47 mutineers

I was hardly the only one shocked and more than a little dumfounded when 47 Republican U.S. senators sent an unsolicited letter to the Grand Ayatollah of Iran, Ali Khamenei last week. The letter said that any agreement between the United States, Iran, and all those other pesky countries (including China and Russia) working to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons could easily be abrogated by the Congress, something that is simply not true.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. We have a Congress in full mutiny over this thing called constitutional government because it is proving to be inconvenient. They are in mutiny because they hate the guy leading the executive branch because he has the audacity not to agree with them on everything. Just a week earlier House Speaker John Boehner made good on his unilateral decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress. Hitherto foreign policy, with the exception of treaties has been the purview of the executive because, well, it’s that’s what it says in the constitution. It must be very confusing to foreign leaders. Just who speaks for the United States government? It’s pretty clear in other governments, but not in our government, not anymore.

Only it’s not just the Congress. It’s also the Alabama Supreme Court. It started when its supreme justice Roy Moore told county clerks not to marry gay and lesbian couples, this after a federal court ruled they could marry. Subsequently the entire (Republican) state supreme court backed him up. Alabama is basically telling its court clerks that its decision nullifies the federal court’s decision. This is something close to treason. At the very least it is a conscious effort to ignore the supremacy clause of the U.S. constitution. We fought a three-year civil war to resolve the issue of states’ rights. One can understand the impulse not to want to accept these rulings, but a court is never supposed to do anything that obviously conflicts with the settled and unambiguous law of our land. Alvin Toffler would say this is a classic case of future shock. It’s clear that Republicans and southern states in general aren’t doing very well in dealing with the future that has already arrived and won’t follow constitutional processes to change things they don’t like.

Still, what these 47 mutinous Republican senators did reached a new level of arrogance and stupidity. New Arkansas senator Tom Cotton initiated the letter. I had two thoughts when I considered how this letter got started. First was that Cotton hadn’t bothered to run it by staff first. If he had they would have doubtless provided a sanity check and told him that this was a really bad, potentially career-ending act, not to mention factually wrong. The other alternative is even more mind-boggling: his staff told him it was a bad idea but he proceeded anyhow.

The even crazier part is that 47 out of 54 Republican senators signed it as well. This included their majority leader Mitch McConnell and John McCain, hitherto one of the rational Republicans. This wasn’t rocket science. The letter was wrong about how our constitution works. It suggests that 47 Republicans don’t even grasp the basic workings of our foreign policy and congress’s role in it. You could both see it and hear it in Secretary of State John Kerry’s testimony. It was basically: are you really this stupid? Did you not hear the words about swearing to uphold our constitution when you took your oath of office?

Some of the signers have belatedly suggested that maybe signing it wasn’t a smart move. Editorial boards across the country were virtually unanimous in condemning what these senators did. Some of the signers of course doubled down, particularly those who seem to be angling to run for president in 2016.

None of these senators should be trusted to so much as guard a roll of pennies again. It was a potentially criminal lapse of judgment, so much so that a petition calling for them to be tried for treason has garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures on whitehouse.gov. Their hatred for all things Obama and their obsessive pandering to the worst elements of their own party overruled common sense, decency and apparently clouded over basic knowledge of our federal system and constitution. These erstwhile champions of the constitution clearly didn’t bother to read it before they signed the letter.

This is another Mission Accomplished moment, something none of these 47 senators will be able to live down. For many their states are so red it won’t make much of a difference to their jobs, but they will forever be ridiculed, insulted and scorned for their mutinous act. Like Lady Macbeth, they will never be able to remove this damned bloody spot from their careers. It’s a mark of deep shame they will carry into death, to be ever recorded in major sections of their biography. The many good things many of these senators have done are likely to be overwhelmed by this egregious, mutinous and profoundly stupid act of putting their anger and partisanship ahead of statesmanship.

What should marriage mean anyhow?

Barring a surprise from the Supreme Court later this year, it is likely that same sex marriage will be legal throughout the entire United States by the end of 2015. This train seems unstoppable. Thirty-five states now permit gay marriage. There are lawsuits by litigants protesting bans in all the remaining states. In the unlikely event that the Supreme Court does allow states to ban gay marriages, it probably won’t allow states to not recognize same sex marriages performed in other states. This would effectively mean that the only extra cost for same sex couples wanting to get married would be to go to a state that does recognize same sex marriage and marry there, presumably a minor inconvenience. Here in Virginia, which still has a constitutional amendment prohibiting same sex marriage that was subsequently voided by decisions by federal courts, I noticed that the state’s tax forms this year includes changes that allow married same sex couples to file as a married couple. This is progress!

Mostly absent from the same sex marriage discussion is what does it mean to be married. Those of us who are married have already figured this out: it means exactly what the two people involved in the marriage want it to mean. If, like former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, you interpret your marriage contract to mean you cannot sit on a sofa with any adult woman other than your wife, go for it. Similarly, if you and your spouse want to have a completely open marriage where either of you can screw whoever you want whenever you want (with presumably the requirement to inform your spouse first) it can be this as well. In fact, a marriage can be anything the two in the marriage agree it will be, and even stuff they don’t agree it will be if it is tacitly permitted. It ends with a legal divorce. Thankfully, there is no requirement for a marriage inspector to pay periodic visits to determine that you are being monogamous or that you actually live together. This is in effect what marriage has always meant, at least here in the United States for the last hundred years or so.

What should the meaning of marriage be? In some respects the question is hypothetical because what it should be and what it actually is for a couple are often two different things. There are two aspects to this question. First, it should mean whatever it means to the couple based on their agreement or expectations going into the marriage. Hopefully, they will have had many long conversations about this before they tie the knot, ideally facilitated through premarital counseling. Both of them should have a common understanding. Ideally, it would be written down somewhere so that either can refer to it, or to renegotiate the terms from time to time. Many couples choose to have prenuptial agreements that give the force of law to certain aspects of their marriage.

The other aspect is what should the meaning of marriage be to civil society at large? As same sex marriage opponents like to point out, traditionally marriage existed to provide a legal framework for children to be raised. Before looking at what is should be, let’s look at what marriage is for society.

