Politics & Policy

Sex and the Empire State

Losing marriage to sexual liberalism.

Marriage was already in bad shape when New York’s governor rewrote its meaning in the state on Friday night with his signature on the “Marriage Equality Act.” Princeton politics professor Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, who has written and lectured extensively on marriage and conscience rights, the natural law, and public policy (and served on the President’s Council on Bioethics and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights), discusses the fallout and future with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.


KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What’s your reaction to what New York did to marriage on Friday night?

ROBERT P. GEORGE: Let’s examine the matter from a philosophical and historical perspective.

The vote in New York to redefine marriage advances the cause of loosening norms of sexual ethics, and promoting as innocent — and even “liberating” — forms of sexual conduct that were traditionally regarded in the West and many other places as beneath the dignity of human beings as free and rational creatures. Early advocates of this cause, such as Margaret Sanger, Alfred Kinsey, and Hugh Hefner, proposed to “liberate” people from “repressive” moral standards that pointlessly deprived individuals of what they insisted were harmless pleasures, and impeded the free development of their personalities. They attacked and ridiculed traditional norms of sexual conduct as mere “hangups” that it was long past time for sophisticated people to get over. By the early 1970s, their basic outlook had become the mainstream view among cultural elites in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West. Although Sanger was a racist and a eugenicist, though Kinsey was a liar and a fraud, though Hefner was a buffoon, the liberationist view they had championed eventually hardened into something very close to a matter of orthodoxy in elite circles, and liberalism as a political movement went for it hook, line, and sinker. Devotion to “sexual freedom” had been no part of the liberalism of FDR, George Meaney, Cesar Chavez, Hubert Humphrey, or the leaders and rank-and-file members of the civil-rights movement. Today, however, allegiance to the cause of sexual freedom is the nonnegotiable price of admission to the liberal (or “progressive”) club. It is worth noting that more than a few conservatives have bought into a (more limited) version of it as well, as we see in the debate over redefining marriage.

As Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and I argue in our Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy article, once one buys into the ideology of sexual liberalism, the reality that has traditionally been denominated as “marriage” loses all intelligibility. That is true whether one regards oneself politically as a liberal or a conservative. For people who have absorbed the central premises of sexual liberation (whether formally and explicitly, as liberals tend to do, or merely implicitly as those conservatives who have gone in for it tend to do), marriage simply cannot function as the central principle or standard of rectitude in sexual conduct, as it has in Western philosophy, theology, and law for centuries. The idea that sexual intercourse (the behavioral component of reproduction) consummates and actualizes marriage as a one-flesh union of sexually complementary spouses naturally ordered to the good of procreation loses its force and even its sense. The moral belief that sex belongs in (and only in) marriage, where it is of unitive as well as procreative significance, and where the unitive and procreative dimensions are intrinsically connected (though not in a mere relationship of means to end), begins to seem baseless — the sort of thing that can be believed, if at all, only on the authority of revealed religion. As a result, to the extent that one is in the grip of sexual-liberationist ideology, one will find no reason of moral principle why people oughtn’t to engage in sexual relations prior to marriage, cohabit in non-marital sexual partnerships, form same-sex sexual partnerships, or confine their sexual partnerships to two persons, rather than three or more in polyamorous sexual ensembles.

Moreover, one will come to regard one’s allegiance to sexual liberalism as a mark of urbanity and sophistication, and will likely find oneself looking down on those “ignorant,” “intolerant,” “bigoted” people — those hicks and rubes — who refuse to get “on the right side of history.” One will perceive people who wish to engage in conduct rejected by traditional morality (especially where such conduct is sought in satisfaction of desires that can be redescribed or labeled as an “orientation,” such as “gay” or “bisexual,” or “polyamorist”) as belonging to the category of “sexual minorities” whose “civil rights” are violated by laws embodying the historic understanding of marriage and sexual ethics. One will begin congratulating oneself for one’s “open-mindedness” and “tolerance” in holding that marriage should be redefined to accommodate the interests of these minorities, and one will likely lose any real regard for the rights of, say, parents who do not wish to have their children indoctrinated into the ideology of sexual liberalism in public schools. “Why,” one will ask, “should fundamentalist parents be free to rear their children as little bigots?” Heather’s two mommies or Billy’s two mommies and three daddies are the keys to freeing children from parental “homophobia” and “polyphobia.”  

