Marriage Matters

As the Ricochet editors mentioned, tomorrow Encounter Books releases my new book, co-authored with Sherif Girgis and Robert P. George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. So while blogging at Ricochet this week, I thought I’d explore some of the issues raised by the book—and recent events, thanks to the Supreme Court. Today I’d like to situate the debate over the definition of marriage within its proper context.

Some people wonder why conservatives choose to focus exclusively on same-sex marriage. The answer is simple: We don’t. First, conservatives always did—and still do—make other social and political efforts to strengthen the marriage culture. The push for same-sex marriage was brought to us. Second, now that this is the live debate, we can’t ignore it, for its outcome will have wider effects on the marriage culture that really is our main concern.

Long before there was a debate about same-sex marriage, there was a debate about marriage. It launched a “marriage movement,” to explain why marriage was good for the men and women who were faithful to its demands, and for the children they reared.

Articles in mainstream magazines such as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s 1993 cover story for The Atlantic, “Dan Quayle was Right,” documented how family fragmentation was wreaking havoc on society. In 1996 Mike and Harriet McManus launched Marriage Savers to combat marital breakdown, and in 2001 Wade Horn championed the Healthy Marriage Initiative for the Bush Administration. Their targets were high divorce rates and the rising birthrate for unmarried women. From pre-Cana programs to various fatherhood initiatives, examples could be multiplied ad nauseam.

Same-sex relationships weren’t on anyone’s radar. (It may be hard to remember, but until just recently same-sex marriage was inconceivable to almost everyone.) The marriage movement leaders’ concern, like that of today’s leading conservative scholars and activists, was much broader.

So it’s not surprising that the leading opponent of redefining marriage today, Maggie Gallagher, was active throughout the ’80s and ’90s in this marriage movement. She wrote a book in the late ‘80s on how the sexual revolution was “killing family, marriage and sex” and “what we [could] do about it;” in a 2000 book she made “the case for marriage,” showing the many ways that marriage is better for couples than cohabitation.

The question of whether to redefine marriage to include same-sex relationships didn’t take center stage until 2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court claimed to find a constitutional right to it. Those who had been leading the marriage movement for decades had to ask themselves: Would recognizing same-sex relationships as marriages strengthen the marriage culture, or weaken it?

They saw that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships was not ultimately about expanding the pool of people eligible to marry. Redefining marriage was about cementing a new idea of marriage in the law—an idea whose baleful effects they had spent years fighting. That idea—that romantic-emotional union is all that makes a marriage—couldn’t explain or support the stabilizing norms that make marriage fitting for family life. It could only undermine those norms.

Indeed, that undermining already had begun.  Disastrous policies like “no-fault” divorce, too, were motivated by the idea that a marriage is made by romantic attachment and satisfaction—and comes undone when these fade.

Same-sex marriage would require a more formal and final redefinition of marriage as simple romantic companionship, obliterating the meaning the marriage movement had sought to restore to the institution.

  1. Tommy De Seno
    C

    I understand you have an objection to no-fault divorce.

    What sort of “fault-based” divorce would you accept?

  2. KC Mulville
    The King Prawn

    But if marriage has an existential reality, then should not both the culture and the law regard marriage based on the truth of that reality?

    Sure – but the nature of law and culture is different.

    Law sets a minimum standard, conditioned by what can be enforced and/or prevented, whereas culture (I’m using that term until someone comes up with something better) has a capacity for much more. Like other institutions, you can do the bare minimum or make the most of it. Think of education; you can have a barely-passing grade or you can revel in the subject.

    If we analyze marriage merely from what can be legally enforced, then we risk restricting marriage to the bare minimum … and at a certain point, there’s a fatigue that comes with fighting such endless small battles, and we just give up on the whole thing.

  3. Trace

    The idea that “romantic love” is a modern construct is not well founded. Obviously I have not read your book but you will have to put a lot more meat on that bone because romantic love at the heart of marriage predates the decline of the family by several generations. The reasons behind the end of marriage among certain classes is primarily economic. And among other classes marriage is strengthening.

    But I submit that this is an esoteric and ultimately irrelevant question. The gay people that want to marry ultimately want to form families and engage in all the practices that move beyond “romantic love.” The rhetoric and marketing is about romantic love — as it is in the heterosexual world — but the practice is all prose. It’s ultimately about forming families and raising children in practice. 