At least here in the United States, marriage offers no particular tax advantages. In fact most married couple discover they pay more taxes as a married couple than they did as two single people combined. You can claim your children as dependents, providing you actually pay for their care. However, you can take this claim outside the framework of marriage if you pay support for pretty much anyone who is your legal dependent. There are legal privileges to being married, and they vary from state to state. For example, if you are married you are generally assumed to be the first “next of kin”. There are also contractual obligations that come with marriage. In most cases you are libel for debts incurred by your spouse.

There are certain financial advantages to marriage as well. Health insurance may be cheaper if procured for a couple instead of individually. The biggest financial advantage of marriage probably comes from sharing housing. It’s much cheaper for two people to inhabit one household than for two people to maintain separate households. Two unmarried people can of course “shack up” and achieve similar savings, if the zoning allows this, but with less likelihood that these savings could be sustained over many years.

But what should marriage mean to society at large? As with the people in a marriage, it will mean whatever government thinks it should mean. Of course, society’s expectations for marriage often vary widely from the actual consequences of marriage. This is borne out in divorce and domestic abuse statistics. Society should expect that married couples will have nurturing and healthy relationships, and because of this it will make society in general better. Society should expect that due to marriage, children of married couples should be happier and healthier than children raised in a single parent household. Crime rates for these households should be lower. Of course, at best the empirical data to support all this is mixed, although there is good evidence that crime rates are lower in general in communities where people own their homes compared to rental communities. In general though the expectation is that marriage should promote societal harmony and prosperity. This does imply though that society would be less of these if no one ever married. I doubt this argument could be empirically validated either. A lot of people get married thinking they will be happier. When they try it they often find out they were happier as singles. In truth, living with the same person for many years is more often harder than easy, at least compared with who you were before the marriage.

For me, I think that marriage should mean that two people are happier living together than apart; otherwise there is no point to being married. For society, if it actually promotes societal harmony then marriage should enjoy legal protections. The evidence here is mixed, to say the least. I don’t believe that the state should give special privileges to married couples, such as tax breaks, because it discriminates against single people. However, I see nothing wrong with society sanctioning marriage because it allows two people to have greater happiness. We formed the United States in part to allow each person to pursue happiness. If civil marriage can facilitate a sense of intimacy and closeness between two people, it’s a worthy thing for government to sanction.

Beyond that marriage should mean very little to society at large, the same way that my neighbor five doors down’s marriage means little to me personally. In short, I think marriage should mean a great deal to those who are married. For the most part though marriage should mean a lot less to society at large than we ascribe to it. Those obsessing about it should just take a chill pill.

Unitarian Universalists moved the needle on gay marriage

Marriages between gays or lesbians seem to be a fading issue in this country. In certain parts of the country, particularly in Southern states, the issue is still radioactive. Overall it is succumbing to a number of forces, probably the most important of which is simply demographics. The people that care the most about it are dying, and those who are comfortable with it tend to be younger.

Still, it is remarkable how quickly the tables have turned. Just a few years ago I was hearing from friends who were against gay marriage that only unelected judges were allowing gay marriage, not the people. “In every state where voters have had a say, it’s been turned down.” That’s no longer true, as Maine voters approved gay marriage by referendum in 2012. We have legislators paid to make these decisions. Vermont, of course, was the first to have civil unions and was the first to legalize gay marriage in 2009, over the veto of Governor Douglas. Legislators in New Hampshire and the District of Columbia followed Vermont’s lead in 2009. In 2011, New York State joined the club. In 2012 it was Washington State. In 2013, the floodgates opened. Legislators approved gay marriage in Maryland, Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, Hawaii and Illinois.

Gay marriage is now legal in 17 states, and it is being disputed in court in states you would not expect, like Tennessee, Utah and Indiana. These rulings were prompted by last year’s Supreme Court decision in Windsor v. United States, which struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. The ruling made lawful gay marriages legal for federal purposes. And because of the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. constitution, many federal judges are invalidating state marriage laws against gay marriage. The Supreme Court will likely get to rule on the issue again, which last year was narrowly tailored. While our Supreme Court tends to be conservative, it has a libertarian streak. It is likely that within a few years that laws or state constitutional amendments outlawing gay marriage in the United States will become null and void, like sodomy laws.

This kind of rapid change is pretty breathtaking, even for me. In 2006, I disparaged my state of Virginia. In 2005, Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage in the state. That seemed to cement prejudice into law for decades. I wrote:

Yet the time of their repeal will come eventually. It may take 50 years. It may take a hundred years. Yet it will happen in time, yes even here in Virginia. Just as we once hung our heads in shame for tolerating evils like slavery, just as we flagrantly hung on to white and black only schools as recently as 1964, the time will come when we will look back on these sad modern times wholly aghast that we could have ever been so shallow, intolerant and mean spirited.

So how is Virginia doing with the whole gay marriage thing in 2014? Due to the Supreme Court’s decision, our Democratic Attorney General refuses to enforce that part of our state constitution, but that’s kind of moot at the moment. That’s because in February, our federal district court in Bostic v. Rainey invalidated our state’s constitutional amendment. The judged stayed the ruling on appeal. The case went to the Fourth Circuit Court, which heard oral arguments on May 13. It’s likely the ruling will be upheld. Since our Attorney General won’t appeal the ruling if it is upheld, gay marriage will likely be legal in Virginia sometime this year. In short, it looks like it will have taken eight years, not 50. Meanwhile, the polling here in Virginia has totally switched in eight years. According to a Quinnipiac poll released March 31, fifty percent of Virginia voters favor gay marriage, with 42 percent opposed.

While some of this is due to demographic forces, it’s also due in part to a lot of people being very noisy on the issue. Most Americans get it. They may find gay marriage morally repugnant, but they can’t get over the fairness argument. It’s simply not fair to extend to one class of citizen privileges not afforded to another, and it sure appears to be a violation of both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to do so. Increasingly most of those disgusted by gay marriage are simply willing to hold their nose rather than fight it. There’s also the general sense that fighting it is futile.

How did this happen so fast? It happened because of a convergence of various forces as well as demographics. I am proud to say that my denomination, Unitarian Universalism, was the point of the spear on this issue, at least as a social movement. Back in 2009, I wrote about our national convention that I attended in conservative Utah. We took over the convention center in Salt Lake City and had an eight story banner “Standing on the Side of Love” going down the side of the convention center. It was bold, breathtaking and in 2009 felt pretty futile, particularly since we had converged on the bright red state of Utah.

