Thursday, June 12, 2014

Same-Sex Marriage: The (Bad) Argument from Tradition

The Anglican theologian Bishop N. T. Wright has made an argument against same-sex marriage in which he makes an appeal to tradition. Wright makes the claim that
the word “marriage,” for thousands of years and cross-culturally has meant man and woman. Sometimes it’s been one man and more than one woman. Occasionally it’s been one woman and more than one man. There is polyandry as well as polygamy in some societies in some parts of history, but it’s always been male plus female. Simply to say that you can have a woman-plus-woman marriage or a man-plus-man marriage is radically to change that because of the givenness of maleness and femaleness. I would say that without any particular Christian presuppositions at all, just cross-culturally, that’s so.
He suggests that given that history has never given us examples of same-sex marriage, there must be something radical about same-sex marriage. He’s wrong in many ways. Mordecai Kaplan, whose thoughts gave rise to Reconstructionist Judaism, said that tradition gets a vote, not a veto. But in his argument from tradition, Bishop Wright gives tradition the full veto. But arguing that same-sex marriage should not be allowed because it is not in the tradition, isn’t just an improper appeal to tradition, it’s also a misreading of history.

Let’s grant the bishop the claim that if there is no historical precedence for same-sex marriage then it is wrong. The problem with this is that there’s actually plenty of historical precedent for same-sex marriage. For example James Davidson in his book Greeks and Greek Love, states that he has found a same sex marriage ritual used by the ancient Greeks. It’s a long book and I haven’t got that portion yet, nor am I competent to actually evaluate his claims. John Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe made the controversial claim that early Greek Christians also practiced same-sex marriage. A Roman law code from the fifth century bans same-sex marriage and nullifies the existing ones. You can’t nullify something if it only exists in theory, so there must’ve been men married to men in the early Christian Roman Empire. Further, in the 16th century Michael de Montaigne said that he encountered a Portuguese sect where men married men. Montaigne said that these men were later burnt at the stake as heretics by the Catholic Church.

Okay, up to four examples, some more solid than others. And while I’m not going to make an argument from tradition, it does show that the argument from tradition fails on the basis of history. It’s not an argument for modern American society that same-sex marriage should be permitted because it was permitted the sixteenth, the sixth, the fifth centuries or even earlier. That’s all somewhat irrelevant. The real importance here is that these examples show that the argument from tradition does not hold water in this case.

Sorry, bishop, but your argument that no society has ever practiced same-sex marriage is simply wrong. If your basic premise is wrong, what does that say about the rest of your argument?
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