If you are still unpersuaded of the need for secularism to prevail in politics, then consider the latest religious intervention. Britain’s most senior Catholic is dominating the news agenda today with a hyperbole-laden polemic against the prospect of men being allowed to marry men, and women being allowed to marry women.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien starts, of course, from the theological premises set down in the Vatican’s 1975 Declaration on Sexual Ethics. Same sex attraction may be unavoidable, but is nevertheless ‘a serious depravity’; to act on that attraction is ‘intrinsically disordered’.
O’Brien is as entitled as any other citizen to express an opinion on gay marriage. The question is exactly how much extra weight his stance should carry by virtue of his position within an unelected hierarchy.
The Catholic church is a voluntary organisation, and is entitled to make whatever stipulations for its adherents its teaching appears to dictate. Obviously it would be wrong for the state to compel it to conduct gay marriage services.
But the same logic runs the other way; its authority extends exclusively to those who chose to accept it, which works out at around 8% of the population. It cannot be accorded a veto over policies that impact on the remaining 92% of us.
Moreover, the very credibility of its pronouncements on matters sexual is surely tainted by decades in which its leadership in many countries was knowingly complicit in child abuse on a mass scale.
On reading the O’Brien’s piece, I was also amused to see Catholicism posing as the brave defender of heretics and those who dissent from imposed orthodoxy. Get a history book, Cardinal.
The article contains more arguments than can conveniently be examined in the space of a blog post. Some of them are quite obviously tenuous. For instance, the idea that civil partnership is harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved is asserted without even an attempt at substantiation.
But one principal claim appears to be that marriage has existed at all times and places, and has only ever meant the legal union of one man and one woman. The government is trying to change that definition to include same sex unions, and is therefore guilty of attempting to redefine reality.
While my knowledge of anthropology is sketchy, the Cardinal seems to be on shaky ground here. As far as I am aware, human societies have always displayed a vast diversity of sexual set ups. One to one straight marriage has been dominant, but scarcely universal.
Even in the Bible, we read in in 1 Kings 11:3 that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Polygamy was nothing out of the ordinary in the Old Testament (Deut. 21:15), and Abraham himself engaged in divinely-sanctioned bigamy.
But the truth is not that the government that is redefining reality, but that reality is redefining itself. Committed gay relationships have surely been around as long as committed straight relationships, but it is only thanks to the social changes seen in the last 50 years that they have become both commonplace and open.
If the Coalition recognises that and allows LGBT couples that wish to do so to walk down the aisle, then that ultimate increases rather than diminishes the standing of marriage as an institution. Those that favour marriage should have no complaints about that.