unable to have children.

Fourth, the children's rights argument is weak and particularly misleading. The parental debate should not automatically be attached to the marriage debate. Yet it is important to note that our society legally acknowledges the parental status of gay couples that already have children. What is the benefit of preventing these couples from marrying?

Fifth, the attempt by some conservatives to apply religious tenets to the debate has become tedious. Theological suppositions founded upon a literal reading of ancient texts can be problematic. Christian conservatives often cite Leviticus chapter 18 verse 22 which labels homosexuality 'detestable'.

Yet most overlook other biblical extremes. Never once have I heard a pastor instruct parishioners against wearing wool and linen fabrics in one garment (Leviticus chapter 19 verse 19), or sign off on a father's intention to sell his daughter into slavery (Exodus chapter 21 verse 7).

Such verses clearly reflect the wisdom of a very different era. Writing in Eureka Street, University of Melbourne Theologian Professor Andrew McGowan argued that Christians need to overcome the myth of the immediacy, which suggests that one can judge biblical authors as though they had our own sensibilities.

Sixth, the semantic argument misses the point entirely. Some protest that marriage by definition is between a man and a woman. But surely there is more depth to this debate than a desire to ward off singular distortions of the English language? One wonders whether Sarah Palin's invention of the term 'refudiate' (an amalgamation of refute and repudiate) stirs similar passions.

Finally, what characterises the conservative disposition is a dogged commitment to realism. Conservatism is not opposed to reform; it is a prudent political philosophy that refuses to gamble current benefits for uncertain future outcomes. The intellectual giant of conservatism Edmund Burke warned against what he termed 'abstract principles', believing that society must evolve organically.

Polling data has for years confirmed that a majority of Australians support the legalisation of gay marriage. Our society has been debating the merits of gay marriage since the 1970s. Attitudes towards homosexuality have changed and the public now believes same sex couples are worthy, that they can fulfil the fundamental purpose of marriage. Such reasoning is Aristotelian, not liberal.

True conservatives have always accepted what is irreversible. The Bernadis of the this world should stop and consider the principal works of conservative philosophy. Opposing gay marriage is now conspicuously unconservative. 

Dustin HalseDustin Halse teaches politics and history at Swinburne University and is a member of Swinburne Institute for Social Research. He has written political opinion for the The National Times, The Drum, The Conversation, New Matilda and Australian Policy Online

Topic tags: Dustin Halse, Cory Bernadi, gay marriage



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Existing comments

I'm edified that now, with the Green's and the green hued panic faction of the ALP's attempts to steal the debate our nation has to have on marriage and parenting of children (and sexuality and gender) defeated, this debate can now be conducted as it should, as one to bring together all groups in our nation to discuss and sift through all the many components. I would like to thank Dustin for critiquing, in a general way, what I would regard as my arguments for opposing same-sex marriage and such a critique now sets me a task to demonstrate that those arguments stand on empirical evidence. This will be the next phase of the debate for all sides, that we refuse to generalise, especially in critiquing the other side. One instance is the Galaxy Poll for Marriage Equity, the 865 Australians polled in August for the research, giving a 64% ok to same-sex marriage is too much of a generalisation to be valid.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 04 October 2012  

Funny to see Julia Gillard lining up with Cory Bernadi and Tony Abbott on this issue, isn't it? Leaving her pretend 'socialist left' leanings behind in a display of pandering to the Christian Right that exceeds even the Rudd displays of grovelling to them seem quite tame.

janice wallace | 04 October 2012  

"In light of the facts the millennia old idea that marriage must solely be a heterosexual phenomenon collapses." But that's what marriage is, and if the idea of a union between a man and a woman ceases to be important and is replaced by the idea of a union between any two people, then marriage has been replaced by something else and that something else should have its own name because it's not marriage.

Gavan Breen | 04 October 2012  

Yes, GAVAN GREEN, it does have a name - it's called "gay marriage", just as marriage between a black and white person used to be called a "mixed marriage". The only conservative argument needed for gay marriage is that some conservatives are gay. But, Dustin, I believe getting into the argument about whether or not sexuality is a choice can be dangerous - because some will then say that psychopathology could be a birth defect as well. All we need to acknowledge is that sexuality is a spectrum, and it's normal and healthy - and that variations whether caused by nature or nurture are not pathological. Why not ask heterosexuals if they think they were born that way - does anyone ever argue that point?