Now, New York is obviously one of the most socially liberal states in the Union. There are, to be sure, many New Yorkers who reject sexual-liberationist ideology and believe in true marriage, which is why pro-marriage forces in the state were able to put up quite a fight, but they are not well-represented in the elite sector of society and at the moment they lack the powerful political leadership one finds on the other side. There is no Chris Christie at the helm in New York. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the state’s two most powerful and influential politicians, plainly buy much, if not all, of the ideology of sexual liberalism and publicly lead their lives in accordance with it. Although they claim to be supporters of marriage who merely want to “expand” the institution (or expand “access” to the institution) out of respect for what they regard as the civil rights of people to have their romantic partnerships (whatever their shape) recognized and legitimated by the state, both are reported by New York media to openly cohabit with women with whom they are not married. They do this not in defiance of their stated beliefs about sexual morality and marriage, but in line with those beliefs. Neither supposes that he and his mistress are setting a bad example for children or undermining the public’s faith in important marital norms. As orthodox sexual liberals, neither the governor nor the mayor believes in a conception of marriage in which marriage is normative for sexual partnering; indeed, neither believes in norms of sexual morality as traditionally conceived, even apart from any question about same-sex partnerships. Both regard “civil marriage” as nothing more than the legal blessing of romantic partnerships, and neither gives any indication of ever having remotely considered an alternative view. Both have so thoroughly absorbed the premises of sexual liberal ideology that the possibility of an alternative doesn’t cross their minds. For them, it is all a matter of “us urbane, sophisticated, tolerant, open-minded, defenders of civil rights, against those ignorant, intolerant, hateful homophobes.”


LOPEZ: What does it mean for the meaning of marriage in New York?

GEORGE: It means that New York has abolished marriage as a matter of civil law and replaced it with a counterfeit that New Yorkers’ children and grandchildren will be taught to accept and approve as if it were the real thing. What New York now offers its citizens is “marriage” in name only. In reality, it doesn’t give marriage to same-sex partners — the nature of marriage makes that impossible, just as it makes it impossible to offer marriage to parties of three or more persons in polyamorous sexual partnerships. Rather, it takes away the legal recognition of marriage — a comprehensive union of persons ordered to having and rearing a family (on procreation’s intrinsic link to marriage, see here and here) — and offers in its place legal recognition of a form of domestic partnership for romantic-sexual partners (in pairs for now, but that will not hold), be they same-sex or opposite-sex. Because these domestic partnerships are not actually marriages, despite the appropriation of the label; there is no intelligible basis in them for the norms of monogamy, exclusivity, and the pledge of permanence that structure and help to define marriage as historically understood in our law and culture. Of course, many people’s understanding of, and authentic commitment to, these norms has already eroded substantially since the 1960s under the pressure of sexual-revolution ideology. They will now erode further, though for a while some people who are still “evolving” (as President Obama might put it) toward the complete embrace of that ideology will be moved by sentimentality (which will seem increasingly quaint) and the residue of the “old morality” to cling to the belief that “marriages” (same-sex or opposite-sex) should be monogamous and sexually exclusive. And the erosion of these beliefs (and practices in line with them) will further wound our communities — especially mothers, children, and the poor.