    Also want to know who is this “they” of which you speak?

    Ryan T. Anderson, Guest Contributor: There wasn’t data back then; it’s a conceptual question. Which is why I phrased it that way:

  4. Becky53

    Ryan, can you speak to this?  Here’s the argument spoken often — since 50% marriages fail, then why is same sex marriage such a bad thing, when it is for more marital unions? 

    It misses the point of marriage — which is that, by definition, it is between a man and a woman who then become husband and wife.  It is not forged from a romantic ideal of love and togetherness and never was and never should be. Can you sharpen this up a bit?

  5. Trace

    They saw that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships was not ultimately about expanding the pool of people eligible to marry. Redefining marriage was about cementing a new idea of marriage in the law—an idea whose baleful effects they had spent years fighting. That idea—that romantic-emotional union is all that makes a marriage—couldn’t explain or support the stabilizing norms that make marriage fitting for family life. It could only undermine those norms.

    Wrong.

    I live in San Francisco and within my children’s school community are many, many same sex families. The “civilizing effects” of marriage are just as prevalent with this group as they are elsewhere. The marriages are partnerships dedicated to raising children, making a home, participating in a community and engaging in all those behaviors that strengthen society. 

    The only argument against same-sex marriage is ultimately a religious and moral one. There is no provable case that extending this institution weakens it or weakens society. To lump it together with divorce and other phenomena that do weaken the institution is a significant fault in your logic or whomever the “they” is that you quote.

    Bloody sick of this on Ricochet. 

  6. Trace

    So which does more harm to the institution of marriage KC, divorce or expanding its definition? Why no impassioned post in favor of outlawing divorce, or making it more difficult?

    KC Mulville

    With respect I disagree. 

    If there’s one thing that conservatives talk about, it’s that sooner or later, society has to say No. 

    • No, we can’t fund her skyrocketing contraception bill.

    • No, we’re not going to pay able-bodied workers to do nothing.
    • No, colleges can’t expect to raise tuition to hundreds of thousands of dollars and expect us to pay for it.
    • No, you can’t kill your baby because you have plans.

    American culture doesn’t prepare anyone for marriage. Marriage is a commitment to a shared life – good and bad. Instead, we tell them that marriage is about keeping the romance alive. 

    If my spouse is a jerk, or I “need more,” can’t we just end it so we can be happy? 

    If you can’t accept No, don’t get married. · 2 hours ago

  7. Trace

    Marriage as a building block for society is an unparalleled success. So we should use it to further enfranchise those that are left out and bind them more closely to productive society.

    I have yet to see anyone really flesh out the concept of how the institution becomes weakened. Rachel L. intimated that gay people wouldn’t respect the institution because one study shows they cheat more in dating relationships. I don’t buy that and don’t believe the data makes the case strongly enough, but at least it is something concrete that goes beyond “change is bad.”

    KC Mulville:

    I’m willing to haggle and have a conversation about whether society should come to a new agreement about what is and isn’t marriage … society should always reflect on its foundations. But if we begin these conversations, as they’re currently doing in the mainstream media and the Democrat Party, by casually dismissing the tradition of ten thousand years as such “obvious” bigotry and stupidity, then the word hubris isn’t strong enough. · 7 hours ago

  8. Dan Hanson

    I agree with Trace.  I’ve looked, and I’ve seen no evidence that gay marriage has damaged the institution of marriage or caused fewer people to be married.  The trend of declining marriage and increasing divorce predates the gay marriage movement by decades, and those countries that have already approved gay marriage have seen no additional decline in the rate of marriage.  In Denmark, the marriage rate went UP after they legalized same sex marriage, and that doesn’t surprise me.

    In addition, I think it’s borderline offensive to suggest that preventing gay people from marrying does them no harm other than ‘hurt feelings’ as another poster said.    There are real legal implications involved such as visitation rights if a partner is ill or dying, estate issues if one partner dies, insurance issues, you name it. 

    Furthermore, an increasing number of gay couples are having children, or have children from previous relationships.  Given that they have these children, wouldn’t it be better to allow them to marry and codify their relationship to provide stability for the kids?

  9. Tom Meyer, Ed.
    C
    Trace

    I live in San Francisco and within my children’s school community are many, many same sex families. The “civilizing effects” of marriage are just as prevalent with this group as they are elsewhere. The marriages are partnerships dedicated to raising children, making a home, participating in a community and engaging in all those behaviors that strengthen society. 

