Gay Marriage: Killing the Democracy of the Dead

I recently got an email from a thoughtful young man, a high-school senior who this fall will be attending a very liberal college in the Northeast. He read an article I had written on the subject of President Obama’s recent advocacy of “gay marriage.” Though he disagreed, I thanked him for a respectful reply. Too often, people who email me in disagreement aren’t civil at all.

He objected to my point that gay marriage would represent a radical rupture not just of the definition of “marriage” but also of “family.” He asked: “Why would the definition of ‘family’ be ruptured if gay marriage was legalized nationally? How would that happen?” He continued: “Just to be clear, I support gay marriage and think that if two people are in love, then they should have the right to be together with full benefits under the title of being MARRIED. It does more psychological damage to gay couples in ‘civil unions’ than it should for straight married couples to share the ‘married’ status with gay couples. But really, overall, it shouldn’t matter at all what it is called, for both sides.”

He further added: “Also I really don’t want to hear any religious arguments. Marriage is a secular act that can also be religious, but is not primarily religious because it says so in the bible or what not.”

To his credit, the young man was open to hearing my viewpoint. As he said, he didn’t simply want to email me and yell, “Oh my god! You’re against gay marriage? Then you’re stupid!” Indeed, that’s the argument that he’s sure to hear ad nauseum at the liberal college to which his parents will be sending their lifesavings—and to get a viewpoint easily available much more inexpensively from their TV or NPR. And he will not hear religious arguments at that liberal college. (“Tolerance” and “diversity” have their boundaries.)

How does one respond to the young man’s email? How would you?

Well, there was much I could’ve said, but here was my main response, which I hope makes sense to some people on the young man’s (and Barack Obama’s) side of this issue:

Whether a society or culture or people are religious or not, the most fundamental basis of society and culture and peoples—literally since the dawn of humanity and knowledge—has been marriage between a man and a woman. That bond is the cornerstone, the bedrock. To suddenly sever that bond now is not only a radical rupture, but also remarkably arrogant; it assumes that our current generation of progressives is wiser than the multiple millennia of civilizations heretofore. Google the word “matrimony” and dissect its roots. “Marriage” has literally always meant the marriage of a man and a woman.

We shouldn’t mess around with these things. Once we begin redefining and reshaping and remolding these things in each of our own images, we’re in trouble. Also, I ask these progressives: Do you truly want the government to take unto itself the right to redefine such ancient terms as it sees fit? (Their answer: Yes, but only when the government agrees with them.)

That question ought to give pause to libertarians who support gay marriage. Do they want to allow government this unprecedented, enormous moral power and authority, from which will flow all sorts of new, massive government redistributive power and authority? As Jennifer Roback Morse notes, do libertarians really want the federal government regulating (let alone defining) marriage? If they do, then they’re unwittingly favoring not small government but big government—actually, huge government.

Even most liberal Democrats (until Obama) had voted to preserve marriage as between a man and a woman. Witness the Clintons and Democrats in Congress during the passing of the Defense of Marriage Act. President Obama is (once again) uniquely radical on this issue.

Those who reject gay marriage need to know that not only are they in the majority today, but over the course of centuries. Our position is the consensus view for thousands of years. It is based not on the latest societal/culture whim or action at the ballot box but on the inherited wisdom of billions of our ancestors and thinkers and philosophers who have preceded us. It is based on what G. K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead.”

In his book, Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote:

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of their birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

In other words, there is a rich, deep, accumulated wisdom in our long line of ancestors. For us to suddenly assume that we know better than all of those before us, compliments of a few recent years of enlightened understanding, is self-righteous and short-sighted. Don’t our ancestors—our dead—have any say in this at all? There were a lot more of them than there are of us. Are we to judge that they were mere brutes lacking our magnificent reasoning abilities?

There’s something to be said about multiple millennia of consensus belief. It seems unwise to not give our ancestors any serious consideration, and to not at least consider whether we might be wrong on this particular issue. Should the dead not have a vote, a say, in this?




    Dear Paul: “Marriage” has literally always meant the marriage of a man and a woman.” Even today, in some cultures, marriage is clearly defined as the marriage on A man to ONE OR MORE women. This was true in ancient Judaism up to and including the time of Jesus. Through much of history including Western history, marriage was defined as a contract between men for the exclusive sexual, child bearing and rearing and domestic services of a woman. My thinking is that given the small number of gay and lesbian people at any time in any society, the impact of SSM will be far less than the transitions from multiple marriages and arringed marriges has been. _ Pax tecum, Greg

    • greg smith

      106 dislikes! Wow! Will one of you tell me if and how my historical understanding is wrong???