AURELIUS | 04 October 2012  

Human sexuality is a complex and fragile thing – far greyer than black or white. It is best tended to by gentle, wise, and humble hands. There hasn’t been much gentleness or wisdom surrounding the same sex marriage debate. While the refrains, “marriage equality” and “no one can tell us who to love,” are compelling pathos, they are more sound bite than substance, and should not be allowed to stifle our collective grappling. Marriage is far more than just an expression of love between consenting adults; as for the accusation that it is inherently discriminatory until available to same sex couples; well, that also needs a lot more attention and rigour than is currently the case. Similarly, the issue cannot be hijacked by the intellectual mediocrity of those purveyors of religious bigotry and fundamentalism who retreat from reason and compassion, thus, undermining thoughtful, credible, and respectful debate. The same sex community has been shunted and bullied and belittled by irrational fear-mongers and brutes for too long. Is there not an opportunity in the current climate for legislators and same sex advocates to develop a union which provides all the essential elements of a marriage: legal protection, mainstream acceptance, and a ceremony sanctioned by the state, and even blessed by those churches that are authorised and disposed to do so. The love between same sex couples is sacred, is beautiful, is creative; but never pro-creative. It is a different expression of love, and it should be treated and honoured differently. Such a union, like marriage, will need to create its own taste and feel and history and place.

Peter Day | 04 October 2012  

Gavan, why not simply find a new term for the sacramental union between a man and a woman for life and open to children...? Just asking... Dustin 's argument that same sex couples 'can fulfil the fundamental purpose of marriage' calls for a realistic evaluation of what marriage has become whilst still remaining an important social institution. What it has become is something both less and more than the Christian understanding of marriage as a sacrament. Organic evolution as Edmund Burke might well say.

margaret | 04 October 2012  

I'm sorry, but I've missed some premises in your argument. How does the proposition that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice even if true lead to the conclusion that there is no argument against "gay marriage"? If it were proved that kleptomania was a non-choice orientation, would it follow that we have to concede a right of those thus afflicted to shoplift? I could go on with others, but your rehashing of pro-gay marriage arguments which have already been answered is, I find, rather tedious. But here's something special: your piece is fundamentally contradictory. On the one hand you begin by announcing sweepingly that pragmatism and established facts have never bothered conservatives. Yet within a few sentences you're insisting that "What characterises the conservative disposition is a dogged commitment to realism."!! If you're so confused about the conservative disposition, I'm not so confident you have it right about other orientations.

HH | 04 October 2012  

"Studies in psychiatry and neuro-psychology have for decades demonstrated that an individual's sexual orientation is not a matter of choice."
Dustin Halse, could you provide some references to back up this claim? This question comes from one who has eschewed the heterosexual path, who has a sense of this being a radical political choice, and who sees no point in pursing marriage.

Jay | 04 October 2012  

To argue this question of so-called gay marriage, let us avoid politics, religion,legality, culture and all the forms of antagonisms that have been bandied about.There is no doubt about the natural occurence of homosexuality, nor about the equality of individuals, the point is that marriage for many centuries has been recognised as a special union between a man and a woman carrying with it recognised responsibilities and relationship. If a new type of union is now required with it's own responsibilities and relationship, it needs another name, but it can be just as valued and recognised as marriage. I would go so far as to say that in today's culture, it may be advisable for all unions to be civil unions and only those who wish to enter marriage can have an extra celebration noting it's obligations. This is a common practice through much of Europe. Then we do not have to change the meaning of our language--semantics.

Michelle | 04 October 2012  

A very ineresting take on the debate. Aurelius warns against basing arguments for SSM on the fact that sexuality is not a matter of choice, because some people will then make the counter-argument that 'psychopathology might be a birth defect as well'. And HH proceeds to make that very counter-argument citing shop-lifting as an example. But let's not make the logical error of trying to compare apples with oranges. Sexual orientation is NOT psychopathological, although there are still a few among us who cling to the belief that it is. A more appropriate and useful comparison would be to compare sexual orientation with race - neither can be chosen, and neither should ever be an excuse for discrimination.

Kate Ahearne | 04 October 2012  

I'm glad traditional marriage has changed over the years. Husbands can no longer legally bash and rape their wives, interracial marriage isn't banned but incest is, and it is voluntary in a real sense, rather than a theoretical one. The idea that marriage has never changed is a flat out lie.

I will never understand why Churches believe the only reason any one is heterosexual is because they are forced into it and the only reason anyone stays married is through tax breaks and economic discrimination against women.

There is not going to be a mass coming-out when marriage equality, which includes those who do not have the luxury of having a defined sex, is legalised.

