Magazine | July 30, 2012, Issue

The Marriage Mess

Debating Same-Sex Marriage, by John Corvino and Maggie Gallagher (Oxford, 296 pp., $16.95)

The debate over whether to recognize same-sex relationships as marriages is among the most sensitive, difficult, and important in American public life. Sensitive, because it addresses real people’s happiness, and provokes strong emotions. Difficult, because it occurs between reasonable people of good will with different visions of the common good, in a culture already long confused about marriage and sexuality. Important, because the family is society’s foundation.

John Corvino and Maggie Gallagher know this, which is why their arguments on marriage are so measured, reasonable, and persuasive — despite their own profound disagreement. Corvino, a philosophy professor at Wayne State University, favors recognizing same-sex relationships as marriages. Gallagher, founder of the National Organization for Marriage, favors retaining civil marriage as the union of man and woman. Both are friends of mine, and both mention (critically and appreciatively) my writings on marriage with Sherif Girgis and Robert P. George.

The authors seek to “achieve disagreement”: to understand precisely where and why they differ, a rare feat “in the face of a sometimes ugly division.” And in 100 pages each of positive arguments, and 20 pages each of replies, they do just that. The total effect is to give readers a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments, without the usual spike in blood pressure.

Corvino opens with a poignant description of a “gay wedding” (his term) between “Boyd and Josh” to highlight the human consequences of the debate. A marriage, he argues, is “when people in love commit to building a life together.” He submits that “were it not for the absence of a bride, you’d have a hard time distinguishing the scene from any other wedding.”

While he addresses legal effects, Corvino’s main concern is with the social meaning of marriage. His account is quite good, although incomplete. Marriage, he says, is about sustaining, not just celebrating love — and not just the “stomach butterflies” kind, but the love that “keeps you up all night” tending to a sick spouse: “True love is challenging. It is not a mere feeling, but an ongoing activity.” Marriage is to help sustain “that kind of steady, enduring love even as romantic bliss waxes and wanes.” Regardless of their sex, Corvino argues, “such love is good for people, and society has an interest in promoting, honoring, and reinforcing it.” It establishes your “Number One Person,” that “special someone” whom “you will come home to at night, wake up with in the morning, and share life’s joys, sorrows, and challenges with.” Corvino calls this the “‘mutual lifelong caregiving’ rationale.”

He admits that children’s well-being is “a supremely important rationale for marriage,” but denies that it is “the sole important rationale.” He cites data, some from Gallagher’s writings, on how marriage benefits spouses. Indeed, he suggests, marriage benefits children and society by first promoting mutual care-giving: “The myriad benefits of marriage accrue largely because it is an exclusive, presumptively lifelong, mutually supporting partnership.” For these reasons, he thinks, we should try to promote it for as many as possible.

Corvino intelligently responds to many now-standard arguments against his view, but his academic training gets the best of him. He too frequently engages in philosophical logic-chopping, chiding his opponents for lack of technical rigor while failing to appreciate the main arcs of their arguments.

Gallagher sees this, too: “Advocates for gay marriage, with but very few exceptions, literally do not understand the arguments opposing it.” Some of this is intentional, as “it serves their core myth” that “opposition to gay marriage is based on bigotry — irrational hatred.” But much of it is not intentional. In the wake of the damage to marriage inflicted by heterosexuals, same-sex marriage follows a certain logic. Gallagher does not “blame gay men (or women)” for this, but says it’s no reason to double down on the sexual revolution’s follies.

#page#Gallagher regrets that “an idea about marriage that has been incarnated over and over again in diverse human societies — marriage is a sexual union of male and female oriented toward connecting fathers to mothers and their children — is now apparently unintelligible, especially to many in the intelligentsia.” She seeks to explain how even people who “fully embrace respect for gay people in civil society nonetheless stubbornly resist the idea that same-sex unions are marriages.” After all, “stopping gay marriage is not victory, it is only a necessary step to the ultimate victory: the strengthening of a culture of marriage that successfully connects sex, love, children, and mothers and fathers.”

That connection explains why the government deals with marriage in the first place. Marriage is a social institution that helps unite goods and persons that would otherwise split apart, at great social cost: “The critical public or ‘civil’ task of marriage is to regulate sexual relationships between men and women in order to reduce the likelihood that children (and their mothers, and society) will face the burdens of fatherlessness, and increase the likelihood that there will be a next generation that will be raised by their mothers and fathers in one family, where both parents are committed to each other and to their children.”

