THE MOVEMENT TO REDEFINE MARRIAGE to include same-sex unions has packaged its demands in the rhetoric and images of the civil rights movement. This strategy, though cynical, has enormous strategic utility. For what reasonable, fair-minded American could object to a movement that conjures up images of Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellows campaigners for racial justice facing down dogs and fire hoses? Who is prepared to risk being labeled a bigot for opposing same-sex marriage?
As an exercise in marketing and merchandising, this strategy is the most brilliant playing of the race card in recent memory. Not since the "poverty pimps" of 35 years ago, who leveraged the guilt and sense of fair play of the American public to hustle affirmative action set-asides, have we witnessed so brazen a misuse of African-American history for partisan purposes.
But the partisans of homosexual marriage have a problem. There is no evidence in the history and literature of the civil rights movement, or in its genesis in the struggle against slavery, to support the claim that the "gay rights" movement is in the tradition of the African-American struggle for civil rights. As the eminent historian Eugene D. Genovese observed more than 30 years ago, the black American experience as a function of slavery is unique and without analogue in the history of the United States. While other ethnic and social groups have experienced discrimination and hardship, none of their experiences compare with the physical and cultural brutality of slavery. It was in the crucible of the unique experience of slavery that the civil rights movement was born.
The extraordinary history of the United States as a slaveholding republic included the kidnapping and brutal transport of blacks from African shores, and the stripping of their language, identity, and culture in order to subjugate and exploit them. It also included the constitutional enshrining of these evils in the form of a Supreme Court decision--Dred Scott v. Sandford--denying to blacks any rights that whites must respect, and the establishment of Jim Crow and de jure racial discrimination after Dred Scott was overturned by a civil war and three historic constitutional amendments.
It is these basic facts that embarrass efforts to exploit the rhetoric of civil rights to advance the goals of generally privileged groups, however much they wish to depict themselves as victims. Whatever wrongs individuals have suffered because some Americans fail in the basic moral obligation to love the sinner, even while hating the sin, there has never been an effort to create a subordinate class subject to exploitation based on "sexual orientation."
It is precisely the indiscriminate promotion of various social groups' desires and preferences as "rights" that has drained the moral authority from the civil rights industry. Let us consider the question of rights. What makes a gay activist's aspiration to overturn thousands of years of universally recognized morality and practice a "right"? Why should an institution designed for the reproduction of civil society and the rearing of children in a moral environment in which their interests are given pride of place be refashioned to accommodate relationships integrated around intrinsically non-marital sexual conduct?
One must, in the current discussion, address directly the assertion of discrimination. The claim that the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman constitutes discrimination is based on a false analogy with statutory prohibitions on interracial marriages in many states through much of the 20th century. This alleged analogy collapses when one considers that skin pigmentation is utterly irrelevant to the procreative and unitive functions of marriage. Racial differences do not interfere with the ability of sexually complementary spouses to become "one-flesh," as the Book of Genesis puts it, by sexual intercourse that fulfills the behavioral conditions of procreation. As the law of marital consummation makes clear, and always has made clear, it is this bodily union that serves as the foundation of the profound sharing of life at every level--biological, emotional, dispositional, rational, and spiritual--that marriage is. This explains not only why marriage can only be between a man and a woman, but also why marriages cannot be between more than two people--despite the desire of "polyamorists" to have their sexual preferences and practices legally recognized and blessed.
Moreover, the analogy of same-sex marriage to interracial marriage disregards the whole point of those prohibitions, which was to maintain and advance a system of racial subordination and exploitation. It was to maintain a caste system in which one race was relegated to conditions of social and economic inferiority. The definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman does not establish a sexual caste system or relegate one sex to conditions of social and economic inferiority. It does, to be sure, deny the recognition as lawful "marriages" to some forms of sexual combining--including polygyny, polyandry, polyamory, and same-sex relationships. But there is nothing invidious or discriminatory about laws that decline to treat all sexual wants or proclivities as equal.
People are equal in worth and dignity, but sexual choices and lifestyles are not. That is why the law's refusal to license polygamous, polyamorous, and homosexual unions is entirely right and proper. In recognizing, favoring, and promoting traditional, monogamous marriage, the law does not violate the "rights" of people whose "lifestyle preferences" are denied the stamp of legal approval. Rather, it furthers and fosters the common good of civil society, and makes proper provision for the physical and moral protection and nurturing of children.
Well-intentioned liberals shudder upon hearing the word "discrimination." Its simple enunciation instills guilt and dulls their critical faculties. But once malcontented members of any group--however privileged--can simply invoke the term and launch their own personalized civil rights industry, the word has been emptied of its normative and historical content.
Defending the civil rights legacy should prove cold comfort to its historic advocates, because the loss of its distinctive nature is our own fault. It was our failure, philosophically and politically, to develop a compelling historiography of the movement that contributed to its decline and decay. From the teaching in schools, to the use of the phrase in political discourse, the notion of civil rights has been diluted, ahistoricized, and nearly emptied of content in relation to the lived historical experience of black Americans.
It is especially sad and disturbing that many self-proclaimed civil rights leaders have failed to resist corruption and co-optation by the homosexual movement. People who should be vitally concerned with promoting marriage and rebuilding the institution of marriage in African-American communities are either silent or complicit in a campaign which, if successful, will trivialize marriage.
In light of the prospect of judicially mandated homosexual marriage, we believe that black leaders--and especially black clergy--need to speak forcefully in favor of President George W. Bush's proposal for a Federal Marriage Amendment. If their support for true marriage alienates them from their white liberal friends, so be it. No community has suffered more than has ours from the weakening of the institution of marriage at the hands of purveyors of the doctrines of the sexual revolution. It is our sons and our daughters who have paid the costs imposed by a cultural elite that seeks to overthrow cultural and Biblical principles of sexual restraint and responsibility. Leaders of our community should therefore be in the vanguard of the movement to prevent further moral erosion and begin reversing historical declines.
Eugene F. Rivers is Founder and President of the Seymour Institute for Advanced Christian Studies (www.siacs.org) and is a pastor of the Church of God in Christ, the nation's largest historically Black Pentecostal denomination.
Kenneth D. Johnson is Senior Fellow for Social Policy and Civil Society at the Seymour Institute for Advanced Christian Studies.