The banner since then has been everywhere. It is hard to find pictures of any march anywhere for gay marriage without seeing the banner. In demonstrations and marches, the banner is prominent, with mostly Unitarian Universalists (UUs) carrying the banner. It’s not a hard message to grasp: UUs take the side of love, not hate. The banner is still in use, and its use is not just to help gays and lesbians acquire marital rights. It is also being used for the many of us UUs that support immigrant rights, and other endeavors that require love and compassion as a solution. Of course, the movement is more than a banner, it’s people, and our current president as well as past president has been leading our denomination on the issue.

I wish I could point to other great successes like this among UUs. There have been many prominent UUs throughout the years (including Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin) and more than a few presidents, but as leaders of social change we have often been laggards. (I am thinking about racial tolerance and sexism in particular.) That has changed. UUs have proven instrumental at moving the needle on this fundamental issue of civil rights and fairness. UUs everywhere, but the Standing on the Side of Love team in particular, have certainly earned my gratitude. I’ve never been prouder to be a UU.

I hope we can keep this streak going and keep moving our country toward acting as if love and compassion is the core of who we are as a nation. We are now trying to move the needle on the child refugee crisis on our southern border, among other issues. I hope that you will join us.

Advice to Democrats

I love to give advice, even though if I am inconsistent in following my own advice. Recently after their losses in the latest election I gave some advice to Republicans. Today, I figure turnabout is fair play. Here is some advice for Democrats.

Democrats, it’s easy to assume that due to changing demographics that Republicans are in permanent decline and that in a few election cycles Congress will resemble itself during the 1960s and 1970s, when it was overwhelmingly Democratic. That may happen but if you think this will happen solely because of demographic changes, you are wrong. It may not happen at all.

Republicans still control the House, and a majority of governorships and state legislatures. In short, the party remains a huge and powerful political force. Even at the national level, Democratic control is fragile. Democratic control of the House remains elusive and made less likely by redistricting and the resulting highly gerrymandered districts. In the Senate, Democrats survived a very tough election and actually added a couple of seats to their majority. Our 55 seats include two independent senators caucusing with the Democrats. In 2014, Democrats will again be fighting headwinds as more Democrats run for reelection than Republicans.

Of course to really get things done in the Senate a party needs a supermajority, which is 60 seats. However, even when we have 60 seats, it is very easy for Democrats to split into factions. Democrats rarely show the sort of unanimity that Republicans do. The Affordable Care Act was a prime example, passing late and watered down, with certain senators in conservative leaning states (like Max Baucus) leveraging oversized influence and some senators (Joe Lieberman comes to mind) acting obnoxious and petulant. In retrospect, it’s amazing it was passed into law in even its watered down state.

The news is better on the presidential front. It used to be that by default Republicans were more likely to win presidential contests, due to various demographic and electoral vote advantages. Those days appear over. It is unlikely that any true conservative Republican (at least “conservative” in its modern and antediluvian form) can win for the foreseeable future. Of course, it all depends on who gets nominated, and arguably Democrats have nominated some stinkers with little national appeal including John Kerry, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. In short, when choosing nominees Democrats can tend to be as highly-partisan as Republicans, choosing from their hearts instead of their heads. Choose someone without broad appeal and the party is likely to lose despite favorable demographics.

Looking at the 2012 election, two factors worked in the Democrats favor. First were the obvious demographic changes that are turning traditionally red states blue. I live in such a state (Virginia), but it is blue principally only in national elections. We have a Republican house and senate, and a Republican governor, and an attorney general on the right side of the Tea Party. Other states like Ohio, traditionally a swing state, have a similarly Republican disposition but are turning reliably blue in national elections. The most important reason that Democrats won this time is that they turned out the base. Democrats outnumber Republicans nationally, so they win when they turn out the base. They tend to lose, and lose badly, when they stay home. Independents tend to swing more toward voting Republican, so turning out the base is critical for maintaining and extending Democratic control. This means that selecting candidates on all levels that both excite the base but have mainstream appeal is critical for increasing Democratic power.

We may have a few cycles where Republicans will give Democrats a break. This is because Republicans have not really come to terms with their loss, which means finding a strategy appeals to moderates. At least at the moment, the critical mass of Republicans figure doing more of what lost them the last election, just with more sincerity, is how to get back into power. Perhaps after a couple more election drubbings they will figure it out.

Democrats have a tendency to settle into comfortable factions within the party. This is less of a concern than it used to be, as conservative Democrats are in decline and liberal Democrats are ascending. When this happens, Democrats can become as ideologically stubborn as Republicans. However, it tends to hurt them more than it does Republicans. One of these fault lines has traditionally been in the area of gun control. Thoughtful Democrats need to discern between issues that they can win on and those they cannot. The gun control debate cannot be won at the ballot box, at least not for a couple of generations. Consequently there is no point wasting energy advocating for such issues. It will only boomerang against Democrats, despite the fact that sensible gun control regulation probably makes complete logical sense.

Instead, Democrats need to concentrate on issues that appeal to both Democrats and Independents generally. Gay marriage is one of these issues where the national consensus has changed. Americans fundamentally agree with the notion of equality and fairness, at least under the law. Being the party of the workingman is never bad either. Democrats need to continue to advocate for people at the low and middle income levels, and target policies that help these groups. There is no downside to this. Democrats also need to avoid bad habits, like sucking up to Wall Street, which is almost always going to vote Republican, or at least for the party which panders to their selfish interests the most. That Wall Street almost invariably does better under Democratic administrations seems lost on them.

