Here is part III of our report from the front lines of the Gay Marriage Debate narrated by my good friend Ben Dyer. Ben is a graduate of Talbot Theological Seminary. He is currently a philosophy graduate student at Bowling Green State University.
Jacob takes the podium for his five minute closing statement, and he does something odd. He doesn’t attack the revised argument directly, but instead appeals to the audience’s intuitions about the value of happiness. Don’t we think it’s a good thing when people get what they want and no one else is hurt? He passionately enjoins the audience to reject our negative case on the basis of consent and inclusiveness. How can we pass negative judgments on people’s happiness? Consent covers all where no harm is done.
I start my own closing statement by pointing out that Jacob’s appealed to people’s emotions, and that’s not an adequate response to our arguments.
Debate is not about simply rooting for our own side and cheering when our guy gets up. Winning and losing in debate is a matter of how you argue, and how you counter-argue against the opposition. In our case, we have an argument that the value of gay unions isn’t obviously present because they resemble straight unions in some external respects. On the other hand, if that value depends on simple consent, then the argument proves too much since it permits relations we rightly reject. I have only enough time in the closing statement to drive that dilemma home before the debate wraps and we begin the Q & A.
When the Q & A starts, Jon and I realize that most or maybe all of those in the audience were sympathetic to the pro-gay marriage side. Not a single question is directed at the other side. Several people in the Q & A start making points about political rights, and both Jon and I do our best to set those issues aside. If the state wants to be in the business of conferring privileges on its citizens in virtue of their domestic arrangements, then whether that applies only to straight unions or to gay unions or to both is a matter for the state (and its citizens) to decide. What we reject is the idea that the accumulated moral importance attached to the term “marriage” can be simply transferred to another kind of relationship. We argued that in fact it is another kind of relationship, and in virtue of the conceptual distinction, it should remain semantically distinct as well.
In the days that followed the event, we received a glowing letter from the event’s organizers. Jon and I learned that the event sparked discussions in classes during the hours that followed our event, and that told us that whether or not people were persuaded by our case, they at least encountered a thoughtful perspective.
That’s one of the primarily values of debate. Unlike other kinds of discussion, debate gives both sides have an equal time. Its competitive format means that chicanery, bamboozling, and flim-flammery can be arrested by the opposing side, if they’re well-prepared. That’s what makes debate a valuable format for Christian apologists, or heck, just Christians interested in defending their views against distortion.
That said, there is prejudice in the world. That’s the hardest thing about walking into a debate on gay marriage. No matter what you say, no matter how cogent the argument, the big hurdle to overcome is that voice in the mind of the devout gay advocate that says, “yeah, but you can rationalize anything.” The belief among such advocates is that Christians reject gay marriage do so because of prejudices wrapped in ad hoc arguments unfit for consideration by those in good intellectual standing.
Though Jon and I entered the debate knowing we might not persuade anyone in the room, we were satisfied when we left that none in our audience could continue to believe that debates about the moral value of marriage were not based in a sincere conscience.