I recently watched Doug Wilson debate Andrew Sullivan at the University of Idaho. Although the format was not a traditional one for academic debate, even the looser form adopted was thwarted by the way in which the debate proceeded. What could have been a reasoned exchange turned into a subtly disguised soapbox for (one-sided) sexual politics. I'll explain that, as well as evaluate the main claims.
Although the billing for the debate framed it as a question, "Is Civil Marriage for Gay Couples Good for Society," the proposition for debate put Mr. Sullivan in the affirmative position. From the beginning of his opening remarks, Sullivan postured himself as a representative anecdote for gays in society and he poured forth heavy pathos through general and specific gay narratives, anecdotal personal stories, exaggerated comparisons, and righteous indignation. The basic substance of his argument was that gays aren't going away, so something must be done about them; and who in their right might would exclude fundamental human rights from those (gays) who truly love each other?
Mr. Wilson's opening remarks were predominantly logos driven; his main contention being that, if the standard used in arguments for gay marriage is that marriage is a fundamental human right and that loving consent should be the only consideration for allowing marriage, then what must inevitably come in the wake of homosexual marriage is polygamy, since multiple-partner-loving polygamists could use the very same logic as gays to advocate for legal recognition and marital rights.
Mr. Sullivan's main response to Mr. Wilson's slippery slope claim was that homosexuality is a state of being, whereas the number of sexual partners one desires is a choice; the former carrying authoritative weight for the rule of law and the latter lacking such authority. However, Mr. Sullivan later admitted that it is basic to evolutionary male biology to desire multiple sexual partners, thus undercutting his claim that the number of sexual partners is a choice. It cannot be both part of the biologically determined nature of men to want sex with multiple partners while being simultaneously defined as a choice rather than a state of being. He even advocated at one point that sexual experience (not necessarily with one person, or with the person one wishes to marry) prior to marriage is a positive good.
Mr. Wilson tried to demonstrate the applicability of Mr. Sullivan's logic to polygamists, but at each turn Mr. Sullivan introduced non-sequiturs, such as the proposition that polygamists at least have the right to marry one person, whereas gays do not, which is unfair and unAmerican. It matters nothing to the point at issue that polygamists can marry one person they wish whereas gays cannot. In fact, Mr. Sullivan made the claim that forcing gays to marry heterosexually constitutes a unacceptable lie because it goes against their state of being--a claim that could be identically employed by the polygamist who combines Sullivan's argument about the male biological drive to sexual promiscuity and the claim that forcing one to marry against one's state of being is an unacceptable lie. It should be noted that Mr. Sullivan believes and gave evidence that polygamy is bad for society, which is his only reason for denying polygamists legal rights of marriage. However, even his claims there depend upon a particular view of marriage that need not obtain, namely, that marriages should not have open sexual promiscuity with outside partners. Nor does it account for other alternative measures for dealing with the sexual drive of single men who would be prohibited marriage by a supposed shortage of available women--measures such as prostitution, or consensual sex with one or multiple partners prior to their marriages to other men, polygamists or otherwise. In short, there are plenty of secular arguments available to polygamists who uphold Mr. Sullivan's standard of loving desire and the fundamental right to marry according to that desire.
I don't think Mr. Sullivan missed the point, but he did his best to avoid dealing with it, because I think he cares more about his present desires as a gay man than he cares about having to deal with polygamists later on (he said something to the effect that he didn't think that polygamist had any social movement status, or would anytime soon). He simply could not mount a cogent rebuttal to Mr. Wilson's slippery slope.
The slippery-slope argument was Mr. Wilson's only major non-Biblical argument. Although Mr. Sullivan never adequately responded to the slippery slope, he continually asserted that Wilson could not show any negative effects upon society that would result from homosexual marriage. Mr. Sullivan scored some big crowd points with this continual assertion of Wilson's lack of substantive claims, but it was Mr. Sullivan who had failed to uphold rational debate. Beside the point, any claim to rationality made by Mr. Sullivan, if my discernment is correct, was only a veneer for his larger purpose of winning the emotions of the audience. However, when passions have cooled and the coolness of reason is reflected upon the actual arguments, Mr. Sullivan's position grants everything substantive to Mr. Wilson's position in terms of what was up for debate.
However, one glaring weakness in Mr. Wilson's claims was evident. It was not a weakness in terms of his logic, but rather in terms of being persuasive to his audience. Because the most potent arguments for the social harms of homosexuality are derived from the Scriptures, Mr. Wilson's hands were tied by the presumption of Mr. Sullivan and many in the audience that such claims based upon Biblical authority are out of bounds. What makes little sense, of course, is how a supposedly "free rational debate" that encourages any relevant claims to be evaluated freely and fairly could exclude from the start any and all arguments derived from religious authority. Mr. Sullivan had no problem chiding Wilson and other Christians with what he took to be Jesus's view of divorce. He had no problem pointing to apparent inconsistencies in religious traditions' beliefs and practices. But whenever Mr. Wilson sought to employ consistent religious claims, he was bullied by emotive associations with bigoted fundamentalism in the vein of Taliban terrorism and Nazi genocide. Mr. Sullivan even went as far as to assert that theocracies, where he said religious claims are totally unquestionable, forces people to accept what they otherwise would not, all in the name of a Higher Power.
Invisible to Mr. Sullivan and those in the crowd who would clamor against all religious argument, is that their own exaltation of secular argument is identical to the totalitarian, unreasonable standard they claim that theocratic religious argument promotes. To exclude religious claims from hearing is to make a totalitarian decision, irrespective of what religious proponents believe and wish to advance for consideration. To a religious individual or group, whether Muslim, Christian, Mormon, Shinto, or what have you, religious claims determine in some degree or another the very substance of their civic life and engagement. The Muslim who wishes to pray multiple times a day while bowing and facing east will have no secular claim to offer his boss or his society when he argues that he should be free to stop working at those times when religious arguments say he should be praying. When a religious dogma determines that life begins at conception, there is no secular argument available to the religion's adherents to why they shouldn't be forced to pay the government to fund procedures that their religion argues is homicidal. If a religion claims that its dogmas are not limited to private individuals or confessed believers, that rather its claims are binding upon all men in all spheres of life, a secular argument that wishes to deny such claims any valid public consideration is under the burden to confront the validity of the religion itself. Secularists cannot simply resort to their own dogma that religious claims cannot be public or binding upon unbelievers. It isn't reasonable to reject an opponent's argument simply because your own position doesn't agree with it, according to their own claims.
I do not think the point lost on men like Mr. Sullivan, who has been debating too long, advocating too long, considering the relationship between Christianity and secularism for too long, not to get a good sense that the real debate is theological and philosophical in nature, and not simply empirical, as he would have the audience believe. What secularism wants, what it must have, though its advocates won't claim it very often openly, is either the eradication of universalizing religions like Biblical Christianity, or the redefinition of such religions in terms that eradicate their universalizing nature. As Jesus said, one cannot serve two masters; one cannot serve a Sovereign God and a sovereign secular State.