Last week the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that gay and lesbian couples in that state are legally entitled to marry, thereby entitling them to the same “legal, financial, and social benefits” as heterosexual couples. The topic now seems destined to continue as one of the most controversial issues in America, and will likely play a prominent role in next year’s election debates.

Over the past decade, this “family values” question has become very difficult, and polarized by both the religious right and the cultural left. To move forward, we must simply refuse the false choices being offered by both sides.

The left has misdiagnosed the roots of our present social crisis, mostly leaving out the critical dimension of family breakdown as a fundamental component of problems like poverty and violence. These issues are not just important to the religious right, or simply bourgeois concerns. We do need to rebuild strong and healthy two-parent family systems. We desperately need more families with moms and dads and kids, strong male and female role models in both “nuclear” and extended family systems. It’s not a matter of whether that should be “the norm”; it simply is the norm in this society and every other one. The question, rather, is how that family norm can be a healthy one.

Right now family breakups, broken promises, marital infidelity, bad parenting, child abuse, male domination, violence against women, and the choosing of material over family values are all combining to make the family norm in America more and more unhealthy. A critical mass of healthy traditional families is absolutely essential to the well-being of any society. That should be clear to us by now, especially in neighborhoods where intact families have all but disappeared.

But the right has seized upon this agenda and turned it into a mean-spirited crusade. To say gay and lesbian people are responsible for the breakdown of the heterosexual family is simply wrong. That breakdown is causing a great social crisis that impacts us all, but it is not the fault of gays and lesbians. It has very little to do with them. Their civil and human rights must also be honored, respected, and defended for a society to be good and healthy. It is a question of both justice and compassion. To be both pro-family and pro-gay and lesbian civil rights could open up some common ground that might take us forward.

There is a middle way. We can make sure that long-term gay and lesbian partnerships are afforded legitimate legal protections in a pluralistic society without changing our long-standing and deeply rooted concept of marriage as being between a man and a woman. That should continue to be the theology of the church and the way our society best orders itself.

But do we really want to deny a gay person’s right to be at their loved one’s deathbed in a hospital with “family restrictions”? Do we also want to deny that person a voice in the medical treatment of his or her partner? And do we really want all the worldly possessions of a deceased gay person to revert to the family who rejected them 30 years ago, instead of going to their partner of the last 20 years? There are fundamental issues of justice and fairness here that can be resolved without a paradigm shift in our basic definition of marriage.

Jim Wallis is editor in chief and executive director of Sojourners. Source: Sojourners 2003 (c)

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