Of course, among the activists and leaders of the movement to redefine marriage, it is already difficult to find anyone who believes that same-sex marriages demand as a matter of moral obligation sexual exclusivity. If you have time to poke around a bit on the Internet, just try to find leaders in the movement who say that they do. Hardly anyone among the leading activists will say that it is immoral and contrary to the integrity of marriage for same-sex marriage partners to agree to sexually “open” marriages. Rather, most will say that the “commitment” that makes a marriage (as in the slogan “commitment, not gender, makes a marriage”), is fundamentally an emotional commitment and a commitment to provide mutual care and support; it does not exclude a formal or implicit agreement by the partners that sex outside the partnership is acceptable. As a recent San Francisco State University study (as reported by the New York Times) shows, the “open secret” (as the Times puts it) about same-sex “marriages” is that a huge proportion of them are sexually open. Sexual activity with parties outside the relationship (sometimes with disclosure to the other partner, sometimes without) is accepted and practiced. Monogamy and sexual exclusivity are simply not regarded as integral to “marriage.” (This shows just how far the redefinition of marriage takes us from what has historically been understood as marriage in our law and culture.) For anyone who has examined the sexual-liberationist ideology whose hegemony in the elite sector of the culture makes the idea of same-sex “marriage” even possible, this is as unsurprising as the sun rising in the East. On sexual-liberationist premises, there is no reason (apart from the subjective tastes of this or that particular set of partners) for “marriages” to be monogamous and demand sexual fidelity.


LOPEZ: It’s a significant thing, isn’t it, that this was brought about by elected representatives, not judicial fiat?

GEORGE: That’s not the news here. The news is that a state senate controlled by the Republican party caved in to a liberal Democratic governor’s agenda to redefine marriage. It’s bad that it happened — bad for the party and bad for the state and nation. But if it was going to happen, it is better that it happened by the actions of the people’s elected representatives, and not by the fiat of judges pretending to be enforcing constitutional guarantees while, in truth, usurping democratic legislative authority. What happened in New York further damages marriage, to be sure, but it does not damage the Constitution and the rule of law, as Roe v.Wade notoriously did (and will continue to do until it is overturned), and as state judicial decisions redefining marriage did in Massachusetts and Iowa. Whatever one’s views on the question of how marriage should be defined, any friend of the Constitution should pray that the Supreme Court rejects the invitation on offer from Ted Olson and David Boies to pull another Roe v. Wade by redefining marriage for the whole nation in Perry v. Schwarzenegger.


LOPEZ: Could marriage’s Roe be a legislative endeavor, given the organizational pressure surrounding the issue of gay marriage?

GEORGE: In that sense, perhaps we’ve already had marriage’s Roe: It is known as “no-fault” or “unilateral” divorce. That was a major advance in the sexual revolution and paved the way for what came afterward. Many people have observed that the movement to redefine marriage is a symptom rather than a cause of the fundamental loss of understanding of the meaning of marriage, especially among elites. They are right. The divorce culture, though itself in some ways a symptom, is also a major cause of our problems. As we fight in other states and at the national level to prevent the redefinition and legal abolition of marriage, it is important to remember that this is merely the first step in a much larger struggle to renew and rebuild a healthy marriage culture.

It is worth noting that what has happened in New York will have at least one significant good effect for the pro-marriage cause. It will re-nationalize the marriage issue and propel it into the 2012 presidential primaries and general election. Republican candidates will be judged on how sincerely and forcefully they intend to fight to preserve marriage against redefinition, and the issue is likely to play a positive role for the eventual Republican nominee in critical swing states such as Ohio and Missouri, and possibly Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New Mexico. Advocates of redefining marriage (with a few savvy exceptions) are making the predictable error of overreading the significance of their victory in New York. They believe it will demoralize their opponents and finally make effective the argument that they have long waved around as if it were a magic wand: “Same-sex marriage is inevitable; you might as well surrender and get on the right side of history.” Although the loss for marriage in New York has damaged the morale of pro-marriage people in some places, especially in more liberal states where pro-marriage forces have long felt beleaguered, it seems to be reenergizing pro-marriage forces in more conservative states, including Ohio, Missouri, and Pennsylvania. They are determined to act now to make sure that what happened in New York does not happen to them. This is why you will see virtually all the Republican presidential aspirants pledge fidelity to marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and vow to protect marriage by vigorously defending the Defense of Marriage Act and supporting a Federal Marriage Amendment. It is also why we could see Barack Obama, who is no fool and whose chief political advisers are certainly not fools, suddenly hit the “pause” button on his “evolution” towards explicit support for redefining marriage.


