The Corner

Beware the ‘Science’ of Same-Sex Marriage

Andy Ferguson is excellent, highlighting an amicus brief filed by Leon Kass and Harvey Mansfield:

Marriage is many things, all at once—much more than a simple mechanism for stability between husband and wife. The institution that social science has been studying so exhaustively for so many years is of a singular kind, with singular features. It is an ancient practice grooved by tradition and myth, shaped by social expectations as old as civilization. It arises from the natural sexual complementarity of woman and man, and formalizes the possibility of procreation and the renewal of life. 

There’s no way of knowing what combination of these singular features of marriage confers which of its demonstrated advantages, culturally and psychologically. We do know, however, that if the state suddenly creates the institution of gay marriage by fiat, the result will lack most of the features that make marriage unique—and uniquely beneficial. It will not be the same institution that has won the unanimous endorsement of social scientists. It will be a novel and revolutionary institution owing its existence to the devaluation of an old and settled one. Should we assume that the former will confer the same social and personal benefits as the latter, the two being different in such fundamental ways? The only honest answer—the only intellectually respectable answer—is, Who knows?

Which brings us back to the central point that Mansfield and Kass make in their compelling brief: We don’t know what the consequences of gay marriage will be. (We do suspect that such a thing will be less socially divisive if enacted by popular will than by the say-so of judges.) Social science is all but mute on the subject and will have nothing useful to tell us for decades. Lacking objective evidence, suspicious of a rising political hysteria, wary of hidden motives, and unmoved by social blackmail, we would do well to submit to humility, deference, discretion, modesty—all those virtues that conservatives are said to prize. If nothing else, these should be sufficient to stay the judges’ hand, and to let the people themselves decide, if a decision must be made, when or whether tradition is to be disowned.

I do worry some conservatives, with the best of intentions, are letting themselves be bullied into picking a side when, at the very least, caution is called for. 

That humility point, too, strikes me as important. The most compelling argument advocates of same-sex marriage have is what lousy stewards we’ve been of the institution. Expand it, it is argued, and it will be strengthened. But, as Andy points out, we are now talking about something fundamentally different when we are saying marriage is no longer between a man and a woman. We absolutely need to work to strengthen marriage. Changing its nature doesn’t seem the most obvious way to do so. 

The Heritage Foundation has been doing some excellent work making the case for the defense of marriage. Here Ryan Anderson speaks to conservatives in particular (based in part on the argument he advances with Robert P. George and Sherif Girgis in What Is Marriage?):

Marriage exists to bring a man and a woman together as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children their union produces. It is based on the anthropological truth that men and women are different and complementary, on the biological fact that reproduction depends on a man and a woman, and on the social reality that children need a mother and a father. Marriage has public purposes that transcend its private purposes.

Marriage predates government. It is the fundamental building block of all human civilization. All Americans, especially conservatives, should respect this crucial institution of civil society. This is why 41 states, with good reason, affirm that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Government recognizes marriage because it is an institution that benefits society in a way that no other relationship does. Marriage is society’s least restrictive means to ensure the well-being of children. State recognition of marriage protects children by encouraging men and women to commit to each other and take responsibility for their children. While respecting everyone’s liberty, government rightly recognizes, protects, and promotes marriage as the ideal institution for childbearing and childrearing.

Redefining marriage would further distance marriage from the needs of children. It would deny as a matter of policy the ideal that a child needs a mom and a dad. We know that children tend to do best when raised by a mother and a father. The confusion resulting from further delinking childbearing from marriage would force the state to intervene more often in family life and cause welfare programs to grow even more.

In recent years marriage has been weakened by a revisionist view that is more about adults’ desires than children’s needs. Redefining marriage represents the culmination of this revisionism: Emotional intensity would be the only thing left to set marriage apart from other kinds of relationships. Redefining marriage would put a new principle into the law—that marriage is whatever emotional bond the government says it is.

Redefining marriage to abandon the norm of male-female sexual complementarity would also make other essential characteristics—such as monogamy, exclusivity, and permanency—optional. But marriage can’t do the work that society needs it to do if these norms are further weakened. All Americans, especially conservatives who care about thriving civil society capable of limiting the state, should be alarmed.

Redefining marriage is a direct and demonstrated threat to religious freedom that marginalizes those who affirm marriage as the union of a man and a woman. We have already seen this in neighboring Canada and right here in places such as Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.

What should the Supreme Court do? The Supreme Court should not usurp democratic authority from citizens and their elected officials.



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