In a Public Discourse essay last year, “Shut Up, Bigot!”: The Intolerance of Tolerance, I addressed how defenders of marriage are often called bigots for holding the view that marriage is, by nature, the union of one man and one woman, exclusively and for life. I objected to this censoring and bullying, explaining that those calling traditionalists “bigots” held a false postmodern conception of tolerance that confuses intolerance of ideas with intolerance of persons. Here I address the central objection that I have encountered to my argument.

Denying Gay People the Civil Right to Marriage?

The most common objection is that traditionalists are using “tolerance” as a cover for their discriminating and harmful views. The objection goes something like this:

Discriminating against homosexuals by not allowing them to marry is as evil as racism and segregation, the banning of interracial marriage, or denying women’s rights. You wouldn’t be tolerant of these abhorrent things would you? America has become enlightened to LGBT rights, and you are simply using religious rhetoric to cloak your animus and bigotry. You have no right to demand tolerance just as the racist or misogynist has no right to demand tolerance, and society should call you what you are: a backward, intolerant bigot.

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The core of the complaint is that people in a same-sex relationship have a civil right to marry each other (i.e., a right to same-sex marriage), and that denying them this right is as scandalous and repulsive as denying blacks or women basic civil rights. In this case, traditionalists’ calls for tolerance are ignored, just as calls for tolerance of racism, misogyny, and the like are ignored.

The Limits and Demands of Tolerance

If the analogies in this objection are correct, the critic has a valid point. Tolerance can only go so far. If members of a society systematically dehumanize any other group of people, the rest of society should not tolerate it. The practice of tolerance itself, however, is dependent upon a shared worldview that corresponds to reality.

For example, because we all agree that by the laws of mathematics 2+2=4, we would not tolerate an elementary-school math teacher instructing her students that 2+2=5. We all agree that Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction is necessarily true. Likewise, we wouldn’t tolerate a religion that engaged in human sacrifice. We all agree that there is a moral law that unjustified killing of another human is murder and should be prohibited. We may not agree on the ontological bases for these truths, but all that is necessary is agreement that these things are true. In these and similar cases, intolerance is appropriate. Without it, society would become chaotic.

Tolerance becomes relevant when truths are obscure. Is God timeless or in time? Are human beings body-soul composites or just physical matter? Is discarding leftover embryos used in in-vitro fertilization the equivalent of killing a person? These and a thousand other questions do not have clear-cut answers. This is why ongoing public discourse, academic freedom, and the joint pursuit of truth are necessary. Tolerating the views of those with whom one disagrees is an integral part of this task.

For millennia, the necessity of sexual complementarity for marriage was one of the truths that cultures around the world shared (even those cultures that approved of same-sex sexual practice, e.g., ancient Greece and Rome). Yet this has now changed: the nature and definition of marriage, once indubitably and unanimously believed to be a union between man and woman, has become obscured. It has moved from the former category of a shared truth to the latter category of a debated idea. This means that, for traditional accounts of marriage, sexuality, and gender to be tolerated, they must be rationally explained and defended as reasonable, true, and moral. We can no longer rely on what everyone once knew to be true about marriage.

False Analogies and Conceptions

Such a defense of marriage has been made thoroughly, in part demonstrating that any comparisons to racism, misogyny, or prejudice against interracial marriage are false analogies. Refusing two people in a same-sex relationship the “right” to same-sex marriage is dissimilar in every way from denying black people human rights or women the right to vote, or banning interracial marriage. The reason the traditional view of marriage should be tolerated in public discourse and its adherents shouldn’t be labeled bigots is precisely because it is a comprehensible, virtuous, and well-argued account of marriage superior in every way to revisionist accounts.

Critics of the traditional view of marriage often think of opposite- and same-sex unions as two viable expressions of marriage, equally intelligible and able to coexist harmlessly. Thus one can understand why many think denying same-sex relationships marriage is a gross breach of civil rights. Yet approaching the debate over same-sex marriage from this premise is confused. In place of the fallacious analogies above, we need a valid analogy that captures the severity and consequence of what it means to redefine marriage.

A Valid Analogy

Consider the hypothetical case of a middle-aged couple, Dan and Susie, who own a pet Labrador dog named Max. This couple love and adore their dog so much that, for whatever reason, they come to believe he is actually their flesh-and-blood biological child. When they fill out their taxes, they claim the child tax credit for Max; when the new school year begins, they enroll Max in kindergarten; when they stop at McDonald’s they order Max the child’s Happy Meal and then let him romp in the play place. In short, they do everything for Max that normal parents would do for their children.

Things don’t go smoothly, however. When the IRS denies them the child tax credit, their local elementary school refuses to enroll Max, and the McDonald’s manager kicks them out of the play place, they are incensed. How dare these people deny their child Max the rights and benefits of full integration into society!

