So, What Is Marriage?

Yesterday, I placed the debate about same-sex marriage within a larger historical context focusing on concern for marriage. Today, I want to home in on the question of what marriage is. This is the question that most proponents of redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships keenly want to avoid, to shuffle offstage as soon as it’s brought up.

Those who would redefine marriage employ two evasion techniques. First, they might appeal to historical inevitability as a reason not to have to answer the question of what marriage is—as if it were a moot question, already decided. My Heritage Foundation colleague Andrew T. Walker and I respond to some of those claims at National Review this morning.

The second evasion technique is to appeal simply to equality—“marriage equality,” after all, has been good sloganeering. But it’s sloppy reasoning.

Why? Well, every law makes distinctions. Equality before the law protects citizens from arbitrary distinctions, from laws that treat them differently for no good reason. But in order to know if a law makes the right distinctions—if the lines it draws are justified—you have to know the public purpose of the law, and the nature of the good being advanced or protected.

Just ask yourself: If the law recognized same-sex couples as spouses, would it still fail to respect the equality of citizens in multiple-partner relationships? Are those inclined to such relationships being treated unjustly when their consensual romantic bonds go unrecognized, their children thereby “stigmatized,” their tax filings unprivileged?

This isn’t scaremongering. In 2009, Newsweek reported that there were over 500,000 polyamorous households in America. And prominent scholars and LGBT activists have called for “marriage equality” for multipartner relationships since at least 2006.

And in any case, the question is more fundamental: Once one jettisons sexual complementarity—the bodies of men and women go together—what principle can one offer to limit civil marriage to monogamous couples? For that is the only way to answer the charge that withholding a “fundamental right” from even just one multiple-partner household isn’t a grave injustice.

Again, to know when the lines drawn by a marriage law are arbitrary—when they violate equality—we have to know what marriage is and why the state promotes it. Tomorrow’s post will examine that latter question; today we focus on what marriage is.

Consider a favorite analogy of supporters of redefinition: Laws defining marriage as a union of a man and woman are unjust—fail to treat people equally—exactly like laws that prevented interracial marriage.

Such appeals simply beg the question of what is essential to marriage. They just assume exactly what’s in dispute here: that gender is just as irrelevant as race. It is true, of course, that the color of two people’s skin has nothing to do with what kind of bond they have. But the sexual difference between a man and a woman is central to what marriage is. Men and women—regardless of their race—can unite in marriage; and children need moms and dads—regardless of their race. You can’t know either fact, though, without at least a rough idea of what, essentially, makes a marriage.

My co-authors and I present arguments for marriage as the union of husband and wife—and against objections to that view—in our new book, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. As we argue there, marriage is a uniquely comprehensive union. It involves a union of hearts and minds; but also—and distinctively—a bodily union made possible by sexual complementarity. As the act by which spouses make marital love also makes new life, so marriage itself is inherently extended and enriched by family life and calls for similarly all-encompassing commitment: permanent and exclusive. In short, marriage unites a man and woman holistically—emotionally and bodily, in acts of conjugal love and in the children such love brings forth—for the whole of life.

This understanding—and only this one—explains the key features of marriage. If marriage isn’t founded on a comprehensive union made possible by the sexual complementarity of a man and a woman, then why can’t it occur among more than two people? If marital union isn’t founded on such sexual acts, then why ought it be sexually exclusive? If marriage isn’t a comprehensive union and has no intrinsic connection to children, then why ought it be permanent?

So to those who take the opposing viewpoint, the challenge is to find a coherent set of answers to these questions:

  1. If equality and justice require recognizing all marriages, where do you draw the lines? What sets marriage apart from other interpersonal relations?

  2. Given your answer above, why ought marriage be a monogamous relationship?
  3. Given your answer above, why ought marriage be a sexual—and sexually exclusive—relationship?
  4. Given your answer above, why ought marriage involve a commitment to permanence?
  5. Putting it all together, how do the above answers explain why marriage is, beyond all this, something the state should regulate at all? (More on this question tomorrow.)
  1. Barkha Herman

    Marriage laws were originally designed to protect women, since they did not have voting rights and they did not have right to inherit property.  This is why “man and women are considered the same person” under law.

    Since this is no longer needed, Government should get out of the marriage business.

    As defined by the government, it is merely a contract.  As a contract, it is discriminatory.

    The Church can define marriage however they choose – and each of us can attend the church of our choice.

  2. Franciscus

    Here is another strong case for states rights. As with healthcare, I believe these are things best left out of the federal government. Unfortunately I understand that the welfare state is what brought all this about, because government benefits is what is at stake, the destruction of civil society is a bonus.