LOPEZ: Can this be undone in New York?

GEORGE: Sure. Let’s not be under any illusions, though. The people who will lead the fight to preserve their victory in New York and use it as a springboard to victory in other states are formidable. They have enormous political and financial resources and, as they have proven, they know how to deploy them to win political battles. They are sincerely dedicated to their cause and filled with moral passion to advance what they deeply (albeit, in my view, mistakenly) believe is a civil-rights agenda. If I could choose opponents, I would choose different ones. Moreover, among them are people for whom I personally have great respect and even affection. They are good, patriotic people with whom I am proud to be allied in other very important struggles, and sad to be in political conflict with in this battle. I know how deeply they believe in their cause, and how determined they are to prevail. For some it is an intensely personal matter. So, those of us who seek to restore marriage in New York have our work cut out for us. If we are to succeed, it will take remarkable dedication, an enormous amount of hard work, some fervent prayers, and a bit of luck. Successful populist revolts against powerful, well-entrenched elites are not easy to pull off. But they are not impossible.


LOPEZ: Was there anything that specifically surprised you about the debate in New York?

GEORGE: Well, I was hoping that the Republican leadership would be more faithful to its base, but I can’t say that I was expecting it. Leaders in the Democratic party tend to be very faithful to their base. Just look at what they did for the unions in Wisconsin, with legislators even fleeing the state to stop legislation the unions didn’t like from going forward. Leaders in the Republican party tend to be faithful to . . . . well, I’m not quite sure what Republican leaders are faithful to. It used to be sound money, but they don’t even seem to be faithful to that any more.

LOPEZ: How significant is it that this governor is Catholic?

GEORGE: Is he? There are many devout Protestants and even Jews and Muslims whose moral beliefs and practices are far more closely in line with Catholic teachings than Andrew Cuomo’s are. Andrew’s father’s views and policies gave scandal (as Catholics use that term) precisely because people took him to be a serious Catholic. No one is scandalized by Andrew’s beliefs or conduct because no one takes him to be a serious Catholic, that is, a Catholic who is serious enough about his faith to live by its tenets. Indeed, he quite publicly flouts Catholic principles, and doesn’t even seem to wrestle with it or be anguished about it, as his father at least liked to give the appearance of being. In word and deed, he has made it clear that he simply does not believe what Catholicism teaches about sexual morality and marriage. There is no reason to suppose that he regards the Catholic Church as having the authority to teach definitively on these issues or anything else. If there is a sense in which he is a Catholic, it does not involve believing what the Catholic Church teaches or even that the Catholic Church has any authority to teach. So I don’t see Cuomo’s Catholicism as a significant part of this story. He doesn’t even pretend to be serious enough about it to make anyone care or even take much notice.

LOPEZ: Why weren’t churches able to stop it?

GEORGE: As I’ve noted, New York is one of the most socially liberal states in the country. The governor is a powerful, quasi-dynastic figure who knows how to brandish both carrots and sticks. He’s a tough hombre who knows how to get what he wants. He had the support not only of rich and powerful Democrats, but of wealthy, socially liberal Republicans as well. And, of course, he had the enthusiastic support of the entertainment industry, the intellectuals, people who are famous for being famous, the media, and other cultural elites. All Cuomo needed was to peel off two or three Republicans in the state senate. In a way, it’s amazing that the task proved as difficult as it did. In any event, New York is scarcely representative of the rest of the country. It is quite unlike Minnesota (where the next big marriage battle will occur), for example, or Missouri, or New Mexico, or South Carolina.

