Princeton’s Robert P. George and the University of Chicago’s Jean Elshtain have edited an excellent new book on the gay marriage debate (and on marriage in general), called The Meaning of Marriage. If you’re interested in the gay marriage debate, you want this book.
Jean Elshtain’s participation in this project is noteworthy, since this eminent political theorist and public figure has not so far entered the controversy. Elshtain’s introduction focuses on the unfortunate taboo, especially in the academy, on reasoned debate about so important an issue.
The authors here run the gamut from traditional conservatives to moderate liberals. Don Browning and Elizabeth Marquardt offer the liberal case against same-sex marriage. It’s definitely one of my favorite essays in the book. Browning and Marquardt base their argument on “the right of children to expect to be raised in a society whose legal and cultural institutions attempt to maximize the possibility that they will be raised by the parents who conceived them.” In making this argument Browning and Marquardt take on Jonathan Rauch.
Roger Scruton opens the book with some profound philosophical-literary reflections on the meaning of marriage. Scruton ends, like Elshtain, by taking a whack at the political correctness that makes it tough to even debate this issue. “Public debate about the most important things is now more or less impossible,” says Scruton (while creditably trying to disprove it).
Hadley Arkes has a fascinating piece exploring the underlying principles at stake in the gay marriage debate. Guided by the logic of the situation, Arkes has a knack for figuring out what’s going to happen in the real world before it actually does happen. I first read this essay just as I was finishing up work on my piece about polyamory and bisexuality. I was stunned to read Arkes on the consequences of having to reconstruct marriage for any given sexual orientation. In a sense, Arkes had figured out my project before I’d conceived it myself.
Robert George is such an important figure in this debate. I come at this issue from the social sciences, while George enters through Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law theory. If you want a particularly accessible introduction to natural law thinking, George’s essay for this book is an ideal entry point. It’s amazing how the two approaches can sometimes dovetail. I saw this particularly in George’s comments on the need for a particular practice of marriage, say monogamy, to be supported by the larger culture. Monogamy cannot be practiced by an individual alone. But it’s really George’s detailed but highly readable take on the “one-flesh union,” and his analysis of the clashing philosophies underlying our differing approaches to sexual morality, that makes this piece a gem.
There’s much more here: wonderful pieces by Maggie Gallagher, Jennifer Roback Morse, sociologist Bradford Wilcox, and several others. So if you’re interested in this issue, get The Meaning of Marriage.
By the way, this book was put together by the Witherspoon Institute, which organizes all sorts of seminars at Princeton around moral-social-political issues of interest. If you’re a student and want to study with some of the best conservative thinkers in the country, you might be interested in a summer internship or seminar at the Witherspoon Institute (they have other job opportunities as well). If so, just click here and check out the links.