Politics & Policy

Talking on What Is Marriage?

After Windsor, the struggle to define marriage continues.

One year ago this week, Encounter Books published What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, by Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert P. George. The book, which developed an argument that the three authors had published about a year earlier in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, has become the touchstone for the defense of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife. It was cited and relied on in the powerful dissent by Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito in Windsor v. United States. Zachary Young, of The Yale Politic, discussed the book with co-author Robert P. George.


Zachary Young: What prompted you to co-write the article?

Robert P. George: In thinking and talking about the debate over marriage, Sherif, Ryan, and I came to see that the real question is not “who can marry whom,” but rather “what is marriage?” It became clear to us that the former question was impossible to address without answering the latter. Indeed, any position on the former presupposes a particular answer to the latter. Those seeking to redefine marriage were — usually quite unselfconsciously and uncritically — working with a conception of “marriage” that is radically at odds with the historical understanding of marriage as a conjugal relationship, which is that marriage is a comprehensive sharing of life that integrally includes the bodily union made possible by the sexual-reproductive complementarity of man and woman. The assumption implicit in their demand for the recognition of same-sex partnerships as marriages is that marriage is an emotional bond — a form of sexual and romantic companionship or domestic partnership. It is this assumption that is at the heart of what we call the “revisionist” view of marriage and that we contrast with the conjugal view. The three of us agreed that the assumption is philosophically untenable; we wrote our article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy to explain why. Frankly, we were stunned that the article drew so much attention, gaining hundreds of thousands of views and tens of thousands of downloads when it was posted on the Social Science Research Network, and generating an enormous amount of commentary — pro and con. So we expanded the article into a book to give it a still wider readership, and to address points made by our critics while also confronting them with intellectual challenges — challenges that remain unmet.


YOUNG: How do you feel the article and book have influenced the national debate about gay marriage?

GEORGE: I wish I could say that it shaped the opinion for the majority in the Windsor decision (which invalidated a section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act). It didn’t. In fact, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion for the majority failed to address our arguments at all. Kennedy simply assumed the validity of something like the revisionist view of marriage, without defending it or addressing the criticisms that we and others have made of it. Our article and book do seem to have influenced the dissenting opinion of Justice Samuel Alito, however. He is aware that the Kennedy opinion uncritically assumes an answer to the question “what is marriage?” without actually defending that answer or addressing the powerful reasons critics have advanced for rejecting it. Alito is also aware that nothing in the text, logic, structure, or historical understanding of the Constitution can reasonably be interpreted as favoring any particular view of marriage over any other. The matter is left for legislative resolution in the states.

Beyond the courts, I believe that our work has had its greatest impact in explaining to people who intuitively understand that marriage is the union of a man and a woman why that understanding is correct. We frequently hear from Catholics, Evangelicals, Latter-Day Saints, Orthodox Jews, and, more recently, Muslims who tell us that they had not really understood the basis of their belief in marriage as a male-female partnership until they read our book. That is not to say we haven’t won some converts. We also hear from people — including a prominent former Marxist scholar — who say that until reading our book, they were in favor of legally redefining marriage, or inclined in that direction.

For a long time, the idea of marriage as a conjugal union was, of course, simply taken for granted. It was established in culture and then in law long before the development of the modern concept (or construct) of “sexual orientation,” and quite apart from debates about same-sex conduct and relationships. Now, of course, it is under severe attack from people whose attitudes and beliefs have been shaped by a culture whose influences include Sanger and Reich, Kinsey and Hefner, “value-free” sex education and me-generation liberalism. We think those influences have been baleful, in large measure because they have tended to obscure the nature of marriage as a conjugal union. Our goal is to make what has become obscure vivid again.


YOUNG: What do you feel is the article’s strongest insight?

GEORGE: Our most important insight is that marriage is indeed a comprehensive (bodily as well as emotional) sharing of life — a conjugal union — and not merely a form of sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership. Our argument can explain and justify at the level of principle (and not merely as a matter of subjective preference or sentimental attachment) key features of marriage that cannot be explained or justified at that level by advocates of the revisionist view:

1. Why marriage is inherently a sexual partnership, and not a partnership integrated around other (nonsexual) shared interests or activities (reading novels, playing tennis, watching films, etc.).

2. Why marriage is the union of two persons, not three or more (“throuples” or “triads,” “quadrads,” etc.) in polyamorous sexual ensembles.

3. Why marriage is a sexually closed relationship, not an “open” relationship in which spouses can legitimately agree to permit liaisons with others.

4. Why marriage requires a pledge of permanence and not merely an agreement to stay together for a specified term, or “for as long as love (understood as emotional union) lasts.”

5. Why law and public policy legitimately treat marriage as a matter pertaining to the public interest, and not as a purely private matter (like ordinary friendship or like religious events such as baptisms and bar mitzvahs).

Moreover, the conjugal view, unlike the revisionist view, can make sense of the concept of marital consummation by sexual intercourse. Further, it can account for the idea that marriage is inherently, and not merely incidentally, a procreative partnership, and the idea that a valid marriage can be entered into by a man and a woman who, due to the infertility of one or both spouses, will not be able to conceive children.

