National Review / Digital
Marriage and Politics
Why the debate matters; why the conjugal view can prevail



Do young people tend to favor redefining marriage? Yes, though not by the margins many assume. To the extent that young people lack a solid understanding of the nature and social purpose of marriage, we have reason to redouble efforts to reeducate a generation of heirs to the sexual revolution’s ruins. We have no reason to give up on them, and no excuse for doing so.

Here we should take our cue from the pro-life movement, as one of us (RTA) argues in the Fall 2012 issue of the Human Life Review. In the years just after Roe, public opinion was breaking strongly for abortion. With each passing day another pro-life public figure — Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, Bill Clinton — evolved to embrace abortion on demand. Elites ridiculed pro-lifers as being on the wrong side of history. The pro-life ranks were aging; their children, increasingly against them.

But courageous pro-lifers put their hands to the plow, and today we reap the fruits. Pro-lifers have decisively won the intellectual battle on the humanity of the unborn child. Most Americans now oppose most abortions, and despite politicians’ blunders (as in the 2012 election), pro-life state laws are generally making great progress.

What happened? Besides the advent of the sonogram and other fortuitous factors, arguments, organizations, and strategies were developed. Similar work must now be done on the issue of marriage. Whatever the intelligentsia may say, only idleness can guarantee a political loss.

Taking this longer view, we like our chances. As young people settle down, marry, and have kids, they will develop greater appreciation for what makes a marriage, for the distinctiveness of husbands and wives, mothers and fathers. And if we are right about the likely harms of redefining marriage, then even a season of nationwide genderless marriage and its consequences would lead to a reassessment — just as no-fault divorce spawned the marriage movement a generation ago.

Why limit freedom in the name of sectarian values?

If this debate indeed is about which of two visions of marriage to enshrine, then neutrality (or equality) by itself can’t move us an inch toward requiring a redefinition of marriage. Neutrality can’t favor enshrining one substantive moral vision of marriage over another. And it’s clear that the revisionist view is indeed a substantive vision of marriage. The revisionist view still imposes some restrictions on what does and doesn’t count as a marriage. For example, it excludes what Newsweek tells us are America’s 500,000 multiple-partner (polyamorous) homes. Monogamy is just as much a standard as sexual complementarity.

But it isn’t just marriage policy that can’t be neutral. Settling other policies also requires controversial moral stances on issues where worldviews clash: affirmative action, abortion, assisted suicide, poverty relief, capital punishment, torture, and many more. That doesn’t mean that the state must keep silent on these matters; it hardly can. Instead it must work to get them right — which it’s likeliest to do if citizens explain the reasons for their views with clarity and candor.

In fact, though, our view of marriage isn’t ours in any sectarian sense. Something quite like it has been shared by the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions; by ancient Greek and Roman thinkers untouched by these religions; and by various Enlightenment philosophers. It is affirmed by the common and the civil law, and by ancient Greek and Roman law. And far from having been intended to exclude same-sex relationships, it arose in many places, over several centuries, in which same-sex marriage was nowhere on the radar. Indeed, it arose in cultures that had no concept of sexual orientation, and in some that fully accepted homoeroticism and even took it for granted.

Still, redefining the historic conception of marriage to include same-sex relationships will undermine both the rationale behind civil marriage and (based on evidence only touched upon here) the practice of marriage, as well as all the crucial goods that depend on it.

Of course, support for marriage between a man and a woman is no excuse for animus against those with same-sex attractions, or for ignoring the needs of individuals who may never marry, for whatever reason. They are no less worthy than others of concern and respect, and public policy should do what is necessary and proper to help their lives go well. But the same diligent concern for the common good requires protecting and strengthening the marriage culture, by promoting the truth about marriage.

– Mr. Girgis is a Yale Law School student and a doctoral student in philosophy at Princeton. Mr. Anderson is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a doctoral student in political science at Notre Dame. Mr. George is a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton. For more of their work on marriage, see

February 11, 2013    |     Volume LXV, No. 2

Books, Arts & Manners
  • Mackubin Thomas Owens reviews Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, by Max Boot.
  • Ronald Radosh reviews Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956, by Anne Applebaum.
  • David G. Dalin reviews Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism, by Gil Troy.
  • Robert VerBruggen reviews The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond.
  • Andrew Stuttaford reviews Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium, by Mark Edward.
  • Ross Douthat reviews Zero Dark Thirty.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .