Magazine | February 25, 2013, Issue

It’s Not about Bigotry

What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George (Encounter, 126 pp., $15.99)

‘What we have come to call the gay-marriage debate is not directly about homosexuality, but about marriage,” declare the authors of this timely polemic. Few advocates of same-sex marriage will believe it — because they have become wedded, as it were, to the concept that opposition to same-sex marriage is merely a form of bigotry.

Advocates for changing the marriage laws have the advantage of a simple plea with deep resonance for Americans. Gays and lesbians are asking, they say, for simple justice — that the state not withhold the “right” to marry purely on the grounds of sexual orientation. It is the latest iteration of the race analogy that has dominated liberal advocacy for decades. Women, Asians, illegal immigrants, Hispanics, the handicapped, and many other groups have laid claim to the race analogy and the civil-rights movement to press their claims for affirmative action and other benefits. Today, same-sex-marriage advocates argue that restricting marriage to male–female couples amounts to unconscionable bigotry. A state that declines to redefine marriage is discriminating against an entire class of people, as Jim Crow laws did.

The analogy is flawed, but the urge to correct mistreatment of homosexuals is a good one. Though gays haven’t suffered the degree of persecution that blacks endured, they have been subjected to often savage humiliation over the course of human history. There have been cultures and countries in which homosexuality carried no stigma. But the overwhelming majority of cultures, including our own, have treated this universal human variation with scorn and sometimes with cruelty.

Since the advent of AIDS, Americans have eschewed this casual contempt — a change that the authors of What Is Marriage? sincerely celebrate. It’s the next step — presenting same-sex marriage as the only possible answer to centuries of mistreatment — that the authors contend is a non sequitur. Sherif Girgis, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Princeton; Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton; and Ryan T. Anderson, William E. Simon Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, first issued this brief for traditional marriage as an article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. It is here expanded to book form, and responds to some of its most prominent critics.

The authors argue that it’s a category error to perceive or characterize the same-sex-marriage dispute as being about homosexuality or equality or invidious discrimination. Americans, highly sensitive to accusations of bias, are loath to oppose gay marriage if doing so is seen as an acknowledgment of bigotry. Same-sex-marriage advocates, dubbed the “revisionists” by the authors, perceive marriage to be primarily the seal of an emotional union between two individuals. The authors acknowledge that this is consistent with the drift of the culture generally, but they deny that love is the essence of marriage. If marriage is merely the seal of love, then when love fades, the marriage will as well. The authors urge that “conjugal marriage” should be the standard — a comprehensive union of two individuals, body and mind, that uniquely brings forth new life. Coitus, they suggest, is essential to the union of bodies and lives: “Being organically united — as ‘one flesh’ — spouses should have, by commitment, the exclusive and lifelong unity that the parts of a healthy organic body have by nature. Their mind-body union is ordered to the comprehensive good of rearing new members of the human family — their children — an open-ended task calling for the coordination of their whole lives, which in turn requires undivided commitment.”

“If marriage is primarily about emotional union,” they ask, “why privilege two-person unions, or permanently committed ones? What is it about emotional union that requires these limits?”

#page#Girgis, George, and Anderson do not deny that the revisionist view of marriage is making headway. In fact, that’s the problem: They oppose same-sex marriage precisely because it furthers what they regard as a harmful, undermining interpretation of marriage. “As more people absorb the law’s lesson that marriage is fundamentally about emotions, marriages will increasingly take on emotion’s tyrannical inconstancy.”

There is as well a nagging worry about the true aims of the revisionists. Do they truly desire only to share in bourgeois domesticity, marrying their partners for life and raising adopted kids together? Or do they seek to change marriage laws only to achieve a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for same-sex unions, while planning to reshape marriage to other priorities?

Andrew Sullivan, one of the originators of the argument that gays who seek marriage are pursuing a conservative goal, i.e., to join the traditional family in a new way, has suggested that homosexual marriages might not be quite so strict about monogamy. This “openness,” he contends, strengthens rather than weakens relationships: “Same-sex unions often incorporate the virtues of friendship more effectively than traditional marriages; and at times, among gay male relationships, the openness of the contract makes it more likely to survive than many heterosexual bonds. . . . There is more likely to be greater understanding of the need for extramarital outlets between two men than between a man and a woman.”

More than 300 LGBT scholars and advocates, including Ivy League professors, issued a manifesto titled “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage” that calls for the legal recognition of relationships with more than two people. There are currently half a million Americans who report such relationships.

Conjugal marriage, a mountain of statistics confirms, is the best framework for raising happy and healthy children. Society accordingly has a strong interest in teaching that conjugal marriage is ideal and ought to be the norm. The option of same-sex marriage, the authors argue, will teach that there is no ideal, and this will continue to undermine the norm. All of the cultural assumptions about what marriage should be — man and woman, monogamous, and permanent — are weakened if one of the assumptions is.

The authors have treated the revisionists’ arguments with sensitivity and respect. In a very short space, they’ve covered a lot of moral, philosophical, and political ground. They’ve done it with keen logic, clear writing, and the civilized hope that they will not be misunderstood. A bit more attention to the damage that our culture had already done to marriage before same-sex advocates entered the picture would have been welcome.

Political and cultural trends appear to be against traditional marriage. Whereas before November 2012 same-sex marriage had been imposed only by judges or legislators, it has now been freely chosen by the voters of four states. Thirty states rejected such initiatives in the past, but public opinion is clearly moving in the revisionists’ direction. Particularly among voters aged 18 to 34, support for legalizing same-sex marriage has mushroomed. Seventy percent of that cohort expressed support in 2011, and the numbers continue to rise.

It’s a safe bet that most of those Americans think that opposition to same-sex marriage can’t arise out of anything but prejudice. What Is Marriage? offers a clear and carefully reasoned rebuttal.

– Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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