The only people trying to change anyone's sexuality are Churches.

sc | 04 October 2012  

The vast majority of Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, even Non-Religious accept that marriage is between one man and one woman. Cory Bernardi was unfairly attacked for giving his speech in the Senate, on his concerns about legislating same-sex marriage; He said the proponents of same-sex marriage ask for one step only. Then he said taking the first step, that could lead to having three or four people that love each other being able to enter into a permanent union endorsed by society. He also said there are even some creepy people out there who say it is okay to have consensual sexual relations between humans and animals. When Professor Peter Singer appeared on Q&A on the ABC, he exposed the idea it is okay to have consensual sexual relations between humans and animals, we never heard any protests. But Cory Bernardi is persecuted for telling the truth.

Ron Cini | 04 October 2012  

Kate, you and Aurelius have very well exposed the error of Halse's argument. In effect he's arguing that because (he believes) homosexuality is unable to be chosen against, then gay marriage is OK. So if homosexuality is indeed a matter of choice (as many gays and pro-gays argue) his case collapses completely. You have rightly judged, as did I, his argument to be dodgy. So much for his glib dismissal of "conservative" arguments against gay marriage. But you err in your next step. Even if, for the sake of argument, homosexuality were shown to be not pathological, it would still not of itself show that a publicly affirmed lifelong exclusive commitment between a loving homosexual couple was in essence the same thing as traditional marriage in its central case: a publicly affirmed lifelong exclusive commitment of a man/woman couple to creating and raising a family, the fruit of their loins, together. Here's where Barnaby Joyce comes in. Why can't, say, a threesome commit to an exclusive, permanent loving relationship and call it "marriage"? Is it necessarily psychopathological for them to do so? Prove it. If not, draw up your metaphysical lines about marriage and justify them. Or concede that legislating for gay marriage is a floodgate, which is Barnaby Joyce's central point.

HH | 05 October 2012  

Any discussion re the right or wrong on same sex marriage and most importantly our regard for these matters in terms of Church, a read of Australian Wallabies Captain David Pocock's article on this and being Christian from the ABC's Ethics and Religion site is a must. His own comments and those of Archbishop Desmond Tutu whom he cites on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgedered persons have my vote. http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2011/12/02/3382170.htm

Christopher McElhinney | 05 October 2012  

Ron Cini and Michelle I applaud your letters and totally agree with your points...Bernadi has been "shot down" for speaking the truth and drawing analogies, in his effort to illustrate a point [however offensively the point is made....yes it got our attention and the press!] Michelle has said it all. Recognising that homosexuality exists and subsequent partnerships, but marriage it is not. It is like comparing apples to oranges. Have you noticed how tiresome the phrase 'bigoted, Christian Right, pandering to Churches when politicians disagree with SSM etc. etc is getting? What about 'equal rights for all' with which society is constantly bombarded? 'Equality' is a much overused word in all sorts of contexts. Equality has nothing to do with the issue at all....That is too simplistic & general. It has much further implications for society.

penny | 05 October 2012  

Apologies, Kate - I meant Cory Bernardi, not Barnaby Joyce.

HH | 06 October 2012  

Perhaps we need to come to an agreement on what "Marriage" is. Even in a hetro-sexual marriage it is not the celebrant who marries the couple. Each party marries the other. The "celebrant" is merely an observer, or a recorder of the event. No one can prevent any two consenting adults making such a commitment to each other. Churches can simply decide on the conditions under which they will approve such commitments and/or act as official witnesses or recorders, and Governments can make similar decisions. The motives for such decisions can be debated at length.

Robert Liddy | 08 October 2012  

Yes, Penny, the argument is getting tiresome, and I can't wait till Australia just passes the SSM laws and gets on the equality bandwagon with the rest of the civilised world. How can equality be over-used? If equality is absent in a given issue, then the issue will keep being used over, and over, and over again - and tiring you out more and more and more until there is equality. I can only imagine what you think the implications for society would be - since you didn't bother to mention any... Do you imagine you'll have to sit next to a goat married to a man on the train? Or do you think you might be invited to a wedding ceremony between a horse and a woman?

AURELIUS | 09 October 2012  

If someone feels he is gay i suggest the persons go celibate and see it as a cross he has to carry. It is been observed that some homosexuals chose to be homosexual because of what they watch. if properly counselled their sexual orientation changes. This things are as a result of new paganism(sexual revolution) .

Jeffery omorodion | 10 October 2012  

Wow Jeffery.... You actually think sexuality works like that?
If people's sexuality was changed based on what they watched then everyone would be pansexual.
No one should feel they have to have a 'cross to carry' because of their sexuality.

Alex | 19 October 2012  

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