In the 2012 election, same-sex marriage made gains at the ballot box for the first time—however narrowly—in all four states where “marriage equality” was presented to the voters for decision.  Have the American people been successfully fooled?

Maybe the more germane question is, Are large numbers of the American people self-deceived about homosexuality?  We must consider that possibility, because there is an important difference between being fooled and being self-deceived.

We can begin by asking why the defenders of traditional marriage—seemingly all of a sudden—are under the gun.  Marriage has, after all, always been regarded as the union of male and female.  It has been understood in this way not because of bad old tradition but because of the physiological or biological complementarity of men and women, whose reproductive organs have a unique functional fittedness.

Yet here we are, in a social setting where people who affirm the truth of the old view of marriage are commonly identified as bigots.  What happened?

The answer, in large part, is self-deception.  Not the self-deception of the defenders of traditional marriage (for whom bigotry, not self-deception, is supposed to be the problem), but the self-deception of those who promote same-sex marriage.

Suppose the alleged bigots are precise in their terminology about same-sex marriage (“same-sex couples are not similarly situated”), while the allegedly self-deceived are vague and abstract and more than a little question-begging (“it’s all about justice and marriage equality”)—which side is more likely to be wrong?  Again, suppose redefining marriage is a big thing, not a small thing—wouldn’t it be downright illogical to presume the side having greater insight about this (the nature of the redefinition of marriage) is bigoted, rather than that the side having less insight is self-deceived?  (The conservatives say redefining marriage is a big thing, requiring extreme caution, while liberals say it’s no big deal, and the faster we get there the better.)

If traditional marriage is unjust in excluding same-sex couples, then all previous generations were guilty of a grave injustice—and doesn’t the severe whiggism of such a belief strain credulity?  Again, the presence of bigotry in a person or a group is reasonably discernible, but self-deception is complexly hidden, so it would seem that only virulent and overt bigotry can explain resistance to same-sex marriage better than self-deception—and are Jane and Joe Christian, who want nothing more than to invite you to their Bible study, really virulent and overt bigots?

In thinking about this, we notice first that marriage “reformers” are caught between a rock and a hard place.  They must either redefine marriage or else effectively make marriage incoherent by grafting same-sex marriage onto it.  Since no one likes to think his or her ideas or principles are incoherent, the second option is avoided at all costs.  The reformers seek to redefine marriage instead.  They’ll take the hard place instead of the rock.

From the point of view of traditional marriage, same-sex marriage is necessarily incoherent—or rather it introduces incoherence into the idea of marriage.  But if marriage is redefined, and redefined in such a way as to include same-sex couples, then the incoherence vanishes.

Luckily for the marriage reformers, the marriage-redefinition project is aided by a common misunderstanding.  Redefinition is often believed to mean the same thing as revision.  That lack of distinction obscures an important difference: A revision does not completely change the perceived nature or meaning of a thing, whereas a redefinition does precisely that.  To redefine something is to turn it into another kind of thing, with a different meaning.

Same-sex marriage amounts to a redefinition, or a fundamental alteration, of marriage insofar as it removes procreation from the meaning of marriage.  Gay marriage is not just a revision of the institution of marriage.

Liberals say, You know, we only want to expand access to civil marriage for all loving adult couples; that’s all same-sex marriage does.  A minor self-deception in this is that it doesn’t exclude incestuous couples—incest cannot be excluded by the “all loving couples” logic of same-sex marriage.  Another self-deception is found in the rhetoric of those who insist that “we only want to expand access,” which demonstrates a willingness to tolerate an ends-justify-the-means policy (the means to the end of same-sex marriage being the removal of the linchpin of procreation from the meaning of marriage).  These “reformers” also fail to recognize that the call for expanded access to civil marriage is, properly, for all similarly situated adult couples, not for any and all adult couples.

Perhaps the ultimate self-deception is in thinking that everything will go on as before, even when marriage’s essential meaning is changed—that marriage will continue to be as socially valuable as it was formerly, perhaps even for the same underlying reasons.  Alternatively, the ultimate self-deception consists in believing that marriage’s meaning will not have changed at all, and that marriage will still be the valuable social institution it has always been—that marriage will be different from cohabitation if we simply say it is different.

What about the specifically “Christian” kind of self-deception?  At issue is the idea of one-flesh union, which is expressed in the words of Genesis as “male and female created He them.”  Complementarity in the sense of unitive bodily functions—and possessed only by opposite-sex couples—is built into the created order.  It is God’s way of making sure the command to “multiply and replenish the earth” is fulfilled despite the waywardness of human beings.  The churches from time immemorial have regarded sexual complementarity as bearing the imprimatur of the very first book of the Bible.

Flinging caution to the winds, the Christianity-professing marriage reformers maintain that the churches have misconceived the meaning of marriage all along.  They insist that the traditional understanding of sexual complementarity is hidebound and erroneous.

Perhaps it is the reformers’ “Whig interpretation of history” that keeps them from being daunted by the weight of past testimony about the meaning of marriage, testimony that contradicts their understanding of the marital institution.  Whatever it is, in order to uphold their favored interpretation, the reformers must dramatically alter the meaning of complementarity in such a way as to remove any contradiction between new and old conceptions of marriage.

Underlying the reformers’ idea of complementarity is an equivocation between sexual orientation as normative and sexual orientation as descriptive—and sometimes between fixed and fluid conceptions of descriptive sexual orientation.  Worse yet is their equivocal use of the words persons and personal.

Sexual complementarity is traditionally regarded as the union of the two sexes, with persons understood as embodied souls.  The reformers claim that sexual complementarity consists, as a necessary condition, of the psychological array of persons, including desires and aspirations.  When the reformers assert that sexual complementarity must be understood in terms of the “whole” person rather than in “narrow” genital-biological terms—as if bodily functions were not definitive of the physiology of personhood, and physiology not central to embodiment—they are guilty of a remarkable kind of equivocation.  The fallacy of equivocation becomes the means by which they deceive themselves about complementarity—and thereby about what marriage is.

Are the marriage reformers likewise self-deceived about the goods, both individual and collective, that same-sex marriage would bring?  It seems that they are wrong but not necessarily self-deceived about that.  Their being wrong is a separate subject from their being self-deceived.

An especially worrisome upshot of this bird’s-eye view of the same-sex marriage debate is that moderate supporters of same-sex marriage may find themselves pushed into redoubled attacks on the perceived bigotry of their opponents.  Moderates who are initially reluctant to paint their opponents with the brush of bigotry are bound to consider, all the more seriously, whether they themselves are self-deceived.  When the alternative is painful self-examination, it’s easier just to see bigots all over the place.

The phenomenon of the tortured moderate liberal has no parallel in the abortion conflict, except a limited one regarding partial-birth abortion, in which self-deception, but not bias, plays a distinctive role.  That is to say, the possibility of culture wars doubled and cubed is ominously real.  A gay-marriage version of Roe v. Wade bodes ill for the late great republic.

Marriage equality is a shrine thronged with worshipers.  When the idea of same-sex marriage is analyzed, however, it is found wanting.