  • Mary Harper

    You state you would not want government to define marriage and “we shouldn’t mess with these things”. I believe this is not a Catholic issue it is a constitutional right issue. We as Catholics believe that marriage is sacred sacrament. We as Catholics do not recognize gay marriage and shouldn’t. But the constitution is not a Catholic document and expresses freedom of expression and thought to all. And if gay and lesbians want a bond of some kind we cannot ignore it. By the way they want the marriage contract because they want the same legal rights of those that when a couple marry share. If they don’t have a legal union they can’t participate in social security benefits from their loved one or have access to their health information when the other half becomes ill or have an opinion much on anything until they do get married. So if it is not marriage that they should be joined under what should it be called? These gay and lesbians should not be ignored and expressing their opinions to be heard by our government. The government should offer some form of answer and rights to them. I don’t like the word marriage word used for their union either because this is a sacred vow between a man and a woman under the Catholic church belief. And you say you don’t want the government dictating the meaning of marriage, well they already have for centuries. Your article does not offer any options to this gay population and their demands cannot be ignored by the government. How can they be ignored when they want their union to be validated? The gay and lesbians pay their taxes too. We need to mess with this messy issue.

  • Joseph

    You should read this article by John Medaille of The Distributist Review, which also touches on the “democracy of the dead”

  • Fr. Tyler

    While nothing you have written is untrue, it seems to me that you fail to address the fundamental question of his argument. He asks why marriage always has been defined as we hope to see it preserved. Your response is simply, “It has always been thus.” I know that you understand the “why” of the matter. I suspect your correspondent does not.

    Civil recognition of any kind of relationship is precipitated upon that relationship’s capacity to contribute something of value to the society. In what way does the civil recognition of the union of two men or two women contribute something of value to the rest of us? It was because our ancestor’s recognized the inherent value of a family in which offspring could be reared that marital union was of any consequence to any person aside from the participating couples.

    As a priest frequently reassigned to new parishes, I have little love for arguments that consist largely in insisting, “We have always done it this way.” It matters not a whit how we have always done something, if the manner by which we have always done something is indefensible. Likewise, it matters not that we find ourselves in the majority. It was a mob that called for the crucifixion of Christ. Surely their majority did not justify Our Savior’s death. Both antiquity and majority, at least in this case, are to be upheld because the opinion of each corresponds with truth and reality, not because of some inherent venerability.

    I suspect that your young interlocutor remains unconvinced. Much like a toddler, a teen is obsessed with the question, “Why?” Unlike a toddler, he is generally unmoved by answers that, in summary, arrive at the conclusion, “Because it always has been so.” The “Why” he has presented to you queries as to the very nature of marriage and family – it is philosophical. You have responded with a historical review. Tell the young man why the history is as it is, not simply that it has been. Having done so, the response above will carry greater weight.

    • Sandy

      Excellent points Fr. Tyler.

  • Scott W (thetrog)

    I’ve had conversations like this, and I think you’re talking passed each other. Those who ask me what’s the big deal about redefining marriage, in the end, find references to the dictionary to be irrelevant. They are often just skeptical that letting any group of people who “love each other” call themselves a family, with all the rights and privileges thereof, can affect anyone else outside their “family,” much less unravel the fabric of society.

    As for appeals to the wisdom of tradition, I invariably get this in response: Isn’t that just the same argument that was used to ban inter-racial marriages, or even to justify slavery? More often than not, it is at this point I am informed that I am a bigot (not hatin’ on you for havin’ your own opinion, just sayin’ you’re a bigot) regardless of how respectful and thoughtful the tone.

  • Karen

    Why stop at re-defining marriage?
    Next, we can re-define “human” to mean one with an ability to speak coherently and walk upright without any aid. That way, we can kill any defective newborns.
    Then, we can re-define “life” to mean anyone who is able-bodied in body and mind, that way we can kill the elderly with alzheimers, the stroke victim, the paralyzed, the disabled- because they burden society.
    While I am being sarcastic, I sadly feel this is the path we are on. First, we re-define marriage, then the rest follows because nothing means what it used to mean.



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