Well, the year started with a sudden sense that it might be in Illinois, and quickly. But the effort is stalled. For now. No thanks to the chairman of the state Republican party, who put his “full support” behind the legalization push.
The question we should be asking ourselves at this time in our history is not What is the future of marriage? It is: What are we doing, what are we going to do?
That’s paraphrased from a presentation Ryan Anderson gave at the Heritage Foundation on the question, “What is marriage?” As a fact, as a public policy issue, as the rock of civil society.
Why do government and law have a stake in marriage and a marriage culture? Because everything depends on the institution of marriage, Princeton’s Robert P. George points out.
For almost two centuries, equality before the law had been denied to Americans of African descent; that blatant injustice was challenged by a movement of moral persuasion and legal maneuver; the movement was ultimately vindicated by a change of hearts, minds, and statutes. If then, on matters of race, why not now, on the question of who can marry? That’s the argument; it has considerable emotive power.
But it’s wrong.
In their recent book, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (Encounter Books), three Catholic thinkers with Princeton connections—Robert P. George (who holds Woodrow Wilson’s old chair at that eminent university) and two of his former students, Sherif Girgis and Ryan Anderson—argue persuasively, and on grounds of reason, that America can’t arrive at a serious answer to this question—Should government redefine marriage to include same-sex partnerships?—by appealing to equality.
Why not? Because every marriage policy in every polity known to history draws boundaries, excluding some types of relationships from marriage. Parents can’t marry their children. Brothers and sisters can’t marry. People beneath a certain age can’t marry. People who are already married can’t marry.
In other words, governments, whether autocratic, aristocratic, monarchical, or democratic, have always “discriminated”—i.e., made distinctions—in their marriage laws. And in that sense, there is no “equality” issue in marriage law similar to the equality that racial minorities rightly sought, and won, in the civil rights movement.
If marriage law is always going to involve distinctions, the moral (and legal/constitutional) question is whether the distinction inflicts a discrimination that is arbitrary or invidious. Or does the distinction inhere in the very nature of marriage and serve a genuine public good? In twenty-first-century post-modern culture, it’s hard to make an argument from the “nature” of anything. Try this, though. When the November 2, 2012, issue of Entertainment Weekly refers to Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner as “the husband of Entertainment Weekly columnist Mark Harris,” aren’t you jarred? Doesn’t something seem, not just unfamiliar, but mistaken? Do you have the same instinctive reaction—Something’s awry here—when reading a London Daily Mail headline from last October 23: “Ellen Degeneres receives comedy award as her gorgeous wife Portia De Rossi looks on”?
For millennia, governments have legally recognized the nature of “marriage” as the stable union of a man and a woman, both because that’s what it is and for good public policy reasons, including the well-being of children and the promotion of family life. Does that recognition involve distinctions? Yes. Does it result in injustice? No.
For a little focus, here’s an excerpt from Professor George’s remarks:
There is no conceivable way that you can maintain limited government, economic growth, the rule of law, the preservation of democratic self-government “while letting the institution of the family erode and collapse, letting the marriage culture go the way of the dodo bird. . . . Everything depends on marriage, because marriage is the fundamental unit of society, the original and best department of health education and welfare, supplying what every other institution in society needs — depends on — for its own flourishing but which none of those institutions can provide for themselves.”
We avoid taking the “social issues” seriously at our own risk.