    Bingo.

    Just as there’s a tendency among liberals to ignore or diminish the essential role marriage plays in raising children, there’s an equally short-sighted tendency among marriage traditionalists to do the same for the myriad other socially beneficial reasons to encourage marriage.

  10. The King Prawn
    Trace The only argument against same-sex marriage is ultimately a religious and moral one. Bloody sick of this on Ricochet.  · 8 minutes ago

    Not so. There is a philosophical case against it as well. I could ask “what is a hammer?” and a functional answer could very easily be “a device to drive nails.” Can I not also drive nails with a crescent wrench? Does pounding a few nails into wood magically turn my crescent wrench into a hammer? No, it does not. Just because I use it as a hammer does not turn it into a hammer or change the metaphysical reality of what a hammer is.

    Marriage is a definable thing. Just because some use other relationships to the same end as marriage (as per your example) does not transform them into marriages or change the metaphysical reality of marriage.

  11. Trace

    You are missing three things Mollie:

    1) Most of us are not paid to comment and have our limits.

    2) This is one of the only places within Ricochet where there is strong disagreement, and so the discussion has a different and less pleasant tenor. Your “discussion of consequences” feels very much like bickering that breaks down hard won community.

    3) The opponents of SSM marriage generally count this as a Top 5 issue while the defenders would probably count in in their Top 25. So the vigor is not evenly matched. You want advocates who won’t tire easily? Then match our SSM opponents against some liberal proponents — that would be a fair fight and contain plenty of “vigor.”

    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.

    Why do proponents of changing marriage law tire so easily? What am I missing? And why is the only thing tiring regarding the rush to change marriage law thediscussionof consequences? Shouldn’t that be discussed with vigor?

    If it tires one to even consider the effects of change, shouldn’t that be a warning against the rush?

    I feel I must be missing something. · 3 hours ago

  12. Becky53

    Trace, in keeping with the subject matter, it is about the definition of marriage; not whether marriage is a religious or moral establishment. 

  13. Becky53
    Tom Meyer

    Bingo.

    Just as there’s a tendency among liberals to ignore or diminish the essential role marriage plays in raising children, there’s an equally short-sighted tendency among marriage traditionalists to do the same for the myriad other socially beneficial reasons to encourage marriage. · 4 minutes ago

    Did you read the article?  It’s not about social benefits — its about the definition of what marriage is and how to keep it from being whittled down to being a social device for stability or an expression of morality or religiosity or a mere love-match. 

  14. Rachel Lu
    C

    For Tom and others who object that same-sex marriage involves mutual support, building a household etc etc… that’s all fine, but none of those things can be sufficient to define the relationship because all of those things can be shared with other people to whom I’m certainly not married. I can set up a household with my sister, or help friends with their debts, but that doesn’t make me married to those people. It’s pretty hard to define marriage as a unique relationship in any way that doesn’t come back to romance, sex and/or procreation. Everyone always understood, of course, that curtain-picking, shared finances etc. were expected parts of marriage. But the fundamental defining feature (which ultimately held all the other parts together) was to be a procreative partnership. All the other features, from the physical aspect to the niggling practicalities of shared households, to the high-flown sonnets about spiritual union, are drawn together by this one central theme.

    Meanwhile, the sociology doesn’t support the assertion that same-sex partners behave exactly like heterosexual spouses. Statistically, they are substantially less likely to achieve the conjugal ideals of faithfulness and permanence.

  15. Mollie Hemingway
    C
    Trace

    The only argument against same-sex marriage is ultimately a religious and moral one. …

    Bloody sick of this on Ricochet.  · 34 minutes ago

    Imagine how it feels to have those arguing for such a massive change in marriage law to claim that an argument is solely religious when it doesn’t even mention religion, to call people bigots when they talk about definitions, and at the moment when an actual solid and substantive discussion might break out, to say they’re sick and tired of talking about it.

    If the arguments in favor of changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples and other groupings are strong — and not just a product of progressivism aided by an activist media and culture — they can handle a simple debate with someone whose perspectives on the matter differ.

    Thus far I’ve seen that the only way the proponents of same-sex marriage win the day is by mischaracterizing or ignoring the other side.

