Gay debate a lost opportunity

I wonder if the fight has largely gone from New Zealand's Christian Right.

If ever there was a cause to galvanise moral conservatives, it would surely be the defence of marriage as it is currently defined. Marriage is, after all, a cherished institution and politicians appear set to tinker with that and do a bit more social engineering.

Yet, I sense there has been some hesitancy to rail against a proposed law change that will allow gay marriage.

Yes, some people have spoken their minds, but what is more telling is that a great number are silent or equivocating.

Several National Party MPs, for example, have found themselves suddenly tongue-tied. Probably the cleverest response from them so far is that they will listen to the views of their electorates, though they seem to be on the back foot in articulating views themselves.

I think it's likely many of them have a conservative instinct, but they have no idea how to express it. More importantly, they don't want to express it - not in 21st century New Zealand.

It could be that opponents of reform haven't yet found the words to employ in the public square.

The language of their opponents is straightforward and persuasive. It centres on the word "equality". I have not seen anyone on this side of the debate fluff their lines. And I have not yet seen an effective counter.

The current counter-argument goes roughly like this: A marriage is, by definition, between a man and a woman. Most New Zealanders don't see a need to change that. Let's test the will of the people in a referendum.

The equality argument - about whether this is the way things should be - is, therefore, left unchallenged.

The knock-on effect is obvious. Why would a group that enjoys the right to marry withhold that right from another group of people? Tyranny of the majority aside, what is the basis for ruling homosexuals out?

The counter, presumably, is that discrimination doesn't end with gay couples - children cannot marry as of right either, and the state does not permit polygamy. And homosexual people do have the right to marry - just not each other.

Which brings us to the central point - should marriage be redefined?

The argument against redefinition has not been well made so far, though perhaps the forces are starting to mobilise.

There are reasons, I think, why the wheels against legalising same-sex marriage have been slow to start turning.

One is that defeat seems inevitable.

There have been a series of losses for conservatives: decriminalisation of prostitution, the so-called anti-smacking legislation, and, tellingly, the introduction of civil unions. Why line up for another defeat?

I'd say another reason is that those who might normally be up for the fight already feel outmoded. Or the ground on which they can make their argument has been seriously eroded. It has almost disappeared.

Let me illustrate.

Most Bible-believing Christians hold a view something like this: God's design is for sex to take place between a man and a woman within the confines of marriage. A stable marriage is the foundation on which a family can be built.

Some sexual expression falls outside of God's design - sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, polygamy, and bestiality, for example. Homosexuality is a perversion of God's plan, or it is not natural.

Obviously, there is more to it than that - Christian compassion, hating the sin and loving the sinner, and recognition that all people fall short of perfection, which is why they need a saviour.

But the thing about this view is that - politically - it is a position very hard to take into the public square.

New Zealand is a secular nation, not a Christian one. New Zealand - like the United States - does not have a state religion. Church and state are separate for some very good reasons. There is difficulty in imposing a set of values on people who do not accept their validity.

That's probably why most Christians vote National and Labour. They typically shun Christian parties.

The thing about Christianity is that it is profoundly counter-cultural. The gospels make this clear as they record Jesus spending an awful lot of time arguing with religious teachers, being a friend of "sinners", highlighting hypocrisy and declaring himself the Messiah.

It's not really about popularity, government blueprints and cultural norms.

Returning to gay marriage opposition, there will be a push for a referendum, but it remains to be seen how enthusiastic this push will be.

It is one thing to decry political correctness or lament the state foisting its will on the people, but anybody attacking the homosexuality issue head-on knows they will invite scorn. Many people will decide it's better not to go there.

* Grant Miller is the Manawatu Standard"s head of content and a politics junkie.

Manawatu Standard