LOPEZ: Religious liberty came up in New York as it has elsewhere as both a final argument for freedom, but it also became cover here for some who were, perhaps, looking for an excuse to vote for the bill. How important is the religious-liberty component in the marriage debate? In these legislative contexts can the religious-liberty debate become a sideshow and pawn? What more can we do for marriage and religious liberty, which are two separate issues, however interrelated here?

GEORGE: Religious-liberty “protections” simply functioned to provide cover for Republican politicians such as Buffalo-area state senator Mark Grisanti who, having been elected on pro-marriage platforms (and in Grisanti’s case having personally solicited and received pro-marriage campaign contributions in 2008), decided for whatever reasons to flip-flop and cave to Governor Cuomo and his supporters on redefining marriage. In the next election cycle, they will claim, ludicrously, to have protected the rights of Catholics, evangelicals, Orthodox Jews, and other pro-marriage believers. The truth is that the so-called protections are hardly adequate to protect the rights of institutions and individuals who reject the sexual-liberationist orthodoxy. They are vague in certain key respects, and will almost surely be interpreted narrowly by the courts as providing only minimal protections. If some of the protections actually survive the judicial process as meaningful constraints on what can be imposed by the state on believers and their institutions in the cause of “marriage equality,” these protections will be the targets of legislative repeal over the next few years. If you ask, “What can be done going forward around the country to protect religious liberty?” the answer is this: Win the fight to preserve the legal definition of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife. Period.

LOPEZ: Why should anyone care about this debate anymore? A man and a man can legally get married in New York. The die is cast. Besides, who wants to be an intolerant anti-civil-rights bigot — or so my inbox has called me all weekend, again.

GEORGE: Well, people should care because the whole edifice of sexual-liberationist ideology is built on damaging and dehumanizing falsehoods. It has already done enormous harm — harm that falls on everybody, but disproportionately on those in the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of our society. If you doubt that, have a look at Myron Magnet’s great book The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass, or some of the writings of Kay Hymowitz and other serious people who have examined the social consequences for the poor of the embrace of sexual liberalism by celebrities and other cultural elites. Marriage is a profound human and social good; its weakening and loss is a tragedy from which affluent people can be distracted (and protected) by their affluence for only so long. The institution of marriage has already been deeply wounded by divorce at nearly plague levels, widespread non-marital sexual cohabitation, and other damaging factors. To redefine it out of existence in law is to make it much more difficult to restore a sound understanding of marriage on which a healthy marriage culture can be rebuilt for the good of all. It is to sacrifice the needs of the poor, who are hurt the most when a sound public understanding of marriage and sexual morality collapses. It is to give up on the truth that children need both a father and mother, and benefit from the security of their love for each other.

So people are calling you “intolerant” and an “anti-civil-rights bigot”? Well, for those who have absorbed the premises of sexual liberation and embraced its dogmas so fanatically that they can’t fathom the possibility that any reasonable person of goodwill could dissent from them, that’s what people like you and me seem to be. Like overly impassioned believers at all times and in all places, these folks suppose that anyone who doubts the tenets of their faith must have malign motives. Dissenters from what they regard as an unquestionable orthodoxy must be “haters” (the modern word for “heretics”). It’s ironic — and amusing — that these folks regard themselves as urbane, sophisticated people — critical thinkers — who are much smarter and better informed (not to mention more “tolerant” and “open-minded”) than their opponents. In truth, they rarely have the foggiest notion of what the arguments are in support of the view they reject or what the intellectual challenges are for the view they hold. They already know the truth, and that’s that! So what need is there for reflection, study, deliberation, and debate? Why argue with “intolerant, anti-civil-rights bigots”? To the barricades!

Of course, there is an astonishing degree of ignorance on display in all this, especially when considered in proportion to the certitude and moral passion of sexual liberalism’s true believers. Perhaps it is too much to ask of them, but for those who might (perhaps secretly, when no “sophisticated,” “urbane” friends are looking) want to know why those of us on the other side dissent, and who might be wiling to consider what we believe are the damning intellectual challenges that same-sex “marriage” advocates have not met and cannot meet, here again is the link to “What is Marriage?

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


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