Democrats also need to advocate for policies that are in the best interest of people generally, not necessarily those that are in the best interest of their most vocal groups. A good example of this is public schools and support of teachers’ unions. Democrats should insist that every child deserves a high quality education, even if they cannot afford it. They should not assume that a dysfunctional public school system that puts the needs of teachers ahead of students is acceptable. The public school model is clearly under stress, particularly in poorer neighborhoods. Democrats should be open to charter schools particularly in districts where public schools are clearly below par. They should also advocate for policies that nurture healthy students so they have the capacity to learn. This may mean, for example, that three healthy meals a day are served at schools. The school may need to morph to be more than a center of education, but be thought of as a second home for students, whose parents likely aren’t working 9 to 5. They should advocate for safe public housing for poorer students, with residency contingent upon good behavior and for the upkeep of rental property. It should be obvious to Democrats that the real problem with education in poor areas is not substandard teachers (although certainly there are many of them) but are mostly due to environmental factors. These include the lack of affordable healthy food, and stressful families and neighborhoods. Republicans, of course, will choose to remain clueless of this reality, since their brains cannot seem to absorb that a multiplicity of factors affect ability to learn, not evil union-loving teachers.

In short Democrats, having power is not about living drunk on the privilege of power when you get it. It’s about refusing to be headstrong when you are granted power and keeping a relentless focus on improving the common good. Democrats have to earn their keep. When they get sloppy for too long, they will lose power. More importantly, much of the good they have done can be lost too, and that would be the true tragedy.

Homophobia is receding faster than anticipated

New York State recently became the latest state to permit gays and lesbians to wed. That leaves six states, the District of Columbia and the Coquille Indian Tribe that have achieved enlightenment. New York’s approval of gay marriage was especially important because of the size of its population. With its passage, the number of citizens who can marry regardless of their sexual orientation effectively doubled. In addition, six other states allow civil unions but do not allow gay marriage, including the populous state of California.

Even here in Virginia the homophobes are receding. In 2006, Virginia passed a constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage in the state (already illegal by law) that also explicitly ruled out civil unions as well. Now just five years later, according to a surprising Washington Post poll, a majority of Virginians now approve of gay marriage. I don’t expect Virginia will approve gay marriage anytime soon, but I now think it is likely that I will live to see gay marriage in Virginia. Back in 2006, I believed it would take at least fifty years. Now I am betting it will take fifteen years.

Even weirder, at least one organization staunchly opposed to gay marriage has given up. Jim Daly, head of Focus on the Family says his organization will no longer try to stop gay marriage legislation. They think it’s a lost cause, in part because they can interpret demographic trends. The younger generation is fine with gay marriage; it’s only those sixty plus who still have heartburn over it.

Overall, homophobia seems to be receding. Even Republicans are caring less. The social conservatives are still against it, but there is a significant libertarian wing of the Republican Party that sees gay marriage as a civil right. More and more Republicans are realizing their inconsistency of promoting a “pro-freedom” agenda while restricting civil liberties for others. Fundamentalists remain largely aghast, but even in conservative communities it’s not unusual for people to know someone who is gay. That’s the problem with homophobia. Once you know someone who is gay, and particularly if you get to know them in any depth, you feel sorry if they do not have the same right to marry as you do. If you have any compassion in your heart, it is hard not to just say yes.

The few opposed to gay marriage who are evidenced-based can look to states like Massachusetts, which instituted gay marriage in 2004, and realize that it has not become a Gomorrah, at least no more than it was before the law took effect. A few years ago I spent a week touring New England, where it’s hard to find a state without gay marriage or civil unions. It felt more like Norman Rockwell territory than many deeply red states I also visited, like Arizona and South Dakota. In New England, there are lots of tidy towns with white picket fences, and more churches per square mile than in the South (perhaps because the population density is higher). For the most part, gay couples are no longer the least bit remarkable in New England. You don’t feel the need to discuss it with your neighbor because you have grown inured to the whole phenomenon. To the extent you think about it, it is to wonder why people in other states are still states up in arms about the whole idea. Where’s the harm? Where’s the implosion of society?

As time passes, the arguments of those opposed to gay marriage only become weaker tea. As I outlined some time ago, marriage between one man and one woman was hardly the historical norm, and in many parts of the world (particularly in Islamic countries) polygamy is as common as monogamy. At least one study suggests that same sex lesbian couples are proving to be better parents than heterosexual parents. In Canada, a study suggests that same sex couples are at least as good as heterosexual parents.

Other studies suggest just how weak other arguments are. Gay-friendly Massachusetts also has the nation’s lowest divorce rate. Divorce rates have not budged since gay marriage became law, as Charles Colson asserted they would in 2004. In fact, being evangelical is apparently more dangerous to your marriage than marrying a same sex partner. Divorce.com notes a study that evangelicals have a 43% divorce rate, which is greater than the national average.

President Obama says his views on gay marriage are “evolving”, but at a news conference yesterday he still could not come out and say he was in favor of gay marriage. He is in favor of equal rights for gays, including civil unions as long as “marriage” is reserved for heterosexual couples. One strongly gets the feeling that Obama is all for gay marriage, but he just does not have the courage to “come out of the closet” on the issue. I expect it will happen after elections next year, whether or not he wins.

It is easiest to manipulate people when you give them something to fear, but it’s clear that the more Americans encounter gays the less they are bothered by them and the more they are in favor of their equal rights, including the right to marry. Saying gay marriage should be illegal because it is immoral is not working too well either, as plenty of activities are immoral, but are not necessarily criminal (adultery and drunkenness comes to mind). Gay marriage seems to have no effect on society whatsoever, either for good or bad. The only thing that is clear is that more people who were denied certain freedoms based purely on their sexual orientation no longer have legalized discrimination working against them. They are freer to enjoy the blessings of liberty.

As a man married to the same woman for a quarter century, I want to give gays and lesbians the same chance at an enduring relationship that I have. Gay marriage clearly says that society wants to encourage serial monogamy between same sex couples, which seems moral to most people as well as inhibits the spread of social diseases. I suspect gay spouses will soon realize that a marriage is no panacea; it is not for us heterosexuals either. Any intimate relationship comes full of landmines as well as benefits.

Wise conservatives are realizing there is little traction on the issue anymore, so they best move on and find new bogeymen instead. Eventually all states will allow gay marriage, not because they necessarily agree it is moral, but because the costs of discriminating against gays will become too high. Over time, gays and lesbians will find incentives to move to gay-friendly states, and they will take their talents (and income) with them. In fact, it is easy to predict that states and cities will highlight their gay-friendliness as a marketing tool. In the end, it will be good old capitalism, not liberal values that are likely to give gays the right to marriage from sea to shining sea. When it happens, it is unlikely to be a moment for celebration. We will simply shrug our shoulders.

