What Is Marriage? From the Authors of the Book

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George are authors of a new book What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. They submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on the cases challenging the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Girgis is a Rhodes Scholar now studying law at Yale and doing his Ph.D. in philosophy at Princeton. Anderson is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, editor of the online journal Public Discourse, and a Ph.D. candidate in political philosophy at Notre Dame. George is a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton. They answered some questions, collectively, over e-mail.


Kathryn Jean Lopez: Ryan and Sherif, your generation is said to be entirely on board with the gay-marriage bandwagon and unwilling to entertain the possibility that there are good arguments against redefining marriage. So are you a pair of traitors to your generation?

Girgis and Anderson: What we really reject is the social and policy legacy of our parents’ generation. Their “evolving” marital standards led to broken hearts and homes, and increased hardship for children — our peers. We’re fighting for the interests (if not always the opinions) of those peers, and of future generations. What we owe them is not blind allegiance to current trends, but our best judgment and honest efforts for the common good. Now, in the book and elsewhere, we’ve also given them our reasons.

This week has taken on historic proportions. Aren’t you a wee bit concerned that you might be on the wrong side of history? 

A & G: There is no wrong side of history; there’s only the wrong or right side of the truth. Marriage is founded on the anthropological truth that men and women are different and complementary, the biological truth that reproduction involves a male and female, and the social truth that children benefit from a mother and father.

The ash heap of history is filled with “inevitabilities”: As recently as the 1970s, Marxism and the ERA and total and serene social support for abortion were the wave of the future, challenged only by the dying and the ordained. Things are rather different now. “History” has no mind; the future isn’t fixed. It’s chosen. That’s why arguments matter.

There is good reason to hope that the current Supreme Court justices have learned from the mistakes of predecessors who tried to short-circuit the democratic process on morally charged issues on which reasonable people disagree. Does Justice Kennedy or Justice Breyer really think that it would be good to start a new fire in the culture wars so heavily fueled by its decision in Roe v. Wade? The Court shouldn’t try to shut down the conversation. And it has no basis for doing so: The Constitution is silent on marriage, and equality only forbids arbitrary policies. But there is nothing arbitrary about promoting married biological parenting as an ideal.

Lopez: How is it that you contend that “the world rests its hope and finds ultimate renewal” in marriage and yet you’d restrict hope and renewal to heterosexuals? 

A & G: This isn’t about “restricting” anything for anyone. The government isn’t in the business of affirming our affections. Rather it leaves consenting adults free to live and love as they choose.

And contrary to what some say, there is no ban on same-sex marriage. Unlike bigamy or polygamy, for example, nothing about it is illegal. In all 50 states, two people of the same sex may choose to live together, choose to join a religious community that blesses their relationship, and choose a workplace offering joint benefits.

What’s at issue is whether the government will recognize such relationships as marriages — and then force every citizen, religious organization, and business to do so as well. At issue is whether policy will coerce and compel others to recognize and affirm a new conception of marriage, as a form of sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership.

Every marriage policy draws lines, leaving out some types of relationships. It’s true that “marriage equality” makes a good slogan for activists and politicians, but true equality forbids arbitrary distinctions. It requires that the state get marriage right. To do so we need to explain what marriage is, and why it matters for policy.

Only between a man and a woman can there be a union of partners at all levels — heart, mind, and body. Only there does the very act that makes marital love, also make new life — which orients the relationship to family life and gets the wider community invested and involved.

If we redefine marriage as just home life combined with emotional union, we lose our grasp on the very idea of marriage as its own category. Everything gets collapsed into companionship. That really would make mere arbitrary “restrictions” of the norms that apply only to the total union of marriage: norms like permanence, sexual exclusivity, monogamy, connection to family life, and social regulation.


Lopez: “All told, the people of 41 states have affirmed the conjugal view of marriage by direct voting or through their representatives.” Could that just mean the residents of 41 states are bigots? 

A & G: What this suggests is that there are good reasons why the citizens of so many states continue to affirm marriage as the union of a man and a woman. (And the fact that North Carolina, a major swing state that broke for Obama in 2008, voted for traditional marriage and even against civil unions by a 61–39 margin less than one year ago suggests that this debate is far from being over.)

It’s the liberal side of the issue that tries to win the argument by power in numbers. That’s what the “wrong side of history” talk is all about. What we show in our book is not just the fact that every society until the sexual revolution had seen marriage as a male-female union, but why they were right to do so. To take just one reason we discuss, children deserve to have the best shot at knowing the man and woman whose love gave them life, and fare best when they do.

