What is Marriage? A Series of Confusing Questions After Obergefell
In their timely and perceptive book What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, authors Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George wisely point out that if you’re going to move an inch toward redefining an age-old institution like marriage, you must first clearly define what it is.
These scholars make a pretty tight case for traditional marriage in their book, which was originally a series of essays published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. Reflecting the opinion of virtually every society, religion, and culture in recorded human history, marriage is clearly defined as:
… a comprehensive union: a union of will (by consent) and body (by sexual union); inherently ordered to procreation and thus the broad sharing of family life (pg. 6).
It seems that Girgis and company have done their due diligence in defining marriage, and as they continue to make their case in the following pages, it becomes clear that such a definition leaves no room for same-sex unions. This is not due to discrimination, but rather to the incompatibility of same-sex unions with the original definition. Since same-sex couples do not embody a sexual union that is biologically coordinated toward the creation of new life, marriage is natural an exclusively male-female union.
So, as same-sex marriage proponents pushed and eventually prevailed in June of 2015, did they ever offer a solid definition of the institution they succeeded in legally redefining?
“An Enduring Bond”
As far as I can tell, marriage is now defined as a strong emotional bond between two persons. As Obergefell itself states:
The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality.
In other words, the true meaning of marriage is that two persons, regardless of their respective genders, publicly pledge exclusive “togetherness.”
The language of strong emotional commitments and “enduring bonds” makes sense, since same-sex marriages cannot claim characteristics inherent to traditional male-female unions, such as the biological complimentarity that naturally possesses the capacity for children. In the absence of such characteristics, a strong emotional bond is the only glue that holds the relationship together.
The Questions Ensue…
This new definition of marriage leaves me with questions that create even more questions. I’m not trying to be difficult. I’m a fairly open-minded person who tries to put the best construction on things. It’s just that the traditional definition of marriage makes sense of categories like male and female, the overall purpose of sex, the role of government in recognizing and rewarding marriage, etc. But the new definition leaves me with more questions than I ever anticipated before the Obergefell ruling.
What Makes Marriage Unique?
When we consider marriage from the traditional definition, the uniqueness of the union stands out. A man and a woman come together to accomplish something they could never do alone – the creation of new life. That new life, which is the literal embodiment of their one flesh union, forms a deep unity that calls for a permanent, exclusive commitment. And even in the event that the couple cannot or do not bring new life into the world, the structure still remains. Opposite-sex couples that cannot or do not have children are the exception to the overall rule, and if they choose to adopt, the male-female partnership reflects that ideal parenting situation that has thus far benefited our race the most. In sum, all of this is what makes the traditional marriage relationship unique.
While same-sex couples can certainly have children, natural reproduction is never the rule, with no exceptions. Any exception involves the triumph of technology over biology, and can never embody the genes of the two partners. Adoption is a possibility, but relies on the uniqueness of the male-female union.
Apart from marriage, we have countless relationships, all of which call for varying levels of commitment. Some of these relationships, same-sex or otherwise, are deeply emotional and enduring. But what makes them different from marriage?
If marriage is now defined primarily as a strong, enduring, emotional bond, then what makes the emotional bond and commitment of same-sex marriage different than any other same-sex relationship?
For example, if two persons of the same-sex live together, share assets, go on vacations and celebrate holidays together, all because of a strong, enduring emotional bond, are they in some sense married? Does it matter if the relationship is platonic or erotic? Does sex have anything to do with sealing, sustaining, or even validating the relationship if we’re to call it marriage?
Does Sex Matter?
Sex does matter for traditional marriage. The previously quoted authors are careful to point out that historically, the sexual act sealed the marriage.
Our law for centuries has treated coitus, not adoption or birth or conception, as the event that consummates a marriage” (pg. 29).
This makes sense given that most sexual unions go on to produce children. The sexual act seals and reseals the commitment that leads to the literal embodiment of the union.
From a strictly biological perspective, same-sex bodily unions, while certainly emotionally bonding, are not bonding in a way that unites the two persons toward a common biological goal.
With that said, is sex then optional for the same-sex couple, and not inherent to the very meaning of the union? Could a same-sex couple marry, and then be content to consummate the union with repeated acts of cuddling and hand-holding? Would the marriage be as valid? For millennia, sex and marriage have been inseparable. But wouldn’t the new definition at least suggest that sex is an optional add-on?
And if sex is integral to the married relationship, then why are monogamous same-sex couples who share a strong sexual bond, an enduring emotional commitment, and even assets and interests, not married? Is the legal status of marriage now simply an legal technicality?
I understand that this question applies to opposite-sex couples as well. The game plan for most young, heterosexual couples involves the same committed sexual relationship, cohabitation, and even sharing of assets, all outside of the legal status of marriage. But I would argue that this trend reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of human sexuality, and as a result, works toward eroding our shared idea of what marriage is. In fact, others have observed that Obergefell is simply the logical outcome of a full-blown sexual revolution.
