The Corner

Marriage and the Presidency

At least President Obama is not dissembling anymore about his views on marriage. And even though we consider his support of redefining marriage a deep error, he has done the nation a favor by revealing the truth about his position. So did the vice president, days earlier, when he opined about “the simple proposition” that “this is all about” — “what all marriages, at their root, are about.” That is, the administration has created a long-awaited and much-needed platform for a national discussion of the core issue in the debate: What is marriage?

Consider two competing views:

The Historic View

Marriage as a comprehensive union: Joining spouses in body as well as mind, it is begun by commitment and sealed by sexual intercourse. So completed in the acts by which new life is made, it is specially apt for and deepened by procreation, and calls for that broad sharing of domestic life uniquely fit for family life. Uniting spouses in these all-encompassing ways, it also calls for all-encompassing commitment: permanent and exclusive. Comprehensive union is valuable in itself, but its link to children’s welfare makes marriage a public good that the state should recognize, support, and in certain ways regulate. Call this the conjugal view of marriage.

The Revisionist View

Marriage as the union of two people who commit to romantic partnership and domestic life: essentially an emotional union, merely enhanced by whatever sexual activity partners find agreeable. Such committed romantic unions are seen as valuable while emotion lasts. The state recognizes them because it has an interest in their stability, and in the needs of spouses and any children they choose to rear. Call this the revisionist view of marriage.

President Obama has made it clear that he favors the second view. He hasn’t offered any arguments for it, merely pointing to his feelings and those of his children.

#more#In our forthcoming book, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, we argue that the conjugal conception of marriage is not only the one long embodied in Western law and culture; it is also, by a sizable margin, rationally more defensible. President Obama and his allies can now join this discussion by backing their intuitions with arguments — if they can.

Now that the president has disclosed his view, he — like all revisionists — must confront some tough questions. And he, like they, will run into a problem. Something must set marriages as a class apart from other bonds. But on every point where most agree that marriage is different, the conjugal view has a coherent explanation — and the revisionist has none.

President Obama, like most, surely thinks that marriage is inherently a sexual union. But why must it be, if sex contributes to marriage only by fostering and expressing emotional intimacy? Non-sexual bonding activities can do that. Why can’t the tender platonic bond of two sisters be a deep emotional union, and therefore a marriage? Or, if marriage is primarily about the concrete legal benefits — of hospital visitation, or inheritance rights — should these benefits be denied two cohabiting sisters just because their bond can’t legally be sexual? To all this, the conjugal view has an answer.

Again, if marriage is essentially about emotions and shared domestic experience, why should it be limited to two people? Newsweek says the U.S. has half a million polyamorous households — where emotions and experiences are shared with multiple partners. Surely three people can be emotionally united, and some say that the variety of polyamory fulfills them as the consistency of monogamy can’t. So if marriage is about emotional fulfillment, why stop at two? The conjugal view has an answer.

Finally, if marriage is distinguished just by being a person’s deepest bond, her number one relationship, why should the state get involved at all in what basically amounts to the legal regulation of tenderness? The conjugal view has an answer. The revisionist has none.

Indeed, our recently candid president should note that the more candid, and consistent, revisionists have long accepted these points. Years ago, 300 prominent scholars and activists signed a statement arguing that we should recognize polyamorous and multiple-household sexual relationships. These activists agree that making sexual complementarity optional would make all its other norms arbitrary — and therefore unjust to leave intact. We only disagree on whether this top-to-bottom dismantling of the institution of marriage would be a good or a bad thing.

The president has now created a platform for this very discussion; and it is a discussion we look forward to having. For as Obama himself implied, this is not a dispute featuring “bigots” on one side, any more than it has “perverts” on the other. It is a debate of reasonable people of goodwill who disagree about the nature of the most basic unit of society. In saying that he supports letting states decide the definition of marriage for themselves, Obama indicated that this issue shouldn’t be settled by judicial fiat. On this, we agree. Our national conversation shouldn’t be brought to an undemocratically abrupt end. But as it continues, advocates on all sides must contend with, and answer, the central question in this debate, without which we can’t know the what or the why of legal recognition, much less what justice demands: What is marriage?

— Ryan T. Anderson is editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, N.J. Robert P. George is McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. Sherif Girgis, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Princeton University and a law student at Yale, is a research scholar at the Witherspoon Institute.

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