They decide to take their case to Washington, lobbying the government for help. Despite their passionate pleas, they are refused. The US government kindly but firmly explains that Dan and Susie are mistaken about the nature of reality: dogs are a different kind of species than human children. Their conviction that Max is their biological child is false, despite what they feel, insist upon, or do.

Dan and Susie were not denied the civil right to have and raise children just because they had confusedly adopted their pet dog as their child. Instead, we would say that they failed to actually participate in the institution of parenthood (i.e., mothering and fathering), something that requires producing human offspring through sexual intercourse (or via adoption, etc.). Despite their insistence and self-righteous indignation, they were neither denied a civil right nor socially marginalized. They do not have the right to treat their dog as if it were a child, christen such behavior “parenting,” and then insist that everyone else in society—including state and national governments—recognize their behavior as legitimate. Instead, their belief that Max is their child is correctly identified as false and thus detrimental not only to themselves and to their pet but also to society as a whole.

But what would happen if Dan and Susie succeeded in convincing their culture that Max was indeed their biological child? What if thousands of other pet owners across the nation came to believe the same? What would happen if the Supreme Court, in a contested and controversial 5-4 decision, sided with Dan and Susie and redefined “children” to include pets? One could only imagine the social chaos that would ensue. Such a society would rightly be deemed to be living in a fantasy—a delusional world that would inevitably end in disaster.

This is the proper analogy to the redefinition of marriage. Of course, this analogy is not asserting that gay people are somehow less human or a different species, but rather that revisionist definitions of marriage are as confused as Dan and Susie’s revisionist definition of children. The traditionalist claim is not primarily that same-sex marriage is a bad idea, but that it is a nonsensical idea—an impossibility—just as a “pet (i.e., animal) child” is an impossibility. Since marriage necessarily requires sexual complementarity, to speak of “homosexual marriage,” “gay marriage,” or “same-sex marriage,” is a contradiction in terms. It is akin to talking about square triangles, married bachelors, or monogamous throuples. It is unintelligible. Any society that believes it is possible to have “married bachelor” as a relational status with legal protection and congruent civil rights would rightly be declared delusional; so it is with “same-sex marriage.”

Natural Rights and Civil Rights

How does this relate to the civil rights debate? Civil rights come in two forms. The first are pre-political, natural rights that governments recognize and codify as law, such as the inalienable rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. These rights are naturally occurring, God-given, and innumerable. They are known as negative rights because they place obligations of non-interference upon everyone else. In this case the civil right is a moral imperative that flows from the natural right.

The second kind of civil rights come from civil law. In America, this includes the rights to vote, to trial by jury, to the standard of reasonable doubt, etc. These rights are not naturally occurring, innumerable, or provided by God, as they only obtain through social contracts and government legislation. They are not universal, but can vary from country to country and over time. It also means that changing these rights is not immoral (although usually imprudent). These kinds of civil rights are known as positive rights because they place obligations of provision upon certain parties. In this case the civil right is created when the positive right comes into existence via human effort.

Civil Rights and Same-Sex Marriage

Although debated, marriage is the former kind: a natural, pre-political right that is part of the created order. Therefore, the civil right to marriage depends on marriage as a naturally occurring, negative right. Since marriage did not come into existence through social contract or legislation (i.e., positive rights), governments and courts cannot redefine either marriage or the civil right to it.

“Same-sex marriage” is a contradiction in terms, and one cannot have a civil right to a contradiction. Just as there is no civil right to being a “married bachelor,” so there is no civil right to a “same-sex marriage” because such a thing does not and cannot exist—despite beliefs to the contrary. One can be granted the freedom to believe in illusory relationships, but in no case does one have the moral right to impose these false beliefs on the rest of society and use the strong arm of governments or courts to reshape the culture accordingly.

In fact, just the opposite is true. Every government has the duty to correctly discern truth and then to craft laws, customs, and values according to those truths. While pluralistic societies should allow for differing beliefs and lifestyles, under no circumstance does this excuse the government from its duty to adhere to reality within its legitimate domains of authority—one of which is marriage.

The irony is that same-sex attracted people have always had the civil right to marry. What they have not had is the civil right to “same-sex marriage,” since such a thing is not possible. Just as Dan and Susie were never denied the right to have children or become parents simply because they were mistaken about what a child was, so same-sex attracted people have never been denied marriage just because they are mistaken about what marriage is.

Marriage traditionalists are not bigots because their view of marriage is rational, well-argued, and virtuous, thus falling within the realm of debated ideas that are tolerated in the common pursuit of truth. Marriage traditionalists are not bigots because the analogies to racism, interracial marriage, and the like are false. Marriage traditionalists are not bigots because their understanding of marriage necessarily excludes “same-sex marriage” as a possible concept.

Finally, marriage traditionalists are not bigots for denying same-sex attracted people the civil right to same-sex marriage, because this civil right does not exist. Everyone is welcome to get married, but we must conform to the reality of what marriage is, not attempt to shape it according to our desires. Facts are stubborn things, and the facts about marriage are stubborn indeed.