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I’m Right but I’m Not Happy

October 13, 2014

Just under two and a half years ago I wrote an article about North Carolina’s constitutional amendment (Amendment One) to prohibit same-sex marriages and civil unions. In that article I criticized the simplistic reasoning behind the amendment: asking the government to define marriage in a particular way involves defining marriage and claiming that the government should be the final arbiter of the marriage agreement. I believe that most Christians would not be comfortable with this outside of a situation in which this accomplished some short-term goals for those same Christians. I did not expect those goals to be quite as short-term as they were though – the amendment has now been ruled unconstitutional and same-sex marriages are occurring in North Carolina. The amendment had an active lifespan of less than two and a half years.

When I wrote my initial article I left off a lot of practical concerns and focused on theoretical issues that get mishandled when people discuss same-sex marriage. In this article I will ignore the theoretical concerns about the nature of marriage, the government, and sin and I will address a series of practical concerns from a standpoint that assumes that a ban on same-sex marriage is good and proper. (This is not because I don’t care about those theoretical concerns but because if you got to those and decided that a government ban on same-sex marriage was incorrect the practical issues are immaterial to you.)

The practical issues focus on cost and benefit. Let’s examine the benefit first (again with the assumption that stopping same-sex unions by law is beneficial). Amendment One was in effect for approximately twenty-nine months. How many same-sex unions did it prevent? In Massachusetts (the state which has performed same-sex marriages for the longest amount of time) the current rate of same-sex unions is approximately 1 per 4,460 people living in the state per year. The earlier rate was much higher (we’ll return to this) but it’s leveled off now. It may still be a bit high for North Carolina since Massachusetts is probably a destination for out-of-state same-sex couples but if we use that rate and apply it to North Carolina’s population we get 5,334 weddings blocked. Except, of course, we don’t – Massachusetts saw an early spike because many people had long wanted to get married, had been unable to, and put off their weddings until same-sex marriage became legal in the state. The real total for North Carolina is harder to know but the number of marriages that actually never happened and never will happen is a smaller fraction, the fraction of those 5,334 couples who are not together anymore. The rest of those unions were merely delayed. (We should be clear that even the authors of Amendment One thought it would not stand forever – both they and I are surprised at how quickly it fell but the fact that it did fall is not surprising.)

What about the costs? Well, the pro-Amendment One groups raised more than one million dollars in funds to get votes. Then the state of North Carolina paid some unknown (to me) amount to defend the law against at least three separate suits. The vote-getting figure works out to about $6.25 per union blocked/delayed, or $34,480 per month. Now, I’d say that this was absolutely worth the cost if the law was one against murder, rape, slavery, domestic abuse, beating people with a crowbar, and dozens of other evils. However, there are plenty of things I don’t like for which I would not want to raise that amount of funding to stop. That’s enough funding to send eight students to North Carolina State University on a full-ride scholarship every month (and I’m all about scholarships for deserving, low-income children). If you can find a charity that thinks $34,000 is chump change then I’ll be amazed. There is a lot of good that Christians could be doing with that money and there’s a question about stewardship of resources here.

A more serious cost is one of public reputation. This law was always about public reputation. Orthodox Christianity has a lot to say about same-sex sexual relationships but has only recently had anything to say about same-sex marriages. A law against same-sex marriages does not prevent any sin mentioned in the Bible – unmarried same-sex couples are not prevented from having a sexual relationship in any state. Instead, laws against same-sex marriages and unions are a statement about what the state thinks people should be doing. We recognize and make official behaviors that we think are good and we refuse recognition and official status to behaviors that we merely tolerate. The fight about same-sex marriage in North Carolina was not mostly a fight about preventing sin but about saying that North Carolina does not condone specific sorts of sins. This causes two issues.

The first issue is simple: a lot of Christians spent a lot of money to say that it is extremely important that the state not condone same-sex unions. There are a lot of issues to choose from: divorce, abuse, homelessness, racism, poverty, etc., but the banner issue that needed to be publicly addressed in a major way was, apparently, gay people marrying each other. This serves as public advertising about the values that Christians have and the ones they merely say they have. I don’t think it was good advertising.

The second issue is also simple: a lot of people disagreed. A lot of people see the repeal of the effects of Amendment One as a victory of progress over religion. Christians advertised that this was a hill to die on and then died on it – to a lot of cheering. A million dollars is a lot of money but people will make more money. The people who decided that Christians are nasty, backwards bigots because this was the fight that went public (without any other fight, like one against homelessness, to counterbalance that impression) will not magically return to their former disinterested stances.

The rise and fall of Amendment One is a case study in the culture war issues I’ve written about: the sort of “victory” we saw with Amendment One is now a liability. If you are so tied to the old way of being Christian in a society that agrees with you in broad outline then perhaps it doesn’t matter – perhaps the death of that social order is your death as well. However, most of us have to get up and face the world tomorrow. We have to walk out into a world that has bad blood towards us because of that fighting retreat. As Christians we need to start thinking about the future. We need to think about what it costs us to try to hold on to power both in terms of money and in terms of social capital and what else we could be doing with that capital. We need to think about what the next chapter looks like because the page is turning and this chapter is ending. Delaying that change may seem comfortable but it may be making it a lot worse for us all in the long run.

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