Two eminent political scientists, Leon Kass (a professor at University of Chicago) and Harvey Mansfield (a professor at Harvard), filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court cautioning against accepting politicized science: “Claims that science provides support for constitutionalizing a right to same-sex marriage must necessarily rest on ideology. Ideology may be pervasive in the social sciences, especially when controversial policy issues are at stake, but ideology is not science.”

Kass and Mansfield urge the court not to redefine marriage based on new, inconclusive research. The academic studies on same-sex parenting purporting to show “no differences” are, they argue, “subject to severe constraints arising from limited data” and a lack of “replicable experiments.” The professors contend:

Even if same-sex marriage and child rearing by same-sex couples were far more common than they now are, large amounts of data collected over decades would be required before any responsible researcher could make meaningful scientific estimates of the effects.

Although we still have much to learn about the impact of same-sex parenting, we do know quite a bit about marriage and child well-being more generally. We have decades of rigorous social-science data confirming that children do best with a married mother and father.

In another amicus brief submitted to the court, a group of social-science professors explains:

It is not simply the presence of two parents . . . but the presence of two biological parents that seems to support children’s development. . . . Experts have long contended that both mothers and fathers make unique contributions to parenting.

Indeed, scholars have known this for quite some time. Professor David Popenoe of Rutgers University explains:

We should disavow the notion that ‘mommies can make good daddies,’ just as we should disavow the popular notion . . . that ‘daddies can make good mommies.’ . . . The two sexes are different to the core, and each is necessary — culturally and biologically — for the optimal development of a human being.

These statistics have penetrated American life to such a great extent that President Barack Obama can refer to them as well understood:

We know the statistics — that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.

Fathers matter, and marriage helps to connect fathers to mothers and children.

But how can the law teach that fathers are essential if we redefine marriage to make fathers optional? The same question arises, of course, as to mothers.

Lopez: Have we simply lost the debate if everyone thinks marriage is just about adults’ romantic lives — what you call the revisionist view?

A & G: The question we face is whether to replace the truth about marriage with a false vision that sees it as essentially set apart by its emotional union or intensity or priority.

Almost everyone agrees that marriage, whatever it is, involves sexual union. Only the traditional view can explain why, and those concepts are important for that. What we need is not to give up on serious defenses of our own view, but to challenge facile “defenses” of the campaign for redefinition.

For example, again, equality all by itself doesn’t get you an inch toward the conclusion that we have to redefine marriage. Every policy draws lines. Equality only forbids arbitrary line-drawing. But there is nothing arbitrary about enshrining a vision of marriage that best explains and encourages the stabilizing norms of marriage: That, after all, gives kids the best shot at being reared by the mother and father whose union gave them life.

To see the damning versatility of “equality alone” arguments, consider: Why could it not require recognizing group sexual bonds? Deliberately temporary ones (like the two-year renewable marriage licenses considered in Mexico City)? Even purely platonic bonds, like between siblings? You can’t rule out any of these conclusions unless you stake out a position on what marriage is. Equality all by itself gets you nowhere.

That’s why we don’t need to get into the deep foundations of the competing views of marriage, in order to determine what the Court should do. It can only enforce the equal protection and other constitutional provisions. It has no basis for itself theorizing about what marriage really is, and why the state gets involved in it at all.

: My friend and colleague Jonah Goldberg recently wrote:”Opponents of same-sex marriage insist gays have the same right to marry a person of the opposite sex as anyone else. It’s a clever line, but it overlooks the fact that romantic love has been the paramount reason for marriage for quite some time. Telling people they’re free to be unhappy isn’t all that persuasive.” Is that what you’re arguing? 

A & G: We don’t need state regulation of our relationships to be happy. Usually, the less the state regulates something, the more intimate it is — it regulates, say, business partnerships much more than best friendships. Why should it regulate romantic love for its own sake? If it has really been doing that “for quite some time,” why hasn’t it recognized what Newsweek tells us are more than 500,000 polyamorous group sexual bonds in the United States? Why does it regulate entry and exit quite apart from the degree of the partners’ emotional union? This vision of marriage makes nonsense of our practice — not just in some forgotten age, but even now.

Again, while bigamy, say, is banned (you can go to jail for it), same-sex relationships rightly are not. People are free to live and choose lovers as they please.

This seems like an important point, from your book:  “Enacting same-sex civil marriage would . . . not be an expansion of the institution of marriage, but a redefinition. Finishing what policies like ‘no-fault’ divorce began, and thus entrenching them . . . It would multiply the marriage revolution’s moral and cultural spoils, and make them harder than ever to recover.” How could people find some common ground here? 

