“[This] is the huge heresy of Precedent. It is the view that because we have got into a mess we must grow messier to suit it; that because we have taken a wrong turn some time ago, we must go forward and not backwards; that because we have lost our way, we must lose our map also and because we have missed our ideal, we must forget it.”
—G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World.
Some time ago, there was a rather popular meme running around the internet that went something to the effect of this: “Celebrity A was divorced after only 3 months of marriage, Celebrity B was divorced after 3 weeks of marriage, Celebrity C was divorced after 3 days of marriage, therefore gay marriage will not harm the sanctity of marriage.” The precise argument (let us call it the Celebrity Divorce Argument) here is sufficiently vague that it is hard to follow and several interpretations are possible. Those who say it probably mean either:
1. Since divorce happens regularly and does not harm the sanctity of marriage, same sex marriage will also not harm marriage.
2. Marriage is already in such trouble from the commonness of divorce, that Christians shouldn’t care if gay marriage makes it any worse.
3. Christians are hypocrites for opposing same sex marriage, but not opposing divorce.
Part of the challenge of answering the Celebrity Divorce Argument (CDA), lies in knowing exactly what it means. It could mean several different and logically incompatible things. The third interpretation may be easily dismissed. At best it is simply an instance of the ad hominem fallacy since it tries to judge the truth of a position (the moral permissibility of gay marriage) by attacking the person who holds it. And at any rate, most people opposed to gay marriage are probably opposed to divorce as well. This leaves the first two interpretations of the CDA.
I have been suspicious of the argument since I first heard it, but have had nothing particularly insightful to say and so took the wiser course and said nothing. It happens that I still have nothing of value to say, but happily, while reading G.K. Chesterton’s book, What is Wrong with the World, I found that Chesterton did. He was speaking specifically of another modern error, yet the principle remains the same. To the man who would claim the CDA, that with divorce so common, we ought not oppose same sex marriage, Chesterton would reply that this is merely the heresy of Precedent, that “because the world is a mess, we should grow messier to suit it.” One might as well claim that because a man is halfway toward falling off a cliff, he must not resist falling the rest of the way, or that because he has cancer of the lungs, he ought not care about getting disease of the heart as well.
With common divorce, society fell half off the cliff. A permanent relationship for mutual love and help, dedicated to the upbringing of children became a temporary relationship and children grew optional. With the rest of the fall, and the allowance of gay marriage, marriage becomes now solely about the individual adult, a temporary living arrangement based on state recognition of romantic attachment.
We may be halfway toward falling off the cliff, but that is no reason to fall the rest of the way. We may have lost our way, but that is no reason to lose our minds as well.