Are Emotions Stable?
If an emotional bond is the bedrock of marital commitment, then how stable is the institution? Everyone knows that emotions are fickle. They rise and fall, often unpredictably.
For couples who are rearing children together, the incentive to stay together and work toward a healthy relationship even in spite of normal relational dry spells and spats is strengthened by the presence of a third party (or fourth, or fifth, or sixth…). Couples have a deeper reason beyond their own subjective and selfish emotions to practice virtues like faithfulness and self-sacrifice.
Same-sex couples with children will no doubt endeavor to remain together for more reasons than mere emotion, but a revised definition of marriage certainly invites more of an emphasis on emotion.
The more marriage is based on emotions, the less and less the institution and its goals will make sense. Hear again the words of Girgis, Anderson, and George:
Redefining marriage will also harm the material interests of couples and children. As more people absorb the new law’s lesson that marriage is fundamentally about emotions, marriages will increasingly take on emotion’s tyrannical inconstancy (pg. 56).
If this is true, the implications will be dire for couples, children, and society in general.
Why Does the Government Care?
There’s a lot the government doesn’t care about. My senator doesn’t care about my friendships. I’m sure no one writes him about their falling out with a close friend. It would be absurd to draw the courts into whatever interpersonal drama we experience. But the government does care about marriage, so much so that it recognizes it as a legal status and awards certain benefits to those who enter its bonds.
Marriage is the foundation of the family and of society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress.
At bottom, civil society has an interest in maintaining and protecting the institution of heterosexual marriage because it has a deep and abiding interest in encouraging responsible procreation and child-rearing. Simply put, government has an interest in marriage because it has an interest in children.
So, government has an interest in a relationship that is by definition tied to family and child-rearing, all of which contributes to a healthy and stable society and and the well-being of the individuals who will inherit it. I can see where the government would want to recognize and reward those kinds of relationships.
But why does the government feel the need to recognize and reward “enduring bond(s),” where “two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality?” (pg. 18). Certainly all of these qualities are important to healthy, stable, heterosexual marriages. But can these qualities stand alone in such a way that any two persons (or more) should receive the legal recognition of marriage?
And furthermore, why can’t the government be more generous with it’s broad application of freedom? Why not allow multiple people to enter into marriage as a very plural experience of the sacred emotional bond? This might have sounded like an alarmist slippery slope argument a decade ago. But it turns out the slope is slippery, and steep. Plural marriage is the next horizon for some. And why not? According to the traditional definition of marriage, “marriage is possible between only two people because no act can organically unite three or more, and thus seal a comprehensive union of three or more lives” (pg. 33). But if an enduring emotional bond is the key factor now, why not extend that bond to an additional partner?
Is Marriage Even Worth It?
If marriage really is just a strong emotional commitment between two consenting adults, then I wonder why the legal category of marriage is even worth it. As a married man with three children, I deeply value the institution and hope to see it thrive in coming days. But the logic that propelled same-sex marriage forward, basing the institution primarily on emotional commitment rather than family, makes the whole category look awkward and arbitrary.
As the authors of What is Marriage repeatedly make clear, both heterosexual and homosexual couples are free to love and live together as they please without entering into marriage. From this vantage point, marriage just becomes a way of saying, “We’re super together.” Perhaps it’s even just a residual habit of a culture that once valued marriage for the right reasons, but even with no intellectual basis for the institution, just can’t let go of it.
What would happen if our society progressed beyond the legal recognition of marriage?
What is Marriage offers a perceptive prediction about the outcome:
Abolishing civil marriage is practically impossible. Strike the word “marriage” from the law, and the state will still license, and attach duties and benefits to, certain bonds. Abolish these forward looking forms of regulation, and they will only be replaced by messier, retroactive regulation – of disputes over property, custody, visitation, and child support. What the state once did by efficient legal presumptions, it will then do by burdensome case-by-case assignmentsof parent (especially paternal) responsibilities (pg. 40).
In other words, things would get messy. This would certainly not be progress. But the Pandora’s box of questions that ensue from the new definition of marriage makes me wonder if we’ve already set a trajectory for societal regress. Only time will tell. Until then I’ll keep asking my questions.
A few notes on a potentially controversial post:
Neither I nor the authors of the previously mentioned book argue against same-sex couples having the right to legal arrangements for the purpose of hospital visitation, finances, inheritance, etc. It's just that marriage is a very special word with specific meaning, and regardless of how the state defines that word, many people will never agree with the new definition for the above reasons.
Please do not see a Republican/Conservative agenda behind this post. The current political changes in our nation makes this topic more difficult to discuss - but no less important. Hopefully the other posts on this blog related to politics will make it clear that many Christians see themselves as politically homeless, and furthermore, alongside defending traditional marriage, would also defend the dignity and free speech of those who disagree on this issue of marriage.
Pastor John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church