Defining Marriage and Why Christians Should Care

You’d be hard pressed to find a more controversial subject in our culture than what qualifies as a genuine marriage. In addition to countless talk shows, opinion pieces, and private conversations, the debate over whether gay marriage should be a legally recognized institution has reached numerous state ballot boxes and both state and federal levels.

Perhaps prompted by the difficult nature of the debate, many Christians—even those who personally believe the Bible prohibits gay marriage—raise a legitimate and important question: should we really be all that concerned with how the law defines marriage? To elaborate: Christians with a high view of the Bible’s authority and reliability as God’s own word often believe that marriage is between one man and one woman. Additionally, they believe that, as the Church, we should continue to recognize only those marriages that conform to this biblical norm. But on the other hand, if the state wants to recognize marriages between two gay individuals, does it really matter? And, in any case, how do we effectively argue for the law to preserve a traditional conception of marriage, particularly in a pluralistic society?

Enter Robert George, Sherif Girgis, and Ryan T. Anderson. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, is an accomplished legal scholar and a prominent Catholic public intellectual. Girgis is a Ph. D. candidate in Philosophy at Princeton. In addition to being a Ph. D candidate in Political Science at Notre Dame, Anderson edits Public Discourse. Together, these three men recently authored an article entitled “What is Marriage?” in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.

The purpose of “What is Marriage?” is to argue for the legal preservation of the traditional view of marriage (the “conjugal view”) as opposed to that which is favored by many advocates of gay marriage (the “revisionist view”). The definitions of each are given by the authors as follows:

Conjugal View: Marriage is the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together. The spouses seal (consummate) and renew their union by conjugal acts—acts that constitute the behavioral part of the process of reproduction, thus uniting them as a reproductive unit. Marriage is valuable in itself, but its inherent orientation to the bearing and rearing of children contributes to its distinctive structure, including norms of monogamy and fidelity. This link to the welfare of children also helps explain why marriage is important to the common good and why the state should recognize and regulate it.

Revisionist View: Marriage is the union of two people (whether of the same sex or of opposite sexes) who commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life. It is essentially a union of hearts and minds, enhanced by whatever forms of sexual intimacy both partners find agreeable. The state should recognize and regulate marriage because it has an interest in stable romantic partnerships and in the concrete needs of spouses and any children they may choose to rear (246-247).

Reproducing all the arguments contained in a law review article of this length is well beyond the scope of a blog post, but commenting on a few points might be useful.

First, the authors employ a natural law argument in favor of the conjugal view, i.e., there is no direct appeal to religious authority. This is not to suggest that it isn’t consistent with a biblical worldview. The truth is quite the contrary. Nor would I concede that specifically religious arguments have no place in the debate. I mention it, however, to note that the argument may be particularly relevant in the pluralistic context of our public policy making.

Second, the authors’ central point is that “the nature of marriage (that is, its essential features, what it fundamentally is) should settle this debate” (247). That is, answering the question, “What is marriage?” will ultimately determine who may legitimately marry. To that end, George, Girgis, and Anderson argue that marriage should be understood along the following lines:

1. Marriage is a comprehensive interpersonal union that includes an organic bodily dimension naturally sealed by conjugal acts.

2. Marriage is the kind of relationship that is intrinsically and uniquely oriented to the bearing and rearing of children.

3. “Unions that are consummated by the generative act, and that are thus oriented to having and rearing children, can make better sense of the other norms that shape marriage,” i.e., permanence and exclusivity. (259)

Note that the above is presented in a summary form and thus lacks the detailed argumentation of the article itself, during the course of which the authors address a host of related issues and objections: Is the conjugal view morally similar to support for laws prohibiting interracial marriage? Does it allow a principled way to recognize the marriages of infertile couples as legitimate? Why is bodily union consummated only through coitus and not through other sexual acts? Is the good of marriage or a sexual union limited to childbearing?, etc.

Third, the article specifically addresses the question of why supporting the conjugal view matters. The authors offer three reasons we should not abolish the conjugal view (once again presented here only in summary, with representative quotations):

1. It would weaken the social institution of marriage.

In redefining marriage, the law would teach that marriage is fundamentally about adults’ emotional unions, not bodily union or children, with which marital norms are tightly intertwined. Since emotions can be inconstant, viewing marriage essentially as an emotional union would tend to increase marital instability—and it would blur the distinct value of friendship, which is a union of hearts and minds. Moreover, and more importantly, because there is no reason that primarily emotional unions any more than ordinary friendships in general should be permanent, exclusive, or limited to two, these norms of marriage would make less and less sense.…In other words, a mistaken marriage policy tends to distort people’s understanding of the kind of relationship that spouses are to form and sustain. And that likely erodes people’s adherence to marital norms that are essential to the common good. (260-61)

2. It would obscure the value of opposite-sex parenting as an ideal.

[L]egally enshrining conjugal marriage socially reinforces the idea that the union of husband and wife is (as a rule and ideal) the most appropriate environment for the bearing and rearing of children—an ideal whose value is strongly corroborated by the best available social science. Note, moreover, that the need for adoption where the ideal is practically impossible is no argument for redefining civil marriage, a unified legal structure of incentives meant precisely to reinforce the ideal socially and practically—to minimize the need for alternative, case‐by‐case provisions. (262-63)

3. It would threaten moral and religious freedom.

Because the state’s value‐neutrality on this question (of the proper contours and norms of marriage) is impossible if there is to be any marriage law at all, abolishing the conjugal understanding of marriage would imply that committed same‐sex and opposite‐ sex romantic unions are equivalently real marriages. The state would thus be forced to view conjugal‐marriage supporters as bigots who make groundless and invidious distinctions. In ways that have been catalogued by Marc Stern of the American Jewish Committee and by many other defenders of the rights of conscience, this would undermine religious freedom and the rights of parents to direct the education and upbringing of their children. (263-64).

(The above quote is followed by recent examples of antidiscrimination laws being brought to bear against those holding to the conjugal view.)

Finally, at various points the authors raise significant challenges to those who would redefine marriage as something other than the conjugal view. As they note in a follow-up article, their argument in “What is Marriage?” seeks to

show that those who would redefine civil marriage, to eliminate sexual complementarity as an essential element, can give no principled account of why marriage should be (1) a sexual partnership as opposed to a partnership distinguished by exclusivity with respect to other activities (including non-sexual relationships, as between cohabiting adult brothers); or (2) an exclusive union of only two persons (rather than three or more in a polyamorous arrangement). Nor can they give robust reasons for making marriage (3) a legally recognized and regulated relationship in the first place (since, after all, we don’t legally recognize or closely regulate most other forms of friendships).

All that said, I found the article to provide a compelling defense of a traditional conception of marriage and an important articulation of why such a defense matters. I’d encourage those looking to deepen their understanding of the marriage debate in general, or simply to engage the points listed above, to make the commitment to read it in full.

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