A consultation on the issue of same-sex marriages and religious ceremonies for civil partnerships has been launched by Scottish ministers. The Scottish Government said its initial view was that same-sex marriage should be introduced.
Nicola Sturgeon said a recent Scottish Social Attitudes survey found that more than 60% of people in Scotland felt that same-sex couples should have the right to marry, compared to 19% who disagreed. We’re delighted that Duncan Hothersall has written a guest-blog on the subject.
So the gay marriage debate has been joined with a vengeance, and the sides line up in the traditional manner. Lefty, progressive types who believe in free love and reject morals in one corner; religious, conservative types who support traditional values and biblical morality in the other.
Wait; this caricature is wrong. It’s outdated by about 20 years. Progressive views on sexuality are no longer the preserve of the left, and religion no longer means social conservatism. The slow march of decency has lived up to Gandhi’s aphorism: first they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they fight you; then you win.
The political landscape today still has its religious bigots and social conservatives, but they are the outsiders now. The mainstream has embraced, if not free love exactly, then the freedom to love. The “moral equivalence” between gay and straight relationships, so feared by the religious right in the 90s, has come to pass, and the world has continued turning. Bringing up the proposal for gay marriage in general conversation now is more likely to engender “I thought we already had that?” than any sort of conviction on one side or the other. The discussion has been had. The argument was won.
And yet there are loud voices of condemnation still in our media, and if you listened to them alone then you would be forgiven for thinking that the scenario in my opening paragraph was real. Religious figures are raising the same deeply held and strongly convicted objections to the normalisation of same sex relationships as they did in the 90s with Section 28, and in the 2000s with civil partnerships. They are deploying the same carefully calibrated condemnation from god (love the sinner, hate the sin) and waving the same artfully constructed electoral threat (control of a supposedly homogeneous religious voting bloc). For them the repeated loss of this same argument has not dented their enthusiasm for it. Every new legislative move is the final push into the abyss, despite the fact that the abyss has consistently failed to materialise in the past.
And that’s because this has nothing to do with gay marriage. It has nothing to do with gay people at all. It never has had.
When the heroic hurled stilettos of the Stonewall Riots echoed across the west and the gay rights movement exploded in the 1970s, the blast was felt most keenly by the undisputed moral leaders of the time, the established churches. It was an astonishing moment, because it threatened to hole them below the waterline. Scripture condemns same sex relationships, both Old and New Testaments. There was little room for manoeuvre, as there had been for the civil rights movement and for women’s equality. Gay rights went against the bible. Gay rights became the conservative church’s last stand. They had to face down the “homosexual threat”; not to protect “our way of life”, as they so often painted it, but to protect their biblically-derived moral authority.
The Stonewall Riots didn’t just create the gay rights movement. It effectively created the religious right too. The challenge to orthodoxy was a klaxon to the slumbering but mighty power of the churches, and it was awoken. Churches were politicised by the appearance of the great threat. In the US first, but then in the UK, came the gradual realisation that large groups of people being preached to on a Sunday could result in large groups of people in a voting booth on a Thursday.
Sex has long been a battleground of the church, of course. Ancient peoples were consumed by the need to procreate, and family structures were critical to wealth and power, so naturally the writings produced from these times include strict controls over who lieth with whom and where seed might be spilled. But many of the sexual hang-ups of the modern church have little biblical basis. Celibacy for some and monogamy for the rest of us are more recent assertions, for example – evidence of the church following the social mores of its time rather than unchanging law.
So it was an easy, and effective, strategy for the certainties of biblical condemnation and social conservatism to be brought together to make the fight against gay rights the key rallying point for what was really the fight for religious power. The church opposed decriminalisation of gay sex because it feared the loss of its power. It opposed the equalisation of the age of consent because it feared the loss of its power. It opposed the repeal of Section 28 because it feared the loss of its power, and it opposed civil partnerships because it feared the loss of its power. Guess why it’s opposing gay marriage.
The great irony, and the most important thing for those of us on the other side of this debate to remember, is that this motivation is worthless and this argument is empty, because the church doesn’t have any power any more, and there is no abyss. Society has already gone through the changes they warned us of and emerged stronger, fairer and better – not damaged, not failing, and not immoral. Lay church members have already realised this, and come to terms with treating gay people as equals. Churches who have no wish to wield power have realised it too, and come out in support of equality. All that remains is a loud, angry rump – in Scotland chiefly the Catholic bishop’s conference and the traditional wing of the Church of Scotland together with a few evangelicals – in denial of reality.
There is a great opportunity for them here too. When they see their positions are untenable, their threats empty and their fears unfounded, they have a fantastic fall-back. Their holy book, though it may contain some unpleasant old prejudices, is absolutely littered with instructions to do good, to treat people fairly, and to love. For every condemnation of gay sex, there are 500 exhortations to love your neighbour. All they need do is point them out. The solution is in their hands.
Those of us working to make marriage equality a reality ought not to ease up – the appearance of a powerful opposition could still scare politicians into making the wrong decision, and if that loud group is well funded they could cause the same pain as happened in the Section 28 debate. But we can be confident that we have already won the argument, and that the bluster from bishops and cardinals is just that. It is the sound of a different battle being fought, and lost, and soon we’ll not be subject to its collateral damage.