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



In our new book What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, we make a rational case for the historic understanding of marriage as a conjugal relationship — a union of a man and a woman at every level (mind, heart, and body), inherently oriented to family life. We show how the common good depends on enshrining this view in law, and answer all the most significant criticisms of this view (having to do with equality, freedom, neutrality, interracial marriage, infertile couples, and much more). We show how the argument for redefining marriage contradicts itself, and document the many ways that embracing it would harm the common good. And we show how society can support marriage without ignoring the needs, undermining the dignity, or curbing the fulfillment of people with same-sex attractions.

Here, we respond to some challenges that even those sympathetic to our views might raise: Why worry about same-sex marriage in particular? Why worry about marriage policy? If marriage policy does matter, why not “broaden the definition” of marriage to promote family values? How would recognizing same-sex relationships as marriages harm marriage? Isn’t ours a losing cause, or at best a secondary one? And why privilege anyone’s sectarian values at all — doesn’t that compromise freedom and equality? We address each of these questions in turn.

Why focus on opposing the recognition of same-sex partnerships as marriages? Aren’t widespread divorce and single parenting the real problems?

Why do conservatives focus exclusively on same-sex marriage? The answer is simple: We don’t. Conservatives always did, and still do, make other social and political efforts to strengthen the marriage culture. The push to redefine marriage was brought to us. We don’t know a single person involved in this effort who wouldn’t rather focus on something else. But now that this is the live debate, we can’t ignore it, for its outcome will have wider effects on the marriage culture that really is our main concern.

Long before the debate over same-sex marriage, a “marriage movement” was launched to explain why marriage was good for husbands and wives faithful to its demands, for their children, and for society more broadly.

Prominent articles, such as “Dan Quayle Was Right,” Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s cover story for The Atlantic in 1993, tallied the high social costs of family fragmentation. The next decade saw the emergence of organizations such as Mike and Harriet McManus’s Marriage Savers and policies such as the Bush administration’s Healthy Marriage Initiative. The targets of these and countless other initiatives were high divorce and cohabitation rates and the rising birth rate among unmarried women. Same-sex relationships weren’t on anyone’s radar.

It was in this marriage movement that Maggie Gallagher, today’s leading opponent of redefining marriage, was active throughout the 1980s and ’90s. She wrote books documenting the sexual revolution’s damage to “family, marriage, and sex” and making “the case for marriage” as a better arrangement for couples than cohabitation. One of us (RPG) joined her in the ’80s after witnessing the havoc wrought by the collapsing marriage culture in his native Appalachia. (The other two of us were busy gestating or learning to read.) None of this was about gay anything.

Though the Defense of Marriage Act was passed in 1996, the question of whether to redefine marriage to eliminate sexual complementarity didn’t take center stage until 2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court created a constitutional right to recognition of same-sex partnerships as marriages. By then, the marriage movement’s leaders had no choice. They had to decide: Would recognizing same-sex relationships as marriages strengthen the marriage culture or further weaken it?

They concluded that same-sex marriage was not ultimately about expanding the pool of American couples eligible to marry. It was about cementing a new idea of marriage into the law — the very idea whose baleful effects they had spent years fighting. That idea, that romantic and emotional union is all that makes a marriage, could not explain (as anything other than sentiment or personal preference) or support the stabilizing norms of permanence, monogamy, and sexual exclusivity that make marriage fitting for family life. It could only weaken them.

Indeed, it had already begun to do so. Disastrous policies such as no-fault divorce were motivated by the idea that a marriage is made by romantic attachment and satisfaction — and comes undone when these fade. The marriage movement’s leaders knew that to keep any footing for rebuilding the marriage culture, they had to fight the formal and final redefinition of marriage as essentially romantic companionship.


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  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .