The gay marriage debate has turned unpleasant both here and in the US

An item in Monday’s Telegraph had this headline: “Americans offer Tories advice on gay marriage”. What was all this about? It seems that Tory “strategists” have been holding meetings with American lobbying experts “to try to win hesitant Conservative MPs around to supporting same-sex marriage.” Apparently David Cameron is concerned that rebel backbenchers could scupper his plans to change Britain’s marriage laws by 2015.

According to Benjamin Cohen of the UK pressure group Coalition for Equal Marriage, founded in 2012 in opposition to the Coalition for Marriage and which has the support of Nick Clegg, the National Secular Society, the British Humanist Association, Stonewall and others, “the battle…is really to try to convince Conservatives. We are working with them [the US campaign group Freedom to Marry] to try to determine the best way of presenting the argument to Conservative backbenchers.”

Freedom to Marry was founded in the US in 2003. According to its “Roadmap for Victory”, it is working “to end the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage” by winning same-sex marriage for more states and repealing the Defence of Marriage Act, a law it sees as discriminatory.” In March 2011 the organisation launched an open letter to Barack Obama, appealing to him to support their objective. Their campaign ended on 9 May 2012 when Obama became the first sitting president of the US to declare openly that he supports same-sex marriage.

The Telegraph report adds that “Many Tory members privately say that same sex marriage is one of the biggest subjects of correspondence from constituents and fear that it will cost them votes.” There have been a huge number of signatories to the Coalition for Marriage’s petition to keep marriage as it stands, so this large postbag does not come as a surprise. People who support marriage feel they have been unfairly labelled as “bigots” (isn’t this what Nick Clegg secretly feels?). In my view this is a much larger issue than whether Andrew Mitchell, the Chief Whip, called policemen “plebs”. The first word rudely dismisses a large section of the population who want to uphold an ancient institution that is fundamental to society; the second is a matter of personal (and public school) rudeness. I think Tory MPs are right to fear that David Cameron’s obduracy on this question will cost them votes in the next general election; it might even lose the election for them. The Telegraph report concludes by quoting a Downing Street source which confirmed the strategy meeting had taken place but added: “The Americans were there to learn from us as much as we were from them.”

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago is one American who has no plans to “learn” from any pressure group. A recent Portland Catholic Sentinel carried an article by him giving his response to the Chicago city government’s assumption that they can decide the “values that must be held by citizens of Chicago.” He asks, in a deliberate reference to McCarthyism, “Is the City Council going to set up a ‘Council Committee on un-Chicagoan Activities’ and call those who are suspect to appear before it?” He continues, “The value in question is espousal of ‘gender-free marriage’. Approval of state-sponsored homosexual unions has very quickly become a litmus test for bigotry; and espousing the understanding of marriage that has prevailed among all peoples throughout human history is now, supposedly, outside the American consensus.”

Pointing out that marriage predates Christianity and that it existed “well before the United States of America was formed two hundred and thirty six years ago”, the Cardinal goes on to explain the “legitimate interest” that Church and state have in regulating marriage as a public institution. Quoting Jesus’ words in St Mathew’s Gospel about “two becoming one flesh”, he asks “Was Jesus a bigot? Could Jesus be accepted as a Chicagoan? Would Jesus be more “enlightened” if he had the privilege of living in our society?” The Cardinal concludes with a heartfelt appeal: “Surely there must be a way to properly respect people who are gay or lesbian without using civil law to undermine the nature of marriage.”

Professor Tina Beattie of Roehampton University believes that Catholics can hold “a variety of different views, with an informed conscience, with regards to civil same-sex marriage.” Perhaps the Anglo-American pressure groups’ strategies to win over hesitant MPs will include this kind of balancing act: that you can, in good faith, hold one point of view at the same time as its diametric opposite. But we are not talking here of different views on the economy, or social policy, or education, or defence. The nature of marriage is a different ball-game. One hopes that hesitant MPs – of all parties – will withstand the specious arguments.