How we talk about an issue affects how we think about it. Consider the language we use about marriage. A Fox News headline reads: “North Carolina voters take up amendment banning gay marriage.”
So what’s the problem? Framing. Today’s vote in North Carolina is not about banning anything. Nothing will be made illegal as a result. In all fifty states across the nation two people of the same sex can live together, have their religious community bless their union, and have their workplace offer them various joint benefits — if the religious communities and workplaces in question so desire. Many liberal houses of worship and progressive businesses have voluntarily decided to do so. There’s nothing illegal about this. There’s no ban on it.
What’s at issue is whether the government will recognize such unions as marriages — and then force every citizen and business to do so as well. This isn’t the legalization of something, this is the coercion and compulsion of others to recognize and affirm same-sex unions as marriages.
On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden declared his support of same-sex marriage: “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don’t see much of a distinction — beyond that.”
But this isn’t really about civil rights or civil liberties. No one is suggesting the state deny people who self-identify as gay or lesbian their rights to free speech, religious liberty, free association, or any other traditional civil liberty. The question is whether a new “civil right” — the right to have the government and private citizens recognize your same-sex sexual partnership as a marriage — ought to be created, redefining marriage in the process.
The same-sex marriage debate is so frequently framed in terms of granting gays and lesbians the freedom to do what they wish that few people realize that they already have that freedom — the question is whether the rest of society will have the freedom to choose which type of relationship to honor as marriage. Public discourse needs to more carefully reflect the issues at stake.
It’s not just about government coercion, either. Law also plays a pedagogical function. It helps teach. It sends a message. Recognizing same-sex unions as though they were marriages further entrenches a misguided understanding of what marriage is. Here’s how Biden explained what marriage is: “What this is all about is a simple proposition. Who do you love? Who do you love? And will you be loyal to the person you love? And that’s what people are finding out is what — what all marriages, at their root, are about. Whe— whether they’re— marriages of lesbians or gay men or heterosexuals.”
No one would deny that marriages are about love, but notice what Biden has left out: children. One of the most important things marriage does is attach a man and a woman, as husband and wife, to become father and mother to any children their union brings forth. Marriage is one of the best anti-poverty programs for kids that exist, but it does this because mothering and fathering are two different phenomena, and kids need both the attention and role modeling of their mothers and fathers.
Notice one other thing. It simply cannot be true, as the slogan has it, that “love makes a family,” at least if we take seriously the idea of monogamy and reject not only polygamy but also polyamory. Candid and intellectually serious supporters of redefining marriage acknowledge this and are willing to scrap, together with sexual complementarity, the limiting of spouses to two in redefining marriage. After all, if marriage is fundamentally a sexual-romantic domestic partnership founded on emotional bonding, as opposed to being a conjugal union of man and woman in a partnership ordered to procreation and naturally fulfilled by having and rearing children together, then there is absolutely no reason to suppose that marriages are by nature the union of only two persons.
It is doubtful that Vice President Biden wants to embrace the idea of multiple-partner marriages, or at least to admit to the American people that he is adopting a position that entails that notion. But the logic of his view leads where it leads.
Voters in North Carolina today are not voting to ban anything. They are voting to define what marriage is. They are voting to protect the union of a man and woman as something unique and irreplaceably important.
— Ryan T. Anderson is Editor of Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, N.J.