  3. Thom Williams
    Barkha Herman: Marriage laws were originally designed to protect women, since they did not have voting rights and they did not have right to inherit property.

    This isn’t true. That may have been part of why marriage laws were enacted, but it was hardly the only or even main reason. Establishing paternity and making sure that children were protected was a more fundamental reason for the institution and children were the reason marriage has always been based on sexual relationships, and specifically heterosexuality, the only type of relationship that produces children. That has not changed, and barring some dramatic evolutionary phenomenon, will never change.

  4. Barkha Herman
    Thom Williams

    This isn’t true. That may have been part of why marriage laws were enacted, but it was hardly the only or even main reason. Establishing paternity and making sure that children were protected was a more fundamental reason for the institution and children were the reason marriage has always been based on sexual relationships, and specifically heterosexuality, the only type of relationship that produces children. That has not changed, and barring some dramatic evolutionary phenomenon, will never change. · 0 minutes ag o

    You are correct about establishing paternity.  So, now, you can do a genetic test for that.  Again, marriage as an institution that needs protection by the Government has outlived it’s use.  

    Government should get out of the marriage business, period.

  5. KC Mulville

    Just want to point out that at this moment on the Main Feed, the first two posts are headlined:

    1. So What Is Marriage?

    2. Some Might Call It a Scandal.
  6. Rawls

    The American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all agree:

    There is no scientific evidence that parenting effectiveness is related to parental sexual orientation: lesbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for their children (Patterson, 2000, 2004; Perrin, 2002; Tasker, 1999); See the full resolution on the Sexual Orientation, Parents, & Children webpage.

    On every front—socioeconomic, emotional health, physical health, etc.—there is no evidence that shows a man and woman raise healthier kids more often than a man and a man or a woman and  a woman.

    The same-sex couples and kids issue is settled.

    As far as kids raised by poly-amorous parents, I don’t know of any studies. Can someone post some if they know of any?

  7. Pseudodionysius

    The same-sex couples and kids issue is settled.

    Yes, much like global warming and the DSM IV manual’s inclusion of Multiple Personality Disorder and Disassociate Identity Disorder as a legitimate psychological disturbance.

    Got it.

  8. Mollie Hemingway

    I can’t wait for someone to answer Ryan’s questions. I mean that seriously. I realize it may take time and may be challenging, but I think it is important and will be interesting to read the responses.

  9. Rawls
    Pseudodionysius

    The same-sex couples and kids issue is settled.

    Yes, much like global warming and the DSM IV manual’s inclusion ofMultiple Personality DisorderandDisassociate Identity Disorderas a legitimate psychological disturbance.

    Got it. · 4 minutes ago

    Nice quip.

    Now how about you come back with a direct, fact-driven argument.

    (Btw, the Earth is verifyably getting warmer. Evidence of such is overwhelming. Now, whether it is caused by mankind is another issue—one we’re not here to discuss on this particular thread.)

  10. Barkha Herman
    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.: I can’t wait for someone to answer Ryan’s questions. I mean that seriously. I realize it may take time and may be challenging, but I think it is important and will be interesting to read the responses. · 7 minutes ago

    From a Government point of view, IMHO, it is a contract (stated above).

    From a religious point of view – I try not to speak for God.

    From a social point of view – consider me a heathen :-D.

  11. Rawls
    Ryan T. Anderson, Guest Contributor: 

    1. If equality and justice require recognizing all marriages, where do you draw the lines?

    2. Given your answer above, why ought marriage be a monogamous relationship?
    3. Given your answer above, why ought marriage be a sexual—and sexually exclusive—relationship?
    4. Given your answer above, why ought marriage involve a commitment to permanence?
    5. How do the above answers explain why marriage is, beyond all this, something the state should regulate at all?

    1. You draw the line when there are verifyable negative externalities. Thus far, same-sex couples have been shown have the same success/failure rates in divorce and raising kids as opposite-sex couples. Polyamourous couples have not been studied yet. We need more data here.

    2. No one said it should be. If polyamorous couples are proven to have the same divorce rates and raise successful kids just as often as everyone else, then legal polygamy should be considered.

    3. No one said it should be. The history of marriage has included non-sexual marriages, open-relationships, sanctioned affairs, visits to prostitutes, visits to orgies, etc.

    4. THIS is a good question.

    5. The state should not be in the marriage business.

  12. Merina Smith

    I’m sorry, but the libertarian response that government should get out of the business of marriage is just not feasible when property rights and children are involved.  Basically, government has an interest in the welfare of children and that welfare is closely connected to marriage, and I believe closely connected to having a mother and a father. 