Gallagher doesn’t say this to denigrate other relationships, but to stress that not every loving, care-giving relationship is a marriage. Marriage has its distinct contours and norms in part because of its social function. And reluctance to recognize same-sex relationships as marriages reflects a conviction “that our traditional vision of marriage is true, good, and just — that marriage understood in that way deserves its unique legal and cultural status because it is rooted in real and enduring differences between marriage and other relationships.”

Gallagher also fears that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will cause harm: not immediately, but over time, as it shapes culture. For one thing, the particular logic of the contemporary same-sex-marriage movement, premised as it is on “marriage equality,” brands as bigots those who see differences between same- and opposite-sex relationships. Taking her opponents’ words at face value, Gallagher argues that cultural stigma and legal penalties will await those who continue to argue that children need married moms and dads.

She notes that the traditional norms of marriage — monogamy, sexual exclusivity, and permanence — make less sense once marriage is no longer bridging the gender divide and is severed from its orientation to procreation. Why should same-sex and opposite-sex relationships be governed by the same rules? Gallagher cites studies showing that people in same-sex relationships report less of an interest in and satisfaction from such norms: An expert witness in favor of gay marriage in the Proposition 8 case, for example, testified that “for gay men there’s no association between sexual exclusivity and the satisfaction of the relationship.” Gallagher fears that those norms, instead of shaping same-sex relationships, will simply be further weakened, leading to more non-marital childbearing and less satisfaction among opposite-sex spouses. (Indeed, same-sex-marriage advocates such as Dan Savage have already proposed greater acceptance of the idea of “open” marriage.)

Corvino offers a rather weak defense of monogamy: “Only one person can be your ‘Number One Person.’” Gallagher offers a bit more: “Because sexual unions of male and female produce children, the rules and norms that govern them are different from other kinds of unions.”

#page#Finally, Gallagher thinks that anyone who takes marriage seriously as a child-protecting institution should proceed with caution before redefining the institution and changing the cultural message that it sends. It’s true that some same-sex couples have kids, and Gallagher calculates that about “one-fifth of one-eighth of one percent of children in America might experience a benefit from gay marriage, assuming it stabilized their parent’s union more than private commitment ceremonies or civil unions.” But before we embark on such a vast social experiment to benefit such a small population, she argues, the “burden of proof” should be on those who would redefine the institution to show that it wouldn’t obscure the central function of marriage, and thus have a negative effect in the broader society.

On this issue, Corvino makes the mistake of too eagerly embracing the results of preliminary social science: “Children raised in same-sex households fare just as well as their peers on standard measurements of health and well-being.” He appeals to a statement by the American Psychological Association for support. But earlier this summer, two important peer-reviewed articles were published that seriously call into question the value of the previous social science on same-sex parenting. One showed that none of the studies that the APA relied on used random, representative, or longitudinal samples. And when a representative sample was drawn, the results continued to suggest that children do best when reared by their married biological mother and father. (Gallagher makes a similar point about the scientific literature: “We have not a single study of ‘planned motherless families.’ We have zero scientific information on how children fare raised by single gay dads, or two gay dads.”)

Long before there was a debate about same-sex marriage, there was a debate about marriage. It spawned a “marriage movement,” and Gallagher was one of its leaders. Author of several books and reports on this subject throughout the Eighties and Nineties, Gallagher wanted to explain why marriage was good for the men and women who abided by its norms and the children reared within its confines. Same-sex relationships weren’t on her radar screen. Her concern, like that of most of the leading scholars and activists on that side of the marriage debate today, was much broader than same-sex relationships.

The rationale that leads them to reject premarital sex and the hookup culture, cohabitation and non-marital childbearing, and divorce and extramarital affairs also leads them to reject same-sex marriage. They don’t see how same-sex relationships, whatever their other merits, can be marriages, nor how recognizing them as such could strengthen the marriage culture. Instead, they see the logic of redefinition as driving a final nail in the coffin of marriage as a normative ideal uniting sex, family life, and permanently exclusive commitment. Same-sex marriage cements a view of marriage based solely on adult desire — hardly a solid foundation for the kind of families that children and society need in order to flourish.

Support for man-woman marriage is no excuse for animus against people with same-sex attractions, or for ignoring the needs of people who may never marry for whatever reason. They are no less worthy than others of concern and respect, and public policy should do what it can to help their lives go well. Still, Gallagher is correct that because “sex makes babies, society needs babies, and children need mothers and fathers,” the law should specially support the union of man and woman known as marriage.

– Mr. Anderson is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and an author, with Sherif Girgis and Robert P. George, of the forthcoming book What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (Encounter).

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