The legalisation of same-sex marriage in England, Scotland and Wales was the subject of one of the most contentious political debates of recent years. Initially announced at the end of 2011, and reaching the statute book for England and Wales in July of this year, the proposals divided political and public opinion. The most concerted opposition to the proposals, though, came from religious organisations. Several religious groups (such as Quakers and Unitarians) supported the measures, but the vast majority were strongly against.
This poses a puzzle. On the one hand, attitudes towards homosexuality are closely linked to levels of religiosity and theological concerns. On the whole (although variations obviously exist), religious people are far more likely to oppose same-sex marriage than non-religious people – with Anglicans, Evangelicals and members of non-Christian faiths tending to be the most conservative.
On the other hand, religious opposition to the legalisation of same-sex marriage (at least in public) was notable for its lack of theological justifications. For the most part, specifically religious objections, such as homosexuality being sinful, immoral, contrary to the word of God, and so on, were limited to a small number of fringe groups (such as Christians in Action and Anglican Mainstream) as well as campaigns from non-Christian faiths (most notably the Muslim Council of Britain). Two of the main (though also the smallest) campaign groups opposed to same-sex marriage, Keep Marriage Special and RealMarriage.org.uk, also relied heavily on theological arguments.
In contrast, for the large majority of religious groups – including the main national churches, organisations such as the Evangelical Alliance, cause groups such as the Christian Institute and Christian Concern, as well as the main oppositional campaign body (Coalition for Marriage – which has close links to a number of conservative Christian groups) – theological reasons were either absent or downplayed.
Instead, the main points centred on distinctly secular reasons. These were clustered around four common themes based on (1) tradition, (2) social utility, (3) democratic values, and (4) the threat to religious freedoms and liberties. The first of these emphasised historical and traditional sources of authority for the definition of marriage. This was said to be a ‘natural’ and explicitly heterosexual category, typically entered into for the purposes of raising a family. Heterosexual marriage was presented as a universal constant in all human societies, and altering the definition of marriage was said to be beyond the purview of the state.
The second set of arguments centred on the social utility of heterosexual marriage, which was said to provide the bedrock for human society. Opponents claimed that ‘redefining’ marriage and allowing same-sex unions would lead to far-reaching and negative social consequences, such as family breakdowns, rising levels of delinquency, and polygamy.
The third theme maintained that the legalisation of same-sex marriage was neither wanted nor needed. Here, opponents highlighted the lack of a democratic mandate, pointing out that none of the main political parties included the proposal in their general election manifestos, and added that same-sex couples could already obtain all the legal benefits of marriage through civil partnerships.
The final (and for many the most important) theme of religious opposition focused on the rights and liberties of religious groups and individuals themselves. In particular, this claimed that redefining marriage would discriminate against people who wished to belong to (and to continue to proclaim the virtues of) marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution. Reassurances that safeguards would protect defenders of ‘traditional’ marriage from legal action and from being forced to conduct same-sex marriages against their will, were rejected, usually on the basis of the threat posed by the European Convention on Human Rights.
Why, given the close link between attitudes to homosexuality and theological concerns, was religious opposition to same-sex marriage framed largely in secular terms? A key part of the explanation involves an increasing shift to the use of identity politics by religious groups in a context of increasing secularisation. Official census statistics show that the proportion of the adult population in England and Wales describing themselves as Christian declined from 71.7% in 2001 to 59.3% in 2011, while the proportion describing themselves as having no religion increased from 14.8% to 25.1% over the same period.
Against this backdrop has emerged a growing perception of a threat to religious beliefs and practices. According to a 2009 poll by ComRes, for instance, 58% of Christians felt that living according to their faith in Britain was more difficult than it was five years previously. One response to these challenges by religious groups has been to try and defend their interests with a growing emphasis on group identity markers, using a language of minority rights to assert demands for respect, tolerance and equal recognition. At the same time, this represents an awareness that religious appeals are now unlikely to have substantial traction, and signifies part of an attempt to frame religious issues in such a way as to be more amenable to the concerns and language of a broadly secular audience.
This raises a number of important implications, but an important point is that emphasising a language of minority rights is inherently self-limiting. For one, such assertions also serve to validate the rights claims of other groups (including, in this case, homosexual rights), and where claims conflict with each other their resolution is likely, in an increasingly secular society, to be in favour of more liberal, rather than religious freedoms.
In addition, claims that religious bodies need to be accorded the same formal rights and equalities as other social interests highlight the sectional character of religious groups themselves, as but one social interest among many, making it increasingly difficult to sustain specifically religious privileges, such as the kind of exemptions from equalities legislation needed to allow them to avoid marrying same-sex couples.
Much of course remains to be seen, but if religious groups have any desire to maintain any relevance at all in an ever-more secular society, positioning themselves at odds to that society might seem to be a strange way for them to go about it.
Steven Kettell is an Associate Professor in Politics and International Studies. He received a BSc. (Hons) in Politics from Plymouth (spending a semester at the University of Economics, Prague), and an MA in Comparative Politics from York. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Warwick in 2003 on the subject of exchange rate policy-making, with particular reference to Britain’s membership of the gold standard during the interwar period. He worked as a lecturer in British Politics at the University of Birmingham from 2003-2005, and is also a founder and Co-Executive Editor of British Politics.
This post originally appeared on the LSE Politics and Policy Blog.