If it is true, as we are constantly told, that American law will soon redefine marriage to accommodate same-sex partnerships, the proximate cause for this development will not be that public opinion favors it, although it appears to be moving in that direction. It will be that the most influential Americans, particularly those in law and the media, have been coming increasingly to regard opposition to same-sex marriage as irrational at best and bigoted at worst. They therefore dismiss expressions of that opposition, even when voiced by a majority in a progressive state, as illegitimate. Judges who believe that same-sex marriage is obviously just and right can easily find ways to read their views into constitutions, to the applause of the like-minded.
The emerging elite consensus in favor of same-sex marriage has an element of self-delusion about it. It denies that same-sex marriage would work a radical change in American law or society, insisting to the contrary that within a few years of its triumph everyone will wonder what all the fuss was about. But its simultaneous insistence that opponents are the moral equivalent of the white supremacists of yesteryear belies these bland assurances. Our tolerance for racism is quite limited: The government, while it generally respects the relevant constitutional limits, is active in the cause of marginalizing racists and eradicating racist beliefs and behaviors. Moreover, social sanctions against racism, both overt and implied, are robust. If our society is truly to regard opposition to same-sex marriage as equivalent to racism, it will have to undergo change both dramatic and extensive. Churches that object, for example, will have to be put in the same cultural position as Bob Jones University was in the days when it banned interracial dating, until they too join the consensus.
If proponents of same-sex marriage thought through these implications, their confidence might evaporate, for it seems highly unlikely that this project will succeed at all, and impossible that it will do so without decades of arduous and divisive social “reform.” That is no reason to shrink from the task, if it is truly a just one. But we should first consider whether the historic and cross-cultural understanding of marriage as the union of a man and a woman really has so little to be said for it.
We think that there is quite a bit to be said for it: that it is true, vitally true. But it is a truth so long accepted that it is no longer well understood. Both the fact that we are debating same-sex marriage and the way that debate has progressed suggest that many of us have lost sight of why marriage exists in the first place as a social institution and a matter of public policy. One prominent supporter of same-sex marriage says that the purpose of marriage is to express and safeguard an emotional union of adults; another says that its purpose is to make it more likely that people will have others to give them care in sickness and old age.
So at the risk of awkwardness, we must talk about the facts of life. It is true that marriage is, in part, an emotional union, and it is also true that spouses often take care of each other and thereby reduce the caregiving burden on other people. But neither of these truths is the fundamental reason for marriage. The reason marriage exists is that the sexual intercourse of men and women regularly produces children. If it did not produce children, neither society nor the government would have much reason, let alone a valid reason, to regulate people’s emotional unions. (The government does not regulate non-marital friendships, no matter how intense they are.) If mutual caregiving were the purpose of marriage, there would be no reason to exclude adult incestuous unions from marriage. What the institution and policy of marriage aims to regulate is sex, not love or commitment. These days, marriage regulates sex (to the extent it does regulate it) in a wholly non-coercive manner, sex outside of marriage no longer being a crime.
Marriage exists, in other words, to solve a problem that arises from sex between men and women but not from sex between partners of the same gender: what to do about its generativity. It has always been the union of a man and a woman (even in polygamous marriages in which a spouse has a marriage with each of two or more persons of the opposite sex) for the same reason that there are two sexes: It takes one of each type in our species to perform the act that produces children. That does not mean that marriage is worthwhile only insofar as it yields children. (The law has never taken that view.) But the institution is oriented toward child-rearing. (The law has taken exactly that view.) What a healthy marriage culture does is encourage adults to arrange their lives so that as many children as possible are raised and nurtured by their biological parents in a common household.