Jonathan Ichikawa raises some questions I've been wondering about since this post, but he puts it in a different enough way that I'd like to highlight his argument and then develop it in a different direction. It seems pretty silly to use the kind of rhetoric often found in the religious right over an issue as boring as what a word means in the English language. Linguistic matters really don't have much moral weight, especially given how rapidly natural languages change. That's why a charitable observer will try to find a more charitable interpretation of all the harsh rhetoric about this vast gay conspiracy to redefine the English language. How it could it be that immoral merely to seek for one word to mean something else? It can't just be about language. There must be some real moral issue behind the scenes.
For many, there is a deeper moral issue. I, for one, truly want people to retain the concept of marriage particular to Christianity. We've lost the biblical perspective on marriage and family that someone thoroughly versed in the Bible will tend to absorb as part of their conceptual background. Hardly anyone has much of an inkling of this now. This isn't about what any words in English mean. It's whether we have a concept of marriage that reflects Christian ideals, with any marriage (using the English word) that doesn't meet those ideals simply not matching up to those ideals. My neighbors' family doesn't fail to be a family simply because the mother wasn't the biological mother of most of the kids. Their biological mother died, and their father remarried. She raised most of those kids. My co-blogger Wink's family doesn't fail to be a family simply because his son is adopted. It's not what we hold up as the ideal, not in either case, though for very different reasons.
Maybe it's different if you think something immoral took place. Virtually no one thinks it's wrong to adopt or to remarry if your spouse dies. Many people think gay relationships are morally wrong, and I'm one of them. It might be helpful to think about another case many Christians consider morally wrong, divorce (not for reasons of unfaithfulness, spousal abuse, or whatever other exceptions there might be) with a resulting remarriage. It's pretty clear that the Bible considers it adultery if a Christian initiates such a divorce and then gets married to someone else. Is the resulting family a family? As the English word is used, the answer is clearly yes. So doing something Christians believe is immoral that can lead to family bonds being created doesn't make it not a family. It can't be that the immorality of gay relationships is what makes families with gay parents not families. [I'm wording it this way deliberately to show that the sentence makes perfect sense. You can describe a family with gay parents as a family, and we all know exactly what it is that you're talking about.]
So I don't know how anyone can claim that you're revising the English language to use the word 'family' to refer to , for example, a couple of lesbians and their legally adopted daughter. We use the word family much more loosely than that all the time, including talking about family units that involve more than the western concept of a nuclear family that most people in the world (including most of the people in the Bible) would consider a foreign concept. We extend it metaphorically all the time to include people who aren't related either by blood or legally. Why is it either a misuse or a revision of what the word itself means to say two gay men and their legally adopted children are a family? It just seems to me to be empirically false that that's a redefinition of the English word or a mistake in what the word means. The word's semantic range certainly includes things like that.
So the important issue making people mad must be over matters more serious than what some English words mean. Jonathan presents evidence to the contrary. He's found a radically revisionist agenda to try to protect a traditional view of what words like 'family' and 'marriage' mean in English. The reason it must be simply over what the words mean in English and not about some deeper moral views is that the kind of language they want to disallow is a perfectly normal, common practice that's been around for years, long before the vast gay conspiracy even existed.
Here's an email Focus on the Family sent out this week:
The guide itself treats the classroom as a family, defining a family loosely as any group that is bound by love and caring for each other. Sometimes, pets and imaginary creatures are seen as family.
That, while not specifically pro-gay, is cause for concern among pro-family analysts.
"For parents who look closely at the teachers guide and DVD, it is apparent that this is yet another example of the kinds of materials intended to redefine the family," said Marc Fey, director of worldview outreach at Focus on the Family. "This curriculum has one objective � to redefine the traditional view of a family."
As Jonathan notes, it's not just that this has nothing to do with a pro-gay agenda. This is a normal, metaphorical, extended use of the term 'family' in English. Two very close friends will consider each other as if family. Many families consider their pets part of the family. If the desire to prevent redefiniton is going to require removing long-standing uses of the terms in question, then it may be worth asking if the so-called redefinition is really redefinition or just another extended use of the term that doesn't go beyond its original sense.
I've been arguing that we have no reason not to count a family consisting of a gay couple and kids as a family. That's an empirical claim about what the English word 'family' means. I think there are also moral issues worth bringing in, and I don't mean moral issues about homosexuality. I mean moral issues about what Christians should be doing and saying. That's the only family those kids have, and I think it's evil and contrary to Christian ideals to suggest that they have no family. I say this as someone who thinks there's something deeply wrong with homosexuality.
I find people speaking disparagingly of using 'family' for a gay couple with kids or sarcastically putting scare quotes around 'family' when talking about that family. I feel so strongly about this because that just sends the wrong message to gay people and especially to children of gay people. Christians have an obligation to reach out with the gospel. Starting instead with a political agenda based on particular sins tells people that we value labeling them in negative ways more than we value caring about them as people, recognizing their relational connections as real and as important to them in the same ways that mine are to me. Sometimes I think that's what people want to resist doing when they say they're resistant to considering homosexuality as normal. To be sure, there's more that they're resisting, but I think some of them are resisting this too, as evidenced by the Focus on the Family letter and the post I linked to above. I think it's immoral to resist this, particularly in the name of Christianity.
I want to remind Christians reading this that nothing I've said should conflict in any way with thinking there's something wrong with gay people's capacities to form normal romantic relationships. It shouldn't conflict with believing it's morally wrong for gay people to make the choices they do given their tendencies. Even if we think being gay is a result of the fall, even if we think pursuing gay relationships and gay sex is against God's design and therefore a kind of rebellion against God, that should not cause us to refuse to recognize that gay people are real human beings who are fallen in the same way everyone has. It shouldn't lead anyone to consider the family bonds that gay people happen to have to be not families. I don't see how it's possible to recognize someone as human in the same way as we are if we insist on making fun of them and distancing ourselves from them by acting as if their relationships aren't real relationships and as if the bonds they form are of a different kind in every way from those of anyone else.
There are ways the analogy between attitudes about homosexuality and attitudes about race just doesn't match reality. Race is a socially determined category based on historically selected biological features. Homosexuality is a socially determined category based on someone's self-identification that in most cases is probably caused by some combination of biological makeup, social forces, and free choices. One thing that does turn out to be common to the two is in how some people have dehumanized people according to being of a certain race or being gay. In some of the worst cases of racism, people have dehumanized the other by treating the other's moral capacities and relationships as inherently inferior.
I don't think Christians who follow the Bible should reject the sense that there's something inferior about homosexual desire, since it's contrary to God's intent in creation and results in sinful behavior if acted upon. Still, this redefinition of families so as to exclude anyone who doesn't fit the ideal model of the family seems to me to have the implication of denying the full personhood of someone who is gay in denying their actual family relations the status of familyhood. Regardless of whether you want to count a gay marriage as marriage, which I think I said as much about as I will for now in the post I linked to at the very beginning of this post, I think Christians should at the very least acknowledge that the resulting relationship, at least if it involves children, is a family. There's something like that racist attitude going on if we don't acknowledge that.