Civil marriage is still a civil right

Perhaps to really appreciate Valentine’s Day, you have to be single or divorced. When you are an old married dude like me, Valentine’s Day has a perfunctory feel to it. Of course, I get my wife a card, some chocolate and sometimes even some flowers. She does likewise. It should be a special day since after all it is a day that celebrates romantic love. Perhaps we could find ways to make the day more special. For us the truth is that we love each other the same every day of the year, so there is not much point in making a fuss over Valentine’s Day, beyond what is expected.

Absence does make my heart grow fonder. There are times when I feel if we really wanted to rekindle the old flame, we should spend a month apart. A week apart, which happens a couple times a year when I am off on business travel, definitely makes me miss my wife. I miss her as well as all those comfortable, somewhat nebbish things we do both together and apart, like sit three feet from each other while she inhabits one computer and I another but largely never speak. I imagine to feel so distracted that I craved her most of the time would take about a month. I really don’t know because in nearly a quarter century of marriage, we have not been apart for more than two weeks at a time.

Passionate love is designed to be fleeting. It tends to get more passionate with increased separation, up to a point. If your hormones remained as high as they are during the passionate love phase, you would live happy but die young. This is why many of us crave a lower intensity kind of love that amounts to the comfort and routine of being married. After a while, you take it for granted simply because it is so always available. We have someone to come home to. He or she may not be perfect, but neither are we. This low-key love that most of the time is pleasant rather than passionate seems to be the key for many to low blood pressure, health and long life.

Some of us would like this pleasant kind of love but haven’t found the right person yet. Others of us may have found the right person but cannot get married. The person they love inconveniently has the same sex as they do. Except in a handful of states they are out of luck. Perhaps they can live with their love, but they cannot do anything to make their relationship legal.

I do not know exactly how things would be between my wife and I right now had we decided to live with each other the last quarter century instead of tying the knot. I do know they would be a lot different. Would we have ever had a child? These days there is a lot less stigma associated with having a child out of wedlock but childrearing is so much less complicated when you are married. Our daughter could fall under my insurance. My wife of course would not be my wife, unless you count her as a common law wife, so she would have to fend for herself in the health insurance market. Frankly, I doubt we would still be together. We both wanted to settle down. Inhabiting a house together was nice, but until we were tied together legally, it didn’t feel quite right. Marriage was important because it meant we were an established and committed couple and could plan a future together in a straightforward and structured way.

It baffles me, particularly with the passing of each Valentine’s Day, why gays and lesbians cannot enjoy the simple right to a civil marriage. I could enumerate the many reason why denying civil marriage is so counterproductive to our society. However, the Reverend Evan Keely, an interim minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church I attend pretty much said it all in his succinct sermon Forty-Seven Theses that he delivered appropriately on Valentine’s Day Sunday. In addition, I have talked extensively about this injustice before.

Today, I simply want to say to my gay and lesbian brethren just how sorry I am that they were born into a society where they still cannot know the everyday pleasure of waking up with and interacting with a spouse. I never have to worry that my wife will be denied hospital visitation privileges, or that someone I trust can direct our financial affairs when I am unable to do so. I don’t have to worry about finding someone to accompany me to the hospital for outpatient surgery or to drive me home afterward. It comes implicitly with marriage. Having a spouse makes life so much less complicated in so many ways, while of course it introduces relational complexities as well. It is not fair, but I am fully vested in society and you, unless you live in a state that allows gay marriage, are not. Even if you happen to live in a progressive state like Massachusetts, in the eyes of the federal government you are still not married, and are treated as such.

Rest assured that this will change. In time, this injustice will be rectified and you will be treated as equally as the rest of us who happen to have been born with heterosexual orientations. I will not rest until you too can enjoy the right to live pleasantly (but not always with burning passion) with the blessing of civil society with the person you love.

Fathers are necessary

Polls indicate that a majority of Americans believe the word “marriage” should be reserved for a legal covenant between two people of opposite sexes only. Curiously, polls also show a majority of Americans are comfortable with two same sex partners having all the privileges of marriage as long as they don’t call it marriage. What is the difference anyhow?

As best I can figure out, same sex couples figure the difference is like having “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites. Calling a legal relationship a different name when it is the same in every other way but the sex of the participants in their eyes suggests that their relationship is not as worthy of sanction as those between two people of opposite sexes. It’s like getting a silver medal when you earned the gold. For many heterosexuals, I think what really makes “marriage” a special word is that traditional marriages come with the potential of parenthood and this is special enough to make the distinction unique.

Not any more, obviously. My wife is a friend of a lesbian couple and one of the wives is pregnant. Naturally, she did not invite a male to have intercourse with her; a willing donor provided semen, which she obtained from her local sperm bank. Most kids get only one mother. This one will have two, which is twice as much of a blessing, I guess. What is noticeably absent though is the father. Does the absence of a father deprive the child of something important? For that matter, does the absence of a mother also deprive the child of something important? Do two mothers equal one mother and one father? Do two fathers equal one mother and one father?

These were questions I didn’t know I was struggling with until last night. After our traditional Thanksgiving Dinner featuring a potpourri of friends and family, the topic of two same sex parents came up. At our table were many of my wife’s friends from the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. I was washing dishes and minding my own business but listening to their conversation. As it turns out, I am perfectly okay with gay marriage. I think any two people of legal age who want to get married should have the privilege. They can have “I’m married” stamped on their foreheads if they want to and I would have no problem calling them Mrs. and Mrs. Jones or Mr. And Mr. Smith. Where I have some hesitation is when it comes to two people of the same sex raising their own children together. Is it a good or a bad idea?

Before I knew it, I had joined the conversation and stated an opinion that for me seemed almost right wing. Since the topic was in the context of two women, I said I thought the presence of a strong father figure was important for raising a healthy child. The same is true with a mother, of course. As proof, I pointed to the District of Columbia where black fathers living at home are almost an extinct species. Single mothers are raising the vast majority of black children in D.C., sometimes with the assistance of their grandmothers because the fathers long ago abandoned the mother. In D.C., a black child is lucky to see his real father on occasion, and even luckier if he is actually providing child support. Many of these youth have no idea who their father is, or if they do, their only memory of him is a distant one.

