When the Masters golf tournament is played this weekend, I'll be among the millions of Americans celebrating the fact that the Augusta National Golf Club now includes female members. But I'll also be pondering this irony: At the same time that Augusta National is finally welcoming women into its membership, the Supreme Court is being asked to rule that the most foundational grouping in human society — a marriage — need not include a woman.
Look, I know same-sex marriage is supposedly inevitable (given the views of America's youth). And I want as much as anyone to get to sit at the cool kids' table at lunch. But when I consider ironies such as the one at Augusta National, I get the feeling that all of us cool-conscious Americans ought to chill long enough to make certain that we've thought through this fashionable idea.
Because there's a question surrounding gay marriage that could significantly alter the way we view the controversy — and might also help us avoid an endless culture war. Here's the question:
Isn't sexual orientation actually more like religion than like race?
Same-sex marriage gained its initial foothold in some of America's whitest states — Maine,Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Iowa. And opposition to gay marriage remains stronger among blacks than among any other demographic group. Freed from the guilt that most whites feel about our nation's racial history, many African Americans appear better able to see the limitations of gay analogies to race. Consider:
Everyone present at a child's birth knows the newborn's race and gender. But can any of us say for certain that we know a newborn's sexual or religious orientation? Oh, sure, we may say a child will be "raised as a Christian," or we may assume that a baby boy will grow up to chase girls. But the reality is no one knows for certain at that moment, even if there is a genetic component to homosexuality. And even the child might experience some confusion about his or her sexual or spiritual identity as he or she grows up. This no doubt helps to explain why some people bounce around religiously or sexually before settling these identity questions.
Needless to say, people don't bounce around from one race to another. And while Lady Gaga (in the sexual realm) and Calvinists (in the spiritual realm) both contend that our ultimate identity is predestined, many "free will" Americans believe that we have more say over our lives than Gaga or Calvin claim.
My purpose here isn't to weigh in on the side of destiny or free will; it's simply to acknowledge that there's an element of mystery surrounding sexuality and spirituality that doesn't surround race. This element of mystery ought to engender humility among everyone on all sides. And it ought to remind us that shared beliefs need not be a condition of genuine friendship.
I mean, my Hindu neighbors don't say to me that I must accept their beliefs in order for us to be friends. Nor do I say the same to them. And if a U.S. senator's child were to "come out" as a Scientologist, I don't think anyone would consider it uncouth for that senator to continue to harbor doubts about the claims of Scientology (even though we'd still expect him to love his child).
Viewing sexual orientation like religious identity could go a long way toward promoting tolerance of, but not agreement with, others' beliefs and practices. And it could help us all better understand why many Americans remain resistant to same-sex marriage: They don't want the state to force someone else's "religious" beliefs on them.
Now, I suppose one could argue that our age-old marriage laws already do this in the opposite direction. And though these laws are certainly consistent with historic biblical teachings (and with the Eastern conception of yin and yang), it's important for us all to recognize that the basis for marriage law in America has always been what Thomas Jefferson (Mr. Separation of Church and State) called "the laws of nature."
That is, historically, marriage has been reserved for the joining of two human beings who are fundamentally different (and do not share the same chromosomal patterns). In other words, prohibitions against same-sex marriage are very much like prohibitions against same-kin marriage. They aren't rooted in hate; they're rooted in nature. And they're designed to forge unity from diversity at the most basic level of society — which is no small thing for a nation that celebrates e pluribus unum.
Moreover, our historic marriage laws recognize that even though all individuals are equal, not all social groupings should be considered equal. That is why millions of us viewed Augusta National's same-sex membership rules as problematic. And it's no doubt why many Americans still want the membership rules for marriage to include one representative from each half of the human race.
William Mattox is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors