About Comparing the Movement for Marriage Equality to the Civil Rights Movement, Part I

Kate Abbey-Lambertz at the Huffington Post reports on an amicus brief filed by 110 conservative black pastors from Michigan. The brief is meant to oppose recent developments towards marriage equality in Michigan by making the case, basically, that “it’s incorrect to compare the fight for equal marriage rights to the civil rights movement.”

I’ve read the brief, and at least some of its contents warrant discussion even though my best guess is that the brief itself will be ineffectual in a legal sense. The arguments are telling even if legally unsound.

So, let’s look at a few key pieces of the amicus brief.

“Amici believe that the Bible defines what constitutes sound doctrine, not the culture, gender, or personality. Amici bear the responsibility to oppose unsound doctrines and to oppose practices that are harmful to the following of God’s teachings as outlined in the Bible. Therefore, Amici support the vote of 2.7 million citizens of Michigan who cast their vote and enacted the Michigan Marriage Amendment to secure the sanctity of the traditional family, as it is defined by God in the Bible.”

The point is reiterated when the coalition, represented by the conservative Christian Thomas More Law Center, states that “Amici must oppose any idea, law, rule or suggestion that is contrary to the teachings of the Bible.”

These statements open up a big cluster of issues related to public and private morality, religious values and the state, as well as the relationship between legality and morality more generally. But the paragraph I just quoted completely collapses any distinctions that might be necessary or useful when it comes to thinking about the relationship between church leadership and the power of the state. The reasoning flows from Bible to constitutional amendment without pause or hiccup. The coalition represented by this amicus brief is apparently untroubled by the prospect of the state wielding power in the name of their religious convictions. And the brief, in fact, makes no attempt at shedding the specifically religious language that serves to bolster its arguments. The brief, of course, speaks of “traditional values” and healthy, ideal families, but it makes no attempt to present these ideals as if they had any sort of non-religious grounding. This is, in other words, an openly theocratic amicus brief.

The coalition represented here cloaks their religious beliefs in the language of “self-evidence,” going so far as to suggest that their particular views of morality are unquestionable according to any logic or criteria that might contest their own initial claims. The logic of the brief, then, is classically authoritarian. The authors make claims on terms that could never be refuted. Consider the following statement, which is meant to critique the normative moral criteria of the American court system:

“These simply are not “scientific” matters. Materialistic science cannot measure the non-material. It cannot define or select morality, values, or the necessary components of a successful family, much less measure these factors. It is an injustice and exhibits a gross misreading of the Constitution to install such self-styled “social” experts as the moral compass of the population.”

This is a sort of half-true statement. It is true that the empirical sciences cannot, of their own accord, make moral claims. But to say that materialistic science is incapable of measuring preexisting moral claims is to say, essentially, that the only acceptable criteria for the corroboration of moral claims is “because I said so.” The moral authority makes a “self-evident” claim and by that very fact the claim cannot be refuted by anything like experience or observation or alternate theories or evidence.

The logic of self-evidence is profoundly anti-democratic and it makes reasonable and open public debate all but impossible. We are bound to disagree on matters of morality because morality cannot be objective in the scientific sense (And we would still disagree even if it was!). But what we can do is to strive towards a more-or-less objective criteria for evaluating moral claims. For example, if it is self-evident that only traditional nuclear families produce healthy children, then there ought to be some sort of evident (read: measurable or empirical) criteria by which this self-evident claim is evidenced. And if the allegedly self-evident claim is actually evidence-able, then it can be either corroborated or rejected. What has happened now, though, is that social scientists have produced evidence for the health of children raised in non-traditional households, and instead of conceding the point, those who are against marriage equality are making the reactionary claim that evidence does not matter.

So it is extremely problematic that the central arguments and concerns of this amicus brief rely on “self-evident” distinctions. Here are a couple of allegedly self-evident claims presented in the brief:

Some truths are self-evident. Among them are that men and women are different. In fact, it is clear from our very existence that men are made for women, and women for men. None of us would be here but for that truth. Another self-evident [truth] is that it is best for children to be raised by their parents whenever possible. There have been many theories to the contrary throughout history, but they have all proven vacuous at best. Public policy that recognizes and acts on these truths is not unfairly discriminatory. In fact, the only way to have sound public policy is to build on such truths.

All of these claims can be contested quite convincingly, but I’ll save the critical gender theory for another post. The filers of this brief want policies built on these supposedly self-evident truths surrounding gender, and they object to the claim that sexual-orientation might question historical marriage policies in like manner as the rulings that put an end to bans on interracial marriage. That’s the heart of the legal argument—a self-evident distinction between race (which the authors of the brief consider to be “immutable”) and sexuality (which they consider to be “merely activity in which they engage.”)

In Part II of this post I’ll trouble the purportedly self-evident distinction that the Thomas More Law Center wants to make between gender/sexuality and race.


Image is owned by Colin Smith and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.


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3 thoughts on “About Comparing the Movement for Marriage Equality to the Civil Rights Movement, Part I

  1. Interesting. While I personally find the language of this brief repellent, I question your argument that anything that is self-evident should, therefore, be evidence-able. Isn’t the very definition of self-evident something that is so obvious that is does not require evidence at all? While I agree that the idea is very anti-democratic, it is ironically also very American. After all, the truths self-evident to the founding fathers were that all men were created equal, and had certain rights. They had no basis for such a claim – really, until the Enlightenment, such thought would have been anything BUT self-evident. However, they stated that they were because that’s the point of self-evident claims – they require no argument.

    Now obviously, the things pointed out in the brief are clearly NOT widely self-evident. However, to the group writing the brief, they are. To them, these are truths so indelible that they see them as universal. A conversation with people who believe these things that strongly is never going to go anywhere if you open by demanding that they prove what they see as obvious. So how do we approach the conversation in a way that does not automatically put someone on the defensive?

    I really have no idea. Maybe you do! I shall go on to read part two and see.

    1. This is a good critique.

      Here’s an additional caveat re: self evidence. Ethical claims, in so far as they’re concerned with the realm of “ought”, can’t be evidenced. (Except by social consensus). But Ethical claims typically have some sort of empirical scaffolding/grounding or supposed empirical implications, which can be either evidenced or rebutted/widened. I read the brief making an empirical claim about a self-evident distinction between race and gender/sexuality identification–a distinction I trouble in part 2.

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