What is the impact of being nurtured without a strong father figure? Arguably, at least in D.C., it is devastating. How many of these youths who are currently doing drugs and getting involved in gangs would be doing so if they had a father in the household? It is hard to say for sure because I doubt there is much clinical research. I do think it is reasonable to assume that the incidence would be much lower.

I have not had the privilege of having a son, but I do have a daughter. I do know there are plenty of studies that suggest the presence of a strong father figure is a critical factor among those girls who grow into leadership roles as adults. I am not entirely sure how much of my daughter was shaped by my presence and nurturing these last twenty years, but it must be a large amount. How could it not? How would my daughter be different if my wife had been a lesbian instead, had been in a gay marriage, had been artificially inseminated and raised her with her loving partner of the same sex? Would something important be missing from my daughter as a result? Perhaps I overvalue my role as a father, but my guts says yes: a good father is necessary in raising happy and healthy children of any gender, as just as it is important for a child to also have a nurturing mother.

Obviously there are many bad marriages out there. There is no guarantee when two people get married and have babies that they will have the right stuff to raise their children into healthy, sane and productive adults. My suspicion is that children raised in dysfunctional marriages are probably healthier without that stress. With roughly half of marriages dissolving, one would have to assume the odds for children in traditional marriages are at best 50/50. Many, many factors influence children throughout childhood and adolescence, but it would seem obvious that parents are their primary influences. The health of the marital relationship should correlate closely to the likelihood of raising mentally healthy and fully functional children. That seems to be true on my block, where I spent the last sixteen years. The adult children who are now doing best tend to be from families with strong and nurturing parents. The struggling children seem to be from those that were rife with marital discord.

Like it or not, children will inculcate behavior modeled by their parents. My question: is there is something critical about having parents of the opposite sex to raising healthy children? Today, gay and lesbian couples no longer have to feel like parenting is off limits to them. What we do not really understand yet is what the long-term effects of children being raised by same sex couples will be. A correlation is made harder because there are so many bad traditional marriages out there too. It appears that even though I have some concerns that children raised by same sex couples may be missing something important (although I am not entirely sure what it is) it is happening nonetheless, and social scientists over the coming decades will have an opportunity to study its effects.

It could be that a child is raised by two people of the same sex will do just fine if both are positive and nurturing influences in their lives. They may grow up to be more tolerant people than they otherwise would be, which sounds like a good thing. Sons though may need to observe and pick up crucial male bonding behaviors from their fathers. It may be that the absence of this factor makes them less functional in society compared with others raised in traditional marriages. The problem is less acute for girls, since the number of men in gay marriages raising girls is much smaller.

I do know that in the District of Columbia, we seem to be raising an angry and dysfunctional generation of young men and women. There may be many factors causing this horrendous outcome, and poverty is certainly one factor, but the lack of strong and healthy male authority figures in these households is obvious. The problems in these communities were not nearly as bad when there were more intact marriages among African Americans. To me it seems reasonable to infer that if this can happen among African Americans, it can happen within any ethnic community.

The example in D.C. suggests to me that when it comes to parenting, we should proceed with caution. Our children should not necessarily become victims of a vast social experiment because newly liberated gay and lesbian couples also want to raise their own biological children. We do not fully understand the nature of nurturing, but I strongly suspect is not solely a feminine or a masculine thing. The masculine element exhibited in the role of a father seems to also be critical, for both boys and girls.

The cry to save the word “marriage” may at its root be nothing more than an inchoate feeling among many of us that we are playing with dynamite. The lessons in D.C. and many inner city communities ought to be red flags for us to think through the consequences of our actions before plunging headlong into them.

There’s a storm not coming!

The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) is dreadfully concerned about gay marriage. I was hoping that maybe they were dreadfully concerned about the quality of marriage in this country for a change, as evidenced by our national divorce rate being between forty and fifty percent. I expected that all the bad marriages, divorces and the wreckage they cause would be of huge concern to NOM.

Ha ha! Of course not, at least not that much compared to the evil that gay marriage means … well, I am not sure exactly what it means to them except that they are afraid. If you haven’t already, watch their 60-second commercial and see if you can figure it out.

There’s a storm gathering. The clouds are dark. And the winds are strong. And I am afraid.

So some people are afraid, but of what? Oh, here we go:

Some who advocate for same sex marriage have taken the issue far beyond same sex couples. They want to bring the issue into my life. My freedom will be taken away.

So some people are afraid because same sex marriage will mean they will have less freedom. Perhaps they are worried that if their state can let gays marry then their state can also take away the right for heterosexuals to marry.  That doesn’t seem too likely as homosexuals comprise about three to five percent of the population. What other freedoms then could they be talking about?

I am a California doctor who must choose between my faith and my job.

Apparently, a doctor in California did not want to treat a lesbian patient who wanted to be artificially inseminated. The doctor refused because her patient was not married and that violated her beliefs. In this case, the California Supreme Court declared that the rights of the patient were more important than the rights of the doctor. The NOM seems to be arguing that physicians should be allowed to violate the law of the State of California and their Hippocratic Oath when it violates their personal beliefs. If all acts of conscience are excusable, can I decline a ticket for driving without my seat belt because it is against my beliefs? However, what really matters here is that this is a red herring. It has nothing to do with same sex marriage. The issue was facilitating having a child out of wedlock.

I am part of a New Jersey church group punished by the government because we can’t support same sex marriage.

This is one of these cases that is much ado about nothing. A New Jersey Methodist church owns a square mile of property along the Atlantic Ocean. The church is inland. They built a boardwalk and pavilion along the beach. The church allowed public weddings in the pavilion.  Two lesbians asked to use the pavilion for their wedding because it was for public use and were refused. Because the church allowed the pavilion to be used by the public rather than for church purposes, the state said it was taxable property. The church itself remains tax-exempt. The dispute here has to do with public use of property owned by a church and whether such property should be taxed. The lesbian couple has sued the church, but that is a civil suit. It is not an action by the government to lash out at those who object to gay marriage. Once again, the issue as portrayed in the ad has nothing to do with government being vindictive against churches that are against gay marriage.