    I sure hope it will always be different at Ricochet.

  16. Becky53

    Bella bella!

    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.

    Trace

    The only argument against same-sex marriage is ultimately a religious and moral one. …

    Bloody sick of this on Ricochet.  · 34 minutes ago

    Imagine how it feels to have those arguing for such a massive change in marriage law to claim that an argument is solely religious when it doesn’t even mention religion, to call people bigots when they talk about definitions, and at the moment when an actual solid and substantive discussion might break out, to say they’re sick and tired of talking about it.

    If the arguments in favor of changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples and other groupings are strong — and not just a product of progressivism aided by an activist media and culture — they can handle a simple debate with someone whose perspectives on the matter differ.

    Thus far I’ve seen that the only way the proponents of same-sex marriage win the day is by mischaracterizing or ignoring the other side.

    I sure hope it will always be different at Ricochet. · 2 minutes ago

  17. ConservativeWanderer
    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.

    Trace

    The only argument against same-sex marriage is ultimately a religious and moral one. …

    Bloody sick of this on Ricochet.  · 34 minutes ago

    Imagine how it feels to have those arguing for such a massive change in marriage law to claim that an argument is solely religious when it doesn’t even mention religion, to call people bigots when they talk about definitions, and at the moment when an actual solid and substantive discussion might break out, to say they’re sick and tired of talking about it. · 3 minutes ago

    Mollie: Nail. Head.

    Trace: If you’re sick of these threads, there’s a simple solution. Don’t visit them. Personally, I steer clear of lots of threads that either don’t interest me or that I’m tired of hearing about, and I still have plenty of fun commenting on the remaining threads.

  18. Trace

    But marriage only has relevance along two dimension: 1) its value to society; and/or 2) for support of religious and/or moral convictions. Otherwise debating its definition is purely semantic.

    If redefining marriage as a “love match” has contributed to its weakening, that began long before gay marriage. Including homosexual unions in the institution does it no additional harm and may, in fact, strengthen it. The conflation of gay marriage and divorce is misguided.

    Yes, the packaging of gay marriage is all about “love,” but in practice the effects of the institution are the same.  Gay couples cannot procreate biologically. But they can conceive children with surrogates or better yet, adopt children that are unwanted by their birth parents.

    I find it troubling and ironic that those who are passionate about preventing abortion are often equally passionate about cutting off this new avenue for would be adoptive parents. 

    This fight always boils down to the same thing. Some feel homosexuality is wrong. That’s fine. But don’t pretend there is some data-driven, civic-minded argument that supports your view. Or that somehow drawing the line to exclude homosexuals preserves the integrity of the institution for practical purposes. 

  19. Merina Smith

    Children of same sex couples no doubt benefit from their parents being married, but one can still sensibly oppose SSM on the grounds that it is best for children to have a mother and a father, and this is most likely to happen if marriage is limited to heterosexuals.  It’s all about a particular story that has been going on since time immemorial–boys and girls grow up with a mother and a father who are different in many ways and have different child-rearing strengths to bring to the table.  As they grow up in this way, they come to understand, without even being taught so particularly, that this is what people do.  They grow up, find someone of the opposite sex to marry, then have some kids.  It isn’t necessary that absolutely everyone do this for society to continue, but most people need to. Adoption is important when death or other problems intervene, but the society where, as often as possible, a child is raised by the mother and father who begot him or her is going to be far better off than the one that teaches that marriage is whatever anyone wants it to be.   

  20. Trace
    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.

    Imagine how it feels to have those arguing for such a massive change in marriage law to claim that an argument is solely religious when it doesn’t even mention religion, to call people bigots when they talk about definitions, and at the moment when an actual solid and substantive discussion might break out, to say they’re sick and tired of talking about it.

    If the arguments in favor of changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples and other groupings are strong — and not just a product of progressivism aided by an activist media and culture — they can handle a simple debate with someone whose perspectives on the matter differ.

    Thus far I’ve seen that the only way the proponents of same-sex marriage win the day is by mischaracterizing or ignoring the other side.

    I sure hope it will always be different at Ricochet. · 15 minutes ago

    Read through the previous threads Mollie. That’s always where it ends.  The arguments about practical effects fall down through lack of data and the argument always ends up in the same place.

    It always comes back to “why do you care.” 

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