Thoughts on Same-Sex Marriage, Part I: The Politics of Rights and "Ressentiment"

Despite all the recent commotion about same-sex marriage, I don’t have a dog in this fight. But I do have an interest in the discussion being clear and civil, and I notice several factors that prevent the discussion from being so: the politics of “ressentiment” (a form of resentment), confusion about rights versus privilege, and confusion over whether the issue is civil or religious in nature.

In his recent book, “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World,” James Davison Hunter lamented the exaggerated role of ressentiment in political discourse:

His (Nietzsche’s) definition of this French word included what we in the English-speaking world mean by resentment, but it also involves a combination of anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge as the motive of political action. Ressentiment is, then, a form of political psychology .… Ressentiment is grounded in the narrative of injury or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged .… And so it is, then, that the injury—real or perceived—leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on those whom they see as responsible .… Ressentiment, then, is expressed as a discourse of negation; the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable.

We rarely hear people merely honestly disagreeing; it appears that nearly everyone has been injured in some way. The religious right complains that some undefined group is “taking away our nation;” proponents of state recognition of same-sex unions wring their hands about their “rights” being trampled, etc. Such posturing as an aggrieved party renders civil discourse nearly impossible. We cannot easily sit across the table from someone and discuss a matter in a constructive or civil fashion if we have just accused the individual of injuring us in some way. Hunter thinks such posturing is profoundly harmful to public discourse and the public welfare, because it personalizes issues that ought to be considered in light of the public well-being, without the entanglement of emotion, passion, and personal attack-and-parry.

In the present conversation, proponents of state recognition of same-sex unions routinely suggest that their “rights” are being violated or “taken away” unless same-sex marriage is approved. Such a claim inflames ressentiment, but it adds little to the discussion, and is, in fact, erroneous. To which right, precisely, does this claim refer? Does the Bill of Rights discuss state recognition of any unions at all? Is there any legislative or judicial evidence that the right to have the state recognize our marrying whomever we wish has ever been established in legislative or judicial history? At this point, I’m not weighing in on the question of whether such a right should be recognized, but merely on the historical question of whether it ever has been recognized. If, in point of fact, it never has been recognized (more below), then nothing is being taken away, the flames of ressentiment can be extinguished, and we can discuss in civil tones whether the right, never previously-before granted, ought to be granted.

The condition of the Utah territory being admitted to statehood was its abolition of polygamy. By U.S. law, the various states (including Utah) may not legally recognize the union of more than two adults. Note how significant this decision was: It required the Mormons not to practice their religion as they (then) understood it. The decision (effectively and arguably) violated the First Amendment’s protection of the “due exercise” of their religion. It was very significant for the federal government to declare that Utah could only enter the Union if it satisfied the federal government’s limits on which marriages it would permit states to recognize. This decision demonstrates that, at least at that moment in American history, the right to the state’s recognition of our marrying whomever we wish was not, in fact, absolute; but rather, was limited by what the federal government permitted. As an undisputed fact of American history, the Utah compromise proves that government recognition of marital unions was not conceived as a right, but as a privilege—a privilege that the government had the authority to limit in accord with its own discretion.

I am not rendering an opinion here as to whether the Utah compromise was wise or not. I am merely observing that the decision was made; and that the decision is well known, and it is therefore a part of our legislative and judicial history. Technically, then, proponents of state recognition of same-sex unions should argue that their unions ought to be recognized by the state, rather than to suggest that to this point, such a “right” (to have any union recognized by the state) exists. If it were a right to marry whomever we wished, and to have the government recognize that union, then the federal government could not have imposed upon Mormons a restriction on that right.

Editor’s note: This is Part I of a three-part series on same-sex marriage. See Parts II and III here:

Thoughts on Same-Sex Marriage, Part II:
Distinguishing Rights and Privileges

Thoughts on Same-Sex Marriage, Part III:
The Issue Is Civil, Not Religious