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Thursday, February 09, 2012  

Evidence of What?

I'm reading Herbert Chilstrom's autobiography Journey of Grace for an upcoming review, and I was struck by an account about halfway through of the sort of controversy that has largely been lost to American political memory. In 1978, when Chilstrom (the first Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) was the bishop of the Minnesota synod of an earlier Lutheran body, there was a petition drive to overturn a 1974 St. Paul ordinance banning discrimination against homosexual people in housing, jobs, education, and public accommodation.

"After checking with ALC Bishop Elmo Agrimson and Roman Catholic Archbishop John Roach and learning that they planned to oppose any repeal," Chilstrom writes, "I decided to join them." I have to admit, that was not something I expected to read. We are accustomed on the left to a "lump of bigotry" account of any culture-war issue, in which today's battle (marriage) is just a continuation of the last battle (housing and employment discrimination), but it was evidently not so. That the heads of the Catholic Church in the Twin Cities, the very conservative American Lutheran Church, and the not-terribly-progressive Lutheran Church in America, were all on record in 1978 as opposing repeal of an anti-discrimination ordinance is quite remarkable. At this point a theological basis for reforming the moral teachings of these churches on same-sex relationships was not yet formulated. These men all believed homosexuality was wrong in some sense. Moreover, there was abundant "evidence" that it was an unhealthy lifestyle, since the consequences of oppression and marginalization are so easily used to indict the morals of the marginalized group. And yet there must have been a deeper humanitarian commitment at work, an insistence that basic dignity be granted even to people whose way of living did not meet with the approval of the majority.

I thought of this as I read the back-and-forth between Patrick Appel (at Sullivan's blog) and Rod Dreher on the role of "evidence" in arguments for and against same-sex marriage. Appel insists that there is definitive, or at least persuasive, evidence on the matter, in the form of the outcomes of families headed by same-sex couples. Dreher says that most people, pro and con, tend to reason out of first principles that are not subject to confirmation or falsification by data. I love the video of that kid speaking up for his mothers as much as anyone. But I tend to agree with Rod that the debate over same-sex marriage isn't really about whether a child raised by two lesbians can grow up to kick butt in college. It matters inasmuch as people have been inclined to claim that same-sex parenting has negative consequences for children, but I suspect that those claims were mostly an effect and not a cause of opposition to legal recognition for same-sex relationships.

There is no evidence in the absence of a question we seek to answer. And as we have by now all experienced, the framing of the question goes a long way to deciding what the evidence is. "Does same-sex marriage produce statistically significant negative outcomes in children?" is a question for which you can devise an evidentiary test (not that I necessarily recommend it, because all kinds of marriages will fall under legal scrutiny if that's how we're deciding who can and can't have their relationship acknowledged by the state). "Is marriage inherently an opposite-sex institution oriented toward the creation of new life?" is not really liable to a data-driven answer. For that matter, neither is the question "Is same-sex marriage a fundamental right?" These latter two questions can be answered logically, but not empirically.

Now contrary to Dreher, I think minds can change on these sorts of questions. And "evidence" can certainly come into play in terms of complicating the neat distinctions we get from whatever metaphysics we happen to be toting around with us. But we owe it to ourselves to understand that the evidence-based argument and the fundamental-right argument for same-sex marriage are, if not in fact contradictory, at least entirely unrelated. The whole point of a right, for good or for ill, is that it isn't granted or withheld based on good or bad consequences. Jefferson didn't say "We hold these truths to be sufficiently confirmed by rigorous statistical analysis of the data." And so no one who throws around a phrase like "fundamental right" has any grounds on which to accuse anyone else of, in Patrick's word, "fundamentalism." They're the same word for a reason.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 8:48 PM
"The whole point of a right, for good or for ill, is that it isn't granted or withheld based on good or bad consequences."

Right - which is why your right to free speech is restricted in the case of shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater or inciting others to violence; why your second-amendment right to bear arms is not sufficient to permit your ownership of a nuke; why your right to drink alcohol doesn't kick in until you're 21; and so on.

Clearly, the structure and existence of rights do indeed have nothing to do with harm. You sure convinced me!
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