I am a Massachusetts parent helplessly watching public schools teach my son that gay marriage is okay.

The concern here is that a public school teacher can say in the classroom that gay marriage is legal in the State of Massachusetts, which in fact it is. This is not advocating gay marriage; this is stating the truth. It is also a fact that gay marriage is not (currently) allowed next door in New York State. It would be factual for a teacher to state that too, but I bet this Massachusetts parent would not object. It sounds like this parent really wants to restrict which facts teachers can communicate to students. This is not freedom; it is censorship, which is its antithesis.

But some who advocate for same sex marriage have not been content with same sex couples living as they wish.

Say what? In most cases, same sex couples are not living as they wish; that’s why they and those of us who agree with them are petitioning for their right to marry! Moreover, if the U.S. Supreme Court had not invalidated all state sodomy laws, some of these gays and lesbians would still be lawbreakers and possibly in jail for the “crime” of having oral or anal sex.

Those advocates want to change the way I live. I will have no choice.

If the issue is gay marriage, since you are not gay how will that change how you live your life? If the issue is one of facing the law for doing things against your conscience, you are free to follow your conscience providing you do not mind being prosecuted. You can also petition to change the law. News flash: we are all required to obey the law. It is nondiscriminatory. We are required to obey the law even when it is inconvenient, even when laws are stupid. Are you requesting the right to choose which laws you will follow? If so, will you extend the same privilege to gays and lesbians? If not, why not?

The storm is coming. But we have hope. A rainbow coalition of people of every creed and color are coming together in love to protect marriage.

As a heterosexual married man, I can state for my wife and I that the vitality and continuance of our marriage has no relationship to whether gays can or cannot marry. It amazes me that anyone who is married could possibly believe otherwise. If you are married, do you really think that your marriage is more likely to crumble because gays can marry? In the event I divorce, it will not be because I turned gay. I would have found this out by now. If I divorce, I will still be allowed to remarry should I choose. What I do know is that other citizens just because they are attracted to their own sex do not have the same right, and this is just as unjust as laws that used to prohibit interracial marriage.

This commercial reminds me of that Dr. Seuss story, “The Pale Green Pants with nobody inside of them”. NOM is chasing a bogeyman that exists only in their fears and not in reality. Here is my suggestion to those opposed to gay marriage: talk with gay and lesbian people. You will discover they are real people just like you. They bleed just like you. They have 46 chromosomes just like you. They put their pants on one leg at a time, just like you. They feel, just like you. They cry, laugh, get angry, feel happy and have fears and insecurities just like you. They are not worse than you. They are not better than you. They are just human beings, like you. As such, it is inexcusable to deny gays and lesbians the same legal privileges as anyone else.

Maybe it’s not storm clouds these people are afraid of, but the sunlight.

The Pastor Warren Gambit

I am one of many people who have been puzzling over Barack Obama’s peculiar inaugural invitation to Pastor Rick Warren. Just in case you have been living in a cave these last few weeks, Warren is a jet-setting pastor of the evangelical Saddleback (California) Community Church (a mega-church) and the best selling author of The Purpose Driven Life. He befriended Barack Obama a couple years back. Obama even spoke to his congregation. Warren also happens to be against homosexual marriage. Obama has at times sounded both pro gay-marriage and anti-gay marriage. However, he clearly is for civil unions, which he sees as the legal equivalent of marriage, and is opposed to all discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The gay and lesbian community is outraged over Obama’s invitation to Warren to say a prayer at his inauguration. They were among his staunchest supporters during his campaign and feel his invitation was a slap in their faces. After all, Rick Warren had equated gay marriage with incest and pedophilia. I am not gay and I sure found those words offensive when I read them. Yet, realistically his words were no more offensive than a lot of other tripe coming out of the conservative Christian community. As I pointed out in this recent post, polygamy is also Biblically sanctioned but I do not hear Pastor Warren sanctioning that.

As I expected, Rick Warren has quickly toned down the rhetoric. Today he asserted that he is not anti-gay, just anti-gay marriage. He has also said he regretted his choice of words when he associated gay marriage with incest and pedophilia. His church also removed wording from its website that said gays were welcomed as members only if they first repented for their homosexual lifestyles. It is unclear though whether homosexuals can now become members of the church.

Warren also recently shared the stage with songwriter Melissa Etheridge, a rather public lesbian and who is legally married in the State of California to her lesbian spouse. How much longer her marriage will be legal is an open question, given that people like Warren worked tirelessly to ensure the proposition’s passage. Sharing a stage though gave Etheridge and Warren a reason to talk about their differences on these sensitive issues. Etheridge for one is willing to cut Warren some slack on his past remarks.

I can understand why most in the homosexual and lesbian community would be irate with this invitation. If I had been discriminated and scorned much of my life for my natural sexual preferences and my perfectly understandable desire to have my marital state sanctioned by society, I would be hollering too. Why would our president elect do such a thing?

In the interest of balance, Pastor Warren is not be the only minister Obama asked to speak at the inauguration. Joseph Lowery, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, accepted an invitation to give the benediction. Lowery’s views are far more inclusive than Warren’s. Obama himself said, “It is important for America to come together, even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues.” To gays and lesbians in particular, their rights are more than mere “social issues”.

Obama must have known that by inviting Warren he would raise a ruckus. What is Obama really up to with his invitation? Is he trying to win the respect of those who did not vote for him, and thereby increase his chances of rallying the country on painful changes that will be hard to swallow? Is he telegraphing that his support for gays and lesbians was half-hearted and his appeals to this community duplicitous? Is he making a statement that in the grand scheme of all the severe problems facing this country that gay and lesbian rights are not that important?

While I cannot read his mind, I think I understand Obama’s strategy. Those who are most virulently against extending full civil rights (including marital rights) to gays and lesbians are, in my observation, those who spend the least amount of time interacting with them. Sure, they are among us but unlike skin color, which you cannot hide in ordinary life, it is easy to hide your sexual preferences.

