Politics & Policy

Remembering Marriage

From the Oct. 18, 2010, issue of NR.

Our recent editorial making the case for preserving the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman has drawn predictably indignant responses from Andrew Sullivan, Amy Davidson (a writer for The New Yorker), and Jonathan Rauch. The last of these writers, when not sputtering, comes close to making a counterargument. The editorial, he writes, “is a mass of non sequiturs. It assumes that if marriage is ‘for’ something — regulating procreative sex — then using it for anything else must be ‘against’ marriage, which is like saying that if mouths are ‘for’ eating, we mustn’t use them for talking or breathing. . . . It proceeds as if ‘gay marriage is bad’ follows obviously from ‘straight marriage is good.’”

Our actual point was and is that same-sex marriage is a contradiction in terms that undermines the logic of the institution. There is a governmental interest in ensuring that as many children as possible are raised in a home by biological parents who are committed to each other and to them for the long term. There is no governmental interest in recognizing other types of adult relationships, and proponents of same-sex marriage hardly bother to try explaining what that interest could be. Sooner or later their case always falls back on the alleged unfairness of not treating committed same-sex couples as though they were married.

Imagine two brothers who, after some family tragedy, try to provide a loving household to a child. What they are doing is certainly praiseworthy, and may even deserve some forms of governmental support. But their relationship is not a marriage, and treating it as such furthers no intelligible purpose. That conclusion would not change if the men were unrelated and having sex with each other. In neither of these cases would governmental recognition of the relationship as a marriage serve either the purpose of regulating procreative sex or any other legitimate governmental purpose. Still less is there a justification for treating one of these hypothetical pairs as married but not the other.

If our critics are right, then the fact that infertile couples have always been considered eligible for marriage means that the institution has never had procreative sex at its heart, and only prejudice against homosexuals can explain why it has historically been restricted to heterosexual couples. (As for why it has in the Western tradition been restricted to groups of two, or should be so restricted now, they have no convincing answer at all and barely try to devise one.) This implicit account of the history of marriage is deeply implausible. The critics could try to argue that modern circumstances justify loosening or eliminating the link between marriage and procreation. Not, we think, convincingly: The disarray of the modern family, to our mind, argues for strengthening those links in both the law and the culture. But the critics cannot even begin to make the argument for change because they resolutely refuse to acknowledge why marriage has the form it does in the first place. They exhibit a kind of willed forgetting of basic social realities. We should decline to join them even at the price of their ignorant mockery.

This editorial originally appeared in the Oct. 18, 2010, issue of National Review.