Why Panic Over the Changing Definition of Marriage Won’t Sell for Long

Art courtesy of “Dean”

For years, one of the major arguments used by conservative Christians to oppose same-sex marriage has been that the millennia-old definition of marriage will change, causing a near collapse of Western Civilization. Here is a reality check for them:

First of all, the definition has already changed, both in this country and elsewhere in the world. The Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Spain, Norway, and Sweden have already granted same-sex marriage (SSM) the same legal status as opposite-sex marriage. In the U.S., five states have recognized same-sex unions, classifying them as “marriage.” The list of countries poised to legalize SSM is growing. These include Nepal, Portugal, Iceland, Slovenia, Luxembourg, Argentina, Venezuela, and South Africa.  If present trends continue, we can expect to see near-universal acceptance of SSM in Western liberal democracies. Resistance will continue in cultural backwaters like Uganda, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, and Jasper, TX.

Secondly, the definition of marriage has been anything but stable over the centuries. Most people now realize that polygamy has been considered a form of marriage in some societies. What many people do not realize, however, is that SSM has been around for a very long time. It was practiced in ancient China, in the early Roman Empire, and during the early Christian era. The historian John Boswell wrote a study called “Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe” (1995).

Third, we shouldn’t be so troubled that a word’s definition has changed somewhat. It happens all the time. Since when did religious conservatives become so alarmed about semantic drift? Anyway, if I thought we could improve the lives of millions of people by changing the definition of the word “apple,” I’d be more than happy to call it a “fubble” or whatever else you like. Words are only our tools, not our masters, and they are not nearly as important as people.

Wikipedia offers the following examples of words that have undergone semantic drift:

“Mouse” was originally a rodent. Now it is also an input device.

“Guy” originally referred to any “person of grotesque appearance.” Then it just referred to any man. Now, it can also include women, as in “What do you guys think about this?”

“Democrat” had all the negative connotations of “demagogue” at the time of the American Revolution.

“Demagogue” originally meant “a popular leader.” Now it refers to a leader who panders to emotion and prejudice.

“Board” (verb) is used to mean, “enter an aircraft” as well as “walk on to a ship.”

“Broadcast” used to mean “to throw seeds out.”

“Kleenex” used to refer to a brand (only), and now it means “tissue.”

And let’s not overlook the words “gay” and “partner.” I am old enough to remember when people opposed to gay rights used to say they would never agree to using the word “gay” as a synonym for “homosexual.” But guess what! They’re doing it, all except a few die-hards who soldier on like aging hippies who swore they’d never cut their hair. As for the word “partner,” I can remember talking to my attorney fifteen years ago and referring to my “partner” in a context that should have made my meaning clear. He tried to correct me, saying, “Your boyfriend, you mean?” I replied that the individual in question was not a boy and was much more than a friend. These days, it is more likely that anyone insisting on “boyfriend” in that context would be corrected with, “Your partner, you mean?”

This panic over semantic drift of the word “marriage” is a sign that opponents of same-sex marriage are running out of arguments and know it. These efforts to stir up fear about a changing definition are doomed to fail because, basically, most people have far more serious matters to worry about. Sooner or later, even fundamentalists will realize that it takes much more than the lexical revision of a single word to bring about civilizational collapse. These days, there’s stiff competition from melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and species loss.

So, what does that leave? The slippery slope argument? Same-sex marriage will lead to polygamy and then on to bestiality and perhaps cannibalism? Apart from inherent weaknesses of the slippery slope argument (which is considered a logical fallacy), we need only look at the record of countries like Canada to realize that SSM has led to nothing else whatsoever. I was there recently and checked the newspapers in vain for any reports of increased bestiality or polygamy.

And what about the argument from Holy Scripture? Appeals to scriptural authority might stiffen the resolve of conservative Christians, but for the rest of us, such appeals are meaningless. The word on the street now is that Scripture is inconsistent and draconian, and that conservative Christians are inconsistent in their use of it. Scripture has lost too much credibility to serve as a guide for public policy concerning SSM.


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One Response to “Why Panic Over the Changing Definition of Marriage Won’t Sell for Long”

  1. Kathleen Queen Says:

    Thank you for another awesome post. Keep up the good work.

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