    Rawls, as many of us pointed out yesterday, please see the Mark Regnerus study, and be honest enough to admit that the PC police try to suppress any evidence that does not accord with their PC world.  This is a very new topic.  If we can get honest studies–Regnerus’ job has been threatened over his study–then his results might very well be replicated.  I’m pretty sure they would be. 

    In the meantime, does the voice of experience mean anything?  Having raised 5 children–and any of you who are parents know this–you need every advantage you can get in dealing with challenges and problems.  There is just no doubt in my mind that bringing the masculine and feminine to bear on the challenges we faced in raising our family was absolutely crucial to a good outcome. 

  13. EvilTimmy

    #6 – No problem, Rawls:

    http://elisabethsheff.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/dragoncon-science-track-2012-cumulative-findings-poly-families2.pptx

    Summary:  A larger group of parents raising a child does no harm, and often brings significant benefits in terms of resources (both time and money).

  14. Douglas
    Rawls: The American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all agree:

    What is “parenting effectiveness” to those groups? These are the same groups saying that  a gun in the home is “child abuse”. 

  15. Mollie Hemingway
    Barkha Herman

    From a Government point of view, IMHO, it is a contract (stated above).

    So is a lease. That doesn’t tell us anything at all about what it is.

    A marriage is … what?

    A lease is a contractual arrangement calling for the lessee (user) to pay the lessor (owner) for use of an asset.

    A marriage is a contractual arrangement that …. what?

    Also, Ryan’s questions are at the end of the post. Those are the ones I was curious to read responses to.

  16. Merina Smith

    Rawls–you make Ryan’s case for him.  Basically, you would define marriage out of existence.  And how is it that we’d then be better off?  I recently finished a book about 19th century Mormon polygamy.  Now, what I found from my study was that if any culture could make polygamy workable, it was Utah Mormons in the 19th century. They had strong community willing to step in when fathers were absent, it was more of a household than a market economy so that there was a need for children and plenty of labor for young people, and it was supported by a widely believed theological narrative that helped people overcome inevitable jealousies and resentments.  And even then, it didn’t work very well and especially served children poorly. 

    Now–a word about equality.  Equality means nothing more than treating like things alike.  As Ryan points out, those who can produce children and those who can’t are not the same.  Screaming equality is just a way of avoiding the necessity of dealing with the real questions and issues.  The question is what are the differences and how are they relevant?  Now that would be an important discussion. 

  17. Israel P.
    Barkha Herman: Marriage laws were originally designed to protect women, since they did not have voting rights and they did not have right to inherit property.  This is why “man and women are considered the same person” under law.

    You cannot seriously believe that voting predates marrying!

  18. Israel P.
    Rawls

    Ryan T. Anderson, Guest Contributor: 

    1. Given your answer above, why ought marriage be a monogamous relationship?

    2. Given your answer above, why ought marriage be a sexual—and sexually exclusive—relationship?

    2. No one said it should be. If polyamorous couples are proven to have the same divorce rates and raise successful kids just as often as everyone else, then legal polygamy should be considered.

    3. No one said it should be. The history of marriage has included non-sexual marriages, open-relationships, sanctioned affairs, visits to prostitutes, visits to orgies, etc.

    NO ONE? Really? No one?

    How about THE ONE.

  19. MichaelC19fan

    Through the separation of sex and procreation, easy divorce, making marriage an expression of “love and commitment”, tolerating serial divorcees or people who made marriage a joke, see Kim Kardashian, marriage has changed so much from what it was a 100 years ago as to leave a hole big enough for SSM to drive through. No fault divorce has caused magnitudes of order more damage to marriage as an institution than SSM will ever. Marriage was deadly serious when Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina but there would no point of writing such a novel in today’s world. Anna would divorce Karenin, marry Vronsky with all the pomp and circumstance of a virgin bride and most likely get a nice alimony settlement from the cuckold ex-husband.   

  20. Israel P.

    Someone here will inevitably say “If marriage is all about children, why have it for infertile or elderly couples!”  (I wrote “say” rather than “ask” for obvious reasons.)

    So let me tell you in advance what I heard a rabbi say to a  newly wed couple only three days ago. The first chapter of Genesis speaks of creation of man and woman and includes one commandment – be fruitful and multiply. 

    But the second chapter tells a slightly different story. It is not good for a man to be alone and G-d creates woman from his flesh. The man then proclaims

    This is now bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh. She shall be called Woman for she was taken out of Man. That is why a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh.

    Nothing there about multiplying. Just simple addition, one plus one equals one.

    The same marriage structure serves two distinct purposes. The second (and it is second) can exist without the first, even as it has value independent of the first.

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