If we are to end the polarization on this issue, those who are opposed to gay and lesbian rights must spend time in civil dialog with openly gay and lesbian people. It is especially important for prominent people on both sides to have civil dialog. By talking to Melissa Etheridge before their appearance at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, as well as sharing a stage with her, Warren had the opportunity to have his beliefs challenged in person and in a way that did not make him defensive. It turns out that Warren is also a big Melissa Etheridge fan, which doubtless helped Etheridge get her views across. While I am sure she is not the first overtly gay or lesbian person he has met, repeated encounters help people like Warren understand that gays and lesbians are not freaks or a special class of sinner but completely ordinary people.

The full enfranchisement that gays and lesbians seek will not occur through noisy in your face confrontations. Such confrontations may feel good, but their effects are likely to be counterproductive and inflame passions on both sides. Such actions are also likely to retard the progress that gays and lesbians seek. Barack Obama is forcing a dance between these two social forces in a way that promotes genuine dialog rather than hate and vindictiveness.

An enemy ceases to be your enemy once you can relate to them. It is through dialog that conservative Christians and others opposed to homosexual rights will eventually be won over. There are far more vitriolic ministers on this issue than Pastor Warren. Warren though exhibits a certain amount of common sense and reasonableness. It is through changing influential minds like his that much larger groups are persuaded. Obama’s timing may be inflammatory, but I think his judgment with this invitation will be proven sound.

Social change is always painful, so this invitation is bound to be painful to many who fight valiantly for full civil rights for gay and lesbian Americans. However, it may turn out to be a significant step toward achieving the full enfranchisement that gay and lesbian Americans seek. If America can break the color divide by electing an African American president, can healing the divide between gay and homophobes really be that far away?

How traditional is traditional marriage anyhow?

Supposedly, you don’t fool with Mother Nature. Never mind that we fool with Mother Nature all the time. We eat all sorts of genetically modified foods. Perhaps you had some seedless raisins with lunch. Many also see gay marriage as fooling around with Mother Nature. Mother Nature has decreed that only a union between one man and one woman is natural. No exceptions allowed! Consequently, Mother Nature does not want a man to marry another man, or two women to marry each other. Nor does Mother Nature endorse polygamy or polyandry.

Or so we think, although these so called natural laws may not be all that natural. Biologists have discovered all sorts of unusual parings among animals that suggest that serial monogamy is hardly the norm. Among humans, social scientist Margaret Mead documented decades ago that the one man-one woman marriage thing we define as traditional marriage is just one natural variation among humans. Across the world, Mead documented numerous cultures where all sorts of arrangements are sanctioned: “traditional” marriage, polygamy, polyandry, polyamory as well as the tribal equivalents of gay marriage. If Mother Nature opposes them, she is turning a blind eye.

The Bible sure tells us deviations from traditional marriage are sinful, right? Not exactly. Depending on which books of the Bible you believe are divinely inspired, these deviations are either permitted, not specifically addressed or are seen as abominations that could even subject you to capital punishment. Polygamy was acceptable in Abraham’s time. According to the Bible, Abraham had multiple wives, as did many of the Jewish elders and kings whose lives are chronicled in the Old Testament. Apparently, the more wives you had the more status you had in the community. Polygamy also served the useful evolutionary purpose of spreading the seed at a time when humans were an endangered species. Mother Nature might have thought it necessary. Abraham reputedly lived to some impossibly old age. Yet, Yahweh apparently saw no abomination with Abraham’s polygamy. While polygamy is unlawful in today’s America, it remains legal in much of the Muslim world and is explicitly permitted in the Quran.

During the last election, California voters decided by a four percent margin that gays should not be allowed to marry in the state. Members of the Mormon Church in particular felt a call to spiritual arms and contributed $22 million toward a campaign to overturn court ordered gay marriage in California. This is curious because Mormons were traditionally polygamists and only relatively recently decided this aspect of their theology required some amending. In fact, the tradition of polygamy is much older than the idea of marriage as between only one man and one woman.

What are Jesus’ thoughts on gay marriage? Jesus actually has little to say on the issue of marriage except he said God did not allow divorce, a teaching most Christians are happy to ignore. According to the Bible, Jesus never married, so it clearly was not a high priority for him. Many religious scholars suspect he actually was married or had an out of wedlock relationship with Mary Magdalene but that part was scrubbed from the Bible.

St. Paul had a few things to say about marriage, and they were not particularly nice. In his mind, good Christians completely abstained from sex, since sex itself was sinful. He did belatedly suggest that if you could not abstain from sex you should marry because it is better to marry than to go to hell. In his view, marriage suggested some sort of moral failing, but a minor one. In his opinion, since sex was part of marriage, it was hardly worthy of sanctification. However, St. Paul also appeared convinced that the second coming of Jesus was not too far away, so there was little point to procreation.

If history is our guide, what constitutes “real” marriage should be a confusing muddle, not an issue of clarity. If we strictly adhered to the Biblical interpretation of marriage, most of us would find it unacceptable. As this diarist on Daily Kos points out, the Bible tells us that polygamy is okay (Gen 29:17-28; II Sam 3:2-5). It also suggests that is okay to shack up or have live-in lovers even while being married (II Sam 5:13; I Kings 11:3; II Chron 11:21). However, marriage is forbidden if the woman is not a virgin. In fact, if for some reason she isn’t, she can be stoned to death (Deut 22:13-21). (Maybe this is where the Taliban got it from?) However, apparently there is an escape clause because a man must marry his brother’s wife if his brother dies, provided she has no children (Gen 38:6-10; Deut 25:5-10). Also, sorry, divorce is not allowed, no exceptions ever (Deut 22:19; Mark 10:9). So, if you find yourself an abused spouse, deal with it. Maybe prayer will move some mountains in your marriage.

I don’t know about you but if this is “traditional” marriage, I don’t want any part of it. Nor do I particularly think that marriage between only one man and woman is the only form it should take. Yet, so many of us are certain that only marriages between one man and one woman are moral, and therefore only they should be legally sanctioned. I am left to conclude that while I respect those who support “traditional” marriage, there is no sound Biblical or natural rationalization to support it.

Supporters of “traditional” marriage are loath to admit it, but marriage, like most human customs, has morphed over time and will continue to do so to fit the needs of people. Another one of these shifts in the definition of marriage now seems underway. Just as divorce and mixed-race marriages are now legal, it is likely that within a few decades gay marriage will be legally available within any state of the union too. Moreover, most of us will simply be indifferent to it.