The Case for Marriage
From the Sep. 20, 2010, issue of NR.


And does marriage really need to be redefined? The legal “benefits” of marriage — such as the right to pay extra taxes, and to go through a legal process to sever the relationship? — are overstated. Almost all the benefits that the law still grants could easily be extended to unmarried couples, including same-sex couples, without redefining marriage. The campaign for same-sex marriage is primarily motivated by one specific benefit: the symbolic statement by the government that committed same-sex relationships are equivalent to marriages. But with respect to the purposes of marriages, they’re not equivalent; and so this psychic benefit cannot be granted without telling a lie about what marriage is and why a society and legal system should recognize and support it.

Same-sex marriage is often likened to interracial marriage, which the law once proscribed. But the reason governments refused to recognize (and even criminalized) interracial marriages was not that they did not believe that such marriages were possible; it is that they wanted to discourage them from happening, in the interests of white supremacy. Sexual complementarity is a legitimate condition of marriage because of the institution’s orientation toward children; racial homogeneity has nothing to do with that orientation. Laws against interracial marriage thus violated the right to form an actual marriage in a way that laws defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman do not violate it. The argument about what the equal rights of all citizens entail for marriage laws turns, in other words, on what marriage is. If marriage just is by its nature oriented toward procreation, the refusal to redefine it to accommodate same-sex partners unjustly discriminates against them no more than the military does against the flat-footed.

Same-sex marriage would introduce a new, less justifiable distinction into the law. This new version of marriage would exclude pairs of people who qualify for it in every way except for their lack of a sexual relationship. Elderly brothers who take care of each other; two friends who share a house and bills and even help raise a child after one loses a spouse: Why shouldn’t their relationships, too, be recognized by the government? The traditional conception of marriage holds that however valuable those relationships may be, the fact that they are not oriented toward procreation makes them non-marital. (Note that this is true even if those relationships involve caring for children: We do not treat a grandmother and widowed daughter raising a child together as married because their relationship is not part of an institution oriented toward procreation.) On what possible basis can the revisionists’ conception of marriage justify discriminating against couples simply because they do not have sex?

How, for that matter, can it justify discriminating against groups of more than two involved in overlapping sexual relationships? The argument that same-sex marriage cannot be justified without also, in principle, justifying polygamy and polyamory infuriates many advocates of the former. There is, however, no good answer to the charge; and the arguments and especially the rhetoric of same-sex marriage proponents clearly apply with equal force to polygamy and polyamory. How does it affect your marriage if two women decide to wed? goes the question from same-sex marriage advocates; you don’t have to enter a same-sex union yourself. They might just as accurately be told that they would still be free to have two-person marriages if other people wed in groups.

We cannot say with any confidence that legal recognition of same-sex marriage would cause infidelity or illegitimacy to increase; we can say that it would make the countervailing norms, and the public policy of marriage itself, incoherent. The symbolic message of inclusion for same-sex couples — in an institution that makes no sense for them — would be coupled with another message: that marriage is about the desires of adults rather than the interests of children.

It may be that the conventional wisdom is correct, and legal recognition of same-sex marriage really is our inevitable future. Perhaps it will even become an unquestioned policy and all who resisted it will be universally seen as bigots. We doubt it, but cannot exclude the possibility. If our understanding of marriage changes in this way, so much the worse for the future.