There was a time, not too long ago, when liberal Brits thought that gay marriage hysteria was something that only happened in other countries. Even David Cameron seems to have thought it was a tame, uncontroversial issue that would get him a tick in his socially progressive box without causing too much trouble. How wrong he was. If there's one message to take home from all the furore, it is that one should never underestimate the desire of the pious to dictate what other people do in their love lives.
All the uproar is, at one level, deeply weird. The bill to be debated in Parliament on 5 February is in itself about the tamest piece of proposed legislation in the history of anything. In practical terms, it changes very little. It's fundamentally a huge debate about the meaning of a single word. Civil partnerships already give gay couples pretty much the same rights as married straight couples. All this fuss arises, basically, because some (certainly not all) gays would prefer to have the option of using the more socially acceptable word 'marriage' to describe their long-term relationships, and because some (certainly not all) faith groups think they have a God-given right to deny them that choice.
That's weird enough, but it gets weirder. Under the proposals, the Church of England and the Catholic Church will be legally barred from conducting gay marriages. And yet it is members (some of them very powerful members) of the Church of England and the Catholic Church who are objecting most vociferously. At first sight, this is just silly: it's like the FA protesting over changes to the rules of darts. Football and darts are both sports, but they have different rules. Church and civil weddings are both marriages, but they will have different rules. What's wrong with that?
Well, what's wrong is that the analogy only works if you are committed to the idea that civil society has areas that are secular, beyond the reach of the Church. The most sinister fact that the kerfuffle discloses is that the Christian opponents of gay marriage simply don't accept that principle. All the post-census debate about whether Britain is 'still a Christian country' is only superficially about how people choose to identify themselves on their forms; much more fundamentally, it's about anxiety over the relegation of Christianity from its former position as beacon of national morality to its new status as one of any number of opt-in lifestyle choices. 'Hey, I'm a Christian'; 'That's so cool, I do yoga'; 'Yoga? Never got into it, I prefer darts.' That's some come-down.
But for all that the gay marriage debate is a vehicle for bigger issues, it's no accident that marriage and sexuality are the battleground. The various Christian Churches have a huge problem with sexuality, and have had for a long time. Actually, perhaps surprisingly, it's not a big theme in the Christian gospels: yes, there are some passages here and there about various improprieties, but it's not a major issue. Even Paul is much, much more exercised by women who won't wear the veil than by 'men who sleep with men.' (Modern Christians seem strangely silent on the issue of female veiling: I wonder why?) It was only later, in the Roman period, that Christians got heavily into sexual repression - and they did so as a counter-cultural statement, to absent themselves from the rigorous dynastic demands of Roman marriage. Then once Christianity became the religion of empire in the fourth century, control of sexuality became an ideology, and a means of imposing power. It was then that Christianity's most pernicious dogma took root: the idea that the masses are fallen beings because they have sexual urges, and so they should accept their priestly masters as superiors.
Nietzsche, in my view, is the best analyst of institutional Christianity. In The Anti-Christ he argues that the Church has always set out to deny and repress humanity's natural urges, and it does this for entirely self-serving reasons. Feeling like you can't measure up to some impossible standard of pious self-control? Who ya gonna call? Why, your local priest of course.
I don't - I hope this is clear - mean this as a blunderbuss attack on all Christians. The world is a huge, complex, diverse place, and benefits immeasurably from serious moral reflection. Christianity, like all other philosophies, can save people, it can change them, it can inspire them to do extraordinary things. But let's talk for a moment in moral absolutes. Ecclesiastical hierarchies have got it badly wrong on sexuality. They have done for over 1700 years. The issue has nothing to do with God, gods or godlessness; it's about humans and their accursed desire to exercise control over their fellow beings. Let's let people live and love as they choose, and stop mistaking prurience, prudishness and power for piety.