Talking on What Is Marriage?
After Windsor, the struggle to define marriage continues.



One year ago this week, Encounter Books published What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, by Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert P. George. The book, which developed an argument that the three authors had published about a year earlier in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, has become the touchstone for the defense of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife. It was cited and relied on in the powerful dissent by Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito in Windsor v. United States. Zachary Young, of The Yale Politic, discussed the book with co-author Robert P. George.


Zachary Young: What prompted you to co-write the article?

Robert P. George: In thinking and talking about the debate over marriage, Sherif, Ryan, and I came to see that the real question is not “who can marry whom,” but rather “what is marriage?” It became clear to us that the former question was impossible to address without answering the latter. Indeed, any position on the former presupposes a particular answer to the latter. Those seeking to redefine marriage were — usually quite unselfconsciously and uncritically — working with a conception of “marriage” that is radically at odds with the historical understanding of marriage as a conjugal relationship, which is that marriage is a comprehensive sharing of life that integrally includes the bodily union made possible by the sexual-reproductive complementarity of man and woman. The assumption implicit in their demand for the recognition of same-sex partnerships as marriages is that marriage is an emotional bond — a form of sexual and romantic companionship or domestic partnership. It is this assumption that is at the heart of what we call the “revisionist” view of marriage and that we contrast with the conjugal view. The three of us agreed that the assumption is philosophically untenable; we wrote our article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy to explain why. Frankly, we were stunned that the article drew so much attention, gaining hundreds of thousands of views and tens of thousands of downloads when it was posted on the Social Science Research Network, and generating an enormous amount of commentary — pro and con. So we expanded the article into a book to give it a still wider readership, and to address points made by our critics while also confronting them with intellectual challenges — challenges that remain unmet.

YOUNG: How do you feel the article and book have influenced the national debate about gay marriage?

GEORGE: I wish I could say that it shaped the opinion for the majority in the Windsor decision (which invalidated a section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act). It didn’t. In fact, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion for the majority failed to address our arguments at all. Kennedy simply assumed the validity of something like the revisionist view of marriage, without defending it or addressing the criticisms that we and others have made of it. Our article and book do seem to have influenced the dissenting opinion of Justice Samuel Alito, however. He is aware that the Kennedy opinion uncritically assumes an answer to the question “what is marriage?” without actually defending that answer or addressing the powerful reasons critics have advanced for rejecting it. Alito is also aware that nothing in the text, logic, structure, or historical understanding of the Constitution can reasonably be interpreted as favoring any particular view of marriage over any other. The matter is left for legislative resolution in the states.

Beyond the courts, I believe that our work has had its greatest impact in explaining to people who intuitively understand that marriage is the union of a man and a woman why that understanding is correct. We frequently hear from Catholics, Evangelicals, Latter-Day Saints, Orthodox Jews, and, more recently, Muslims who tell us that they had not really understood the basis of their belief in marriage as a male-female partnership until they read our book. That is not to say we haven’t won some converts. We also hear from people — including a prominent former Marxist scholar — who say that until reading our book, they were in favor of legally redefining marriage, or inclined in that direction.

For a long time, the idea of marriage as a conjugal union was, of course, simply taken for granted. It was established in culture and then in law long before the development of the modern concept (or construct) of “sexual orientation,” and quite apart from debates about same-sex conduct and relationships. Now, of course, it is under severe attack from people whose attitudes and beliefs have been shaped by a culture whose influences include Sanger and Reich, Kinsey and Hefner, “value-free” sex education and me-generation liberalism. We think those influences have been baleful, in large measure because they have tended to obscure the nature of marriage as a conjugal union. Our goal is to make what has become obscure vivid again.


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