A & G: Until the same-sex marriage debate made it impolitic to say so, liberal and conservative social scientists had been slowly converging on the idea that kids do best when reared by their own mother and father, and that no-fault divorce had taken a toll especially on children (and both children and adults in the most vulnerable sectors of society). Everyone can agree that marriage breakdown has costs. If we can see that the current campaign would more finally and formally redefine marriage as emotional union — the vision of marriage that no-fault divorce began to put in place — then we could see eye-to-eye on its harms. We could agree to leave adults free of legal obstacles to their romantic choices. And we could find sensible policy solutions to meet the concrete needs of people who share a home that can’t be achieved by contracts or power of attorney — needs that they might have regardless of whether they’re in a sexual relationship.

Why is that redefinition vs. expansion point so important? 

A & G: If this debate were just about giving more people access to this one good thing, marriage, then equality really would kick in, and the Constitution might require a certain conclusion. But as soon as we see that it’s really about whether to redefine marriage in our law as a form of companionship, it becomes a choice between two substantive visions of marriage. Yet that is a question that the Constitution leaves to the people, and equality is powerless to force their hand leftward.

Lopez: Why is it so hard to reach a consensus on the very meaning and purpose of marriage? 

A & G: Because long before same-sex partnerships were in discussion, the distinct contours and values of marriage were obscured by a Sixties revolution that tried to separate all the goods that marriage distinctly brings together: sex, commitment, and family life; moms and dads. Preserving male-female marriage in our law is not valuable mainly for its own sake; it’s primarily a way to regain a foothold to begin restoring the marriage culture more broadly: rolling back no-fault divorce, encouraging the idea that kids need a father (an idea that redefinition would legally equate with bigotry), and so on.

What is at the heart of the questions we ought to be asking ourselves as we listen to the debate around the Court this week? 

A & G: What is marriage?

Why does it matter for policy?

What are the consequences of redefining it?

Lopez: How is this debate not about homosexuality? 

A & G: Whatever your view of the moral status and personal value of same-sex relationships, the question remains whether they have the basic features of marriage. (No one thinks best friendships immoral or worthless, yet no one thinks them marital.)

Even if you support adults’ legal freedom to form consensual relationships of any sort, the question remains: Which of the wide spectrum of bonds of affection should the state carve out as marriages to be regulated, and why?

And finally, again, the question here is not whether to let a new class of people have access to this one constant thing called marriage. It’s whether to change the social meaning of this one thing — from conjugal union, to simple companionship. And it’s about the consequence of that change — including the further undermining of all the stabilizing norms that get the state into marriage in the first place.

Lopez: What does the Supreme Court this week have to do Edmund Spenser? 

A & G: Our book, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, begins with excerpts from the poem (“Epithalamion”) that he presented to his bride on the occasion of their wedding in 1595.

Why start there? Well, this debate is about what vision of marriage we will enshrine in our law, and hence in our culture, and hence in practice. Spenser’s poem gives lasting poetic effect to the beauty, audacity, and reach of the view of marriage that has shaped the law — and the literature, art, philosophy, religion, and customs — of our civilization.

At the poem’s center — and thus central to marriage — is the spouses’ union of body and mind. The bridegroom-speaker devotes four central stanzas, one each, to his bride’s “body like a palace fair,” to her “inward beauty,” to their spiritual union by vows, then their bodily union by consummation.

They make their vow complete by making love, which makes new life; children give “effect” to their “wishful vow.” In this way, their union’s fleeting “snatches of delight” betoken the “lasting happiness” of a “large posterity.” Their commitment, like its living “fruit,” is therefore “endless.” And for the endless strength to match it, the groom bids Juno, upholder of the “laws of wedlock,” to “bind” his marriage — bind, not reshape, for marriage is a natural bond that religion does no more than “solemnize.”

Since everyone has a stake in his marriage, the groom calls the whole world — even the whole cosmos — as witness: the muses, in true Renaissance fashion, and the maidens attending to his bride, but all the village boys, too, running and cheering down the streets. The “young men of the town” he bids to light bonfires and “dance about them, and about them sing.” To the nymphs of the Irish rivers he calls, and to the fish that teem within. The woods, the moon, and the sun are his witnesses, and even the “heavens, the temple of the gods.”

The question we face is whether to replace that vision with one of marriage as, in essence, an emotional bond, one distinguished primarily by its intensity, which points mainly inward and in which the commitment is ultimately to one’s own emotional fulfillment.

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