The key there is to see that the link between marriage and procreation is not a means-to-an-end connection. Just as it is a mistake to regard marriage as a mere form of sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership, it is a mistake to view procreation and child-rearing as extrinsic ends to which marriage is a means. For a man and woman to marry is indeed for them to enter into a distinctive type of relationship — a conjugal union — that is oriented to procreation and would naturally be fulfilled by having and rearing children together; but being in that type of relationship is intrinsically, and not merely instrumentally valuable.


YOUNG: What is the best critique you have heard about the article? How do you respond to it?

GEORGE:There is a properly philosophical critique and what might be called a “political” critique. The philosophical critique denies that true bodily union is possible, even between a man and a woman, or asserts that bodily union, though perhaps possible, cannot be true personal union. Those who offer this critique embrace the idea that the body (at least in its sexual dimension) is not part of the personal reality of the human being but is rather an extrinsic instrument of the person. The “person,” on this view, is one’s mind or consciousness, or one’s feelings and emotions, or all of the above. The comprehensive interpersonal union of marriage is, therefore, simply a close or intense emotional bond — one that may, if the partners happen to desire it, be served or enhanced by mutually agreeable erotic activity. What sets marriage apart from ordinary friendships and other forms of companionship, on this view, is its special intensity or the priority that the partners choose to give it. Marriage is not set apart by its comprehensiveness as integrally including bodily union.

Against this dualism of “person” and “body” — which, if sound, would establish a key premise of the argument that the historic belief in marriage as a conjugal union rests on a fundamental error regarding what human persons are — we marshal arguments to show that the body, far from being a mere instrument of the person considered as the mind or emotions, is indeed part of the personal reality of the human being. The dualistic conception of the human being makes nonsense of the experience all of us have of ourselves as unified actors, not as minds (or souls, or bundles of feeling) inhabiting bodies — an experience we have no reason to suppose is illusory. The bodily union made possible by sexual-reproductive complementarity (which, for reasons we explain in detail in our book, is no mere mutual stimulation) is indeed personal union — personal union of the sort that can enable spouses to unite in all dimensions of their being as persons, becoming truly, and not merely metaphorically, “one flesh.” Marriage, properly understood, is, then, not simply sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership, as revisionists suppose. It is a comprehensive union — a conjugal relationship.

The political critique sets aside the debate about what marriage really is. Its advocates assert that for all intents and purposes our society and legal system have abandoned the conjugal understanding of marriage in favor of the revisionist conception. This is reflected, for example, in our very permissive divorce laws. At this juncture, they say, it makes no sense to refuse to recognize same-sex partnerships as marriages on the ground that such partnerships are non-conjugal in type. The horse has left the barn. The refusal to recognize same-sex partnerships as marriages is, they insist, therefore arbitrary.

Our answer to the political critique is that there is an element of truth at its foundation: Marriage in our culture has been deeply wounded, not only by no-fault divorce, but also by promiscuity, the normalization of non-marital cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbearing, and other things. But this provides no reason for abandoning the conjugal understanding. That simply doesn’t follow. Our task, rather, should be to reinforce that understanding where it is still in place (to the extent that it is in place) and to reestablish it where it is not. The demand for recognition of same-sex partnerships as marriages did not cause the erosion of the marriage culture. Nor are same-sex attracted people responsible for the severe wounds marriage has endured over the past few decades. The demand reflects the weakening of public understanding of, and appreciation for, what marriage, in truth, is — namely, a conjugal relationship. That weakening has obscured for many people the vital social role of marriage as the publicly recognized and supported institution that maximizes the odds that children will be reared in the context of a permanent and exclusive bond between the man and woman whose union gave them the gift of life. As Ryan Anderson says, echoing Maggie Gallagher, “marriage brings together a man and woman as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children born of their union.” So, if the historical understanding of marriage as a conjugal union is, indeed, sound, as we believe it is, we should certainly work to prevent marriage from being redefined out of existence and replaced with a form of sexual-romantic domestic partnership to which the label “marriage” is reassigned. But even if we were to succeed in that, it would be only the beginning. The daunting task of rebuilding a healthy and vibrant marriage culture would still be before us.


YOUNG: Do you think national adoption of the revisionist view of marriage has become inevitable? In 20 years, how do you think marriage will be understood? How do you think people will see your article and book then?

GEORGE: I’m not a Hegelian or a Marxist. I do not believe in historical inevitability. History is impersonal and contingent. The future will be determined, for better or worse, by the free choices and actions of human beings. No good cause is permanently lost. So my advice to supporters of marriage is to stay the course. Do not be discouraged. Do what the pro-life movement did when, in the 1970s, critics said, “The game is over; you lost; in a few years abortion will be socially accepted and fully integrated into American life; it won’t even be an issue in our politics.” Keep bearing witness and making good arguments. Speak the truth in season and out of season. Do not allow yourselves be intimidated or bullied into acquiescence or silence. Keep challenging the arguments of your opponents, always with civility, always in a gracious and loving spirit, but firmly. If you are told that you are on “the wrong side of history,” remember that there is no such thing. History is not a deity that sits in judgment. It has no power to determine what is true or false, good or bad, right or wrong. History doesn’t have “wrong” and “right” sides. Truth does. So my message to everyone is that our overriding concern should be to be on the right side of truth. And that requires a willingness to think as rigorously as possible and to carefully, dispassionately, and fearlessly consider the strength of the arguments advanced in support of the competing positions. We ask nothing more — but also nothing less — than that from readers of What is Marriage?


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