Next week voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington will vote on whether to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples.
Given that there are good people on both sides of this issue, how are we to explain their opposing views?
The primary explanation is this: Proponents and opponents ask two different questions.
Proponents of same-sex marriage ask: Is keeping the definition of marriage as man-woman fair to gays? Opponents of same-sex marriage ask: Is same-sex marriage good for society?
Few on either side honestly address the question of the other side. Opponents of same-sex marriage rarely acknowledge how unfair the age-old man-woman definition is to gay couples. And proponents rarely, if ever, acknowledge that this unprecedented redefinition of marriage may not be good for society.
That is why proponents have it much easier. All they need to do is to focus the public's attention on individual gay people, show wonderful gay individuals who love each other, and ask the American public: Is it fair to continue to deprive these people of the right to marry one another?
When added to Americans' aversion to discrimination, to the elevation of compassion to perhaps the highest national value, and to the equating of opposition to same-sex marriage with opposition to interracial marriage, it is no wonder that many Americans have been persuaded that opposition to same-sex marriage is hateful, backwards and the moral equivalent of racism.
Is there any argument that can compete with the emotionally compelling fairness argument?
The answer is that one can -- namely, the answer to the second question, Is it good for society?
Before answering that question, however, it is necessary to respond to the charge that opposition to same-sex marriage is morally equivalent to opposition to interracial marriage and, therefore, the moral equivalent of racism.
There are two responses:
First, this charge is predicated on the profoundly false premise that race and sex (or "gender" as it is now referred to) are analogous.
They are not.
While there are no differences between black and white human beings, there are enormous differences between male and female human beings. That is why sports events, clothing, public restrooms, and (often) schools are routinely divided by sex. But black sporting events and white sporting events, black restrooms and white restrooms, black schools and white schools, or black clothing stores and white clothing stores would be considered immoral.
Because racial differences are insignificant and gender differences are hugely significant, there is no moral equivalence between opposition to interracial marriage and opposition to same-sex marriage.
Second, if opposition to same-sex marriage is as immoral as racism, why did no great moral thinker, in all of history, ever advocate male-male or female-female marriage? Opposition to racism was advocated by every great moral thinker. Moses, for example, married a black woman, the very definition of Catholic is "universal" and therefore diverse and has always included every race, and the equality of human beings of every race was a central tenet of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other world religions. But no one - not Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Aquinas, Gandhi, not the Bible or the Koran or any other sacred text, nor even a single anti-religious secular thinker of the Enlightenment -- ever advocated redefining marriage to include members of the same sex.
To argue that opposition to same-sex marriage is immoral is to argue that every moral thinker, and every religion and social movement in the history of mankind prior to the last 20 years in America and Europe was immoral. About no other issue could this be said. Every moral advance has been rooted in prior moral thinking. The anti-slavery movement was based on the Bible. Martin Luther King, Jr. was first and foremost the "Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr." and he regularly appealed to the moral authority of the scriptures when making his appeals on behalf of racial equality. Same-sex marriage is the only social movement to break entirely with the past, to create a moral ideal never before conceived. It might be right, but it might also be an example of the moral hubris of the present generation, the generation that created the self-esteem movement: After all, you need a lot of self-esteem to hold yourself morally superior to all those who preceded you.
We now return to our two primary questions.
Is the man-woman definition of marriage fair to gays who wish to marry? No, it isn't. And those of us opposed to same-sex marriage need to be honest about this, to confront the human price paid by some people through no fault of their own and figure out ways to offer gay couples basic rights associated with marriage.
But whether a policy is fair to every individual can never be the only question society asks in establishing social policy. Eyesight standards for pilots are unfair to some terrifically capable individuals. Orchestra standards are unfair to many talented musicians. A mandatory retirement age is unfair to many people. Wherever there are standards, there will be unfairness to individuals.
So, the question is whether redefining in the most radical way ever conceived -- indeed completely changing its intended meaning -- is good for society.
The major reason is this: Gender increasingly no longer matters. There is a fierce battle taking place to render meaningless the man-woman distinction, the most important distinction regarding human beings' personal identity. Nothing would accomplish this as much as same-sex marriage.
The whole premise of same-sex marriage is that gender is insignificant: It doesn't matter whether you marry a man or a woman. Love, not gender, matters.
Some examples of this war on gender:
--This year Harvard University appointed its first permanent director of bisexual, gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer student life. The individual, Vanidy Bailey, has asked that he/she never be referred to as he or she, male or female. Harvard has agreed.
--In 2010 eHarmony, for years the country's largest online dating service, was sued for only matching men and women. Its lack of same-sex matchmaking meant that it violated anti-discrimination laws in some states. As a result, eHarmony was forced to begin a same-sex online service.
--Each year more and more American high schools elect girls as homecoming kings and boys as homecoming queens. Students have been taught to regard restricting kings to males or queens to females as (gender-based) discrimination.
--When you sign up for the new social networking site, Google Plus, you are asked to identify your gender. Three choices are offered: Male, Female, Other.
--Catholic Charities, which operates the oldest ongoing adoption services in America, has had to end its adoption work in Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington, DC because the governments there regard placing children with married man-woman couples before same-sex couples as discriminatory.
Increasingly, even the mother-father ideal is being shattered in this battle to render male-female distinction insignificant.
--The socialist French government has just announced that in the future no government issued document will be allowed to use the words "mother" or "father." Only the gender-neutral term "parent" will be acceptable in France.
--And in Rhode Island this year, one school district cancelled its father-daughter dance after the ACLU threatened to sue the district for gender discrimination. Only parent-child events, not father-daughter dances or mother-son ballgames, will be allowed.
And all this is happening before same-sex marriage is allowed. Imagine what will happen should same-sex marriage become the law of the land.
It will hasten the end of the male-female distinction and of any significance to mothers or fathers as distinctive entities.
It will mean that those who, for religious or other reasons, wish to retain the man-woman definition of marriage will be legally and morally as isolated as racists are today.
And it will mean that teachers and other adults who ask little boys and girls who they would like to marry, will, in order to be in sync with the morality of our times, have to make it clear that it might be a someone of the same sex. "Will you marry a boy or a girl?" will be the only non-bigoted way to ask a young person about their marital plans.
The history of left-wing policies has largely consisted of doing what feels good and compassionate without asking what the long-term consequences will be; what Professor Thomas Sowell calls "Stage One Thinking." That explains, for example, the entitlement state. It sounds noble and seems noble. But the long-term consequences are terrible: economic ruin, a demoralized population, increasing selfishness as people look to the state to take care of their fellow citizens, and more.
By redefining marriage to include same sex couples we are playing with sexual and societal fire. Just as the entitlement state passes on the cost of our good intentions to our children and grandchildren - unsustainable dependency and debt -- so, too, same-sex marriage will pass along the consequences of our good intentions to our children and grandchildren - gender confusion and the loss of motherhood and fatherhood as values, just to cite two obvious consequences.
It is not enough to mean well in life. One must also do well. And the two are frequently not the same thing.
There are reasons no moral thinker in history ever advocated same-sex marriage.