The Necessity of Redefining Marriage

Ben Witherington has recently commented on a CNN article which lays out, in my opinion, perhaps the strongest case against gay marriage from a strictly secular standpoint. I mention Witherington rather than going directly to the article because he includes many theological considerations which readers here are likely to find interesting. My main concern, however, is the argument of Robert P. George and Sherif Girgis.

Marriage is far more than your emotional bond with “your Number One person,” to quote same-sex marriage proponent John Corvino. Just as the act that makes marital love also makes new life, so marriage itself is a multilevel — bodily as well as emotional — union that would be fulfilled by procreation and family life. That is what justifies its distinctive norms — monogamy, exclusivity, permanence — and the concept of marital consummation by conjugal intercourse.

…All human beings are equal in dignity and should be equal before the law. But equality only forbids arbitrary distinctions. And there is nothing arbitrary about maximizing the chances that children will know the love of their biological parents in a committed and exclusive bond. A strong marriage culture serves children, families and society by encouraging the ideal of giving kids both a mom and a dad.

Seated Girl in Icelandic Bridal GownThe authors make a compelling observation that, legally, marriage does much more than standardize a primary relationship (e.g. defaulting who ought to be your medical proxy or to whom your possession belong in the event of your death). If this was its sole function, there would be no need for the legal structure which has been built up around marriage, one which institutionalizes matters of monogamy, sexual exclusivity, and permanence. If it were about formalizing a person’s primary affective attachment, it should be as easy to change as a will and open to the possibility of multiple equal levels of attachment. Which it isn’t; at least not legally.

In fact, American culture has largely done away with these pillars of marital theory, particularly permanence. It is not quite as easy to change a spouse as it is to change a beneficiary in your will, but it is done with strikingly more regularity nonetheless. Sexual exclusivity is eroding with a startlingly rapidity, so that primary relationships which have not yet been formalized are rarely assumed to be sexually exclusive and even married persons have a wealth of ways to violate the bounds of sexual exclusivity with impunity. (Someone care to look up statistics about the use of pornography by married men?) Only monogamy remains largely uncontested both legally and culturally, although the authors do point out the swelling phenomenon of polyamory.

The solution seems to me to require a redefinition of marriage rather than a feigned conservative defense of the grand old institution. The heterosexual marriage characterized by monogamy, fidelity, and permanence exists more as a convenient fiction than a staid bulwark against social decay. If we care about a definition of marriage that includes these principles than a cultural redefinition of marriage is in order, one that would accord with and allow for the revitalization of marriage laws. If, however, we recognize the cultural shift behind which the law has lagged, then the legal redefinition of marriage seems to be in order, not only to exclude the heterosexual requirement, but also all laws which are artifacts of a time when marriage was permanent, monogamous, and exclusive.

My preference has, traditionally, been for the latter, but only because it divorces what is legal from what is ethical in a way that neatly accords with my view of the world. More to the point, short of a spontaneous, universal, and enduring cultural revolution that recaptures the historic conception of marriage, changing the law to reflect culture seems to be the prudent course.

(None of which, of course, comments at all on the permissibility of homosexuality in Christian ethics.)

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5 thoughts on “The Necessity of Redefining Marriage

  1. We do not all need the same understanding of marriage, any more than we all need to hold to the same idea of family. Gay people feel betrayed by the partner going elsewhere just as straight people do; gay people benefit from exclusivity and permanence, and social support for these. Straight people marry without the ability or intention of having children. We have an ideal- life long commitment- and though some people cannot live up to it, the ideal is still there.

    • We may not all need the same understanding of marriage culturally, but it does certainly tend toward social cohesion. We do need the same understanding of marriage legally, at least within a single, sovereign territory.

      Anyway, I don’t think there point was that homosexuals do not benefit from permanence or exclusivity, but that the legal enshrinement of those principles speaks to a larger social utility of marriage which preferences heterosexual couples. My point was that there is a disconnect between the definition of marriage which those legal principles evince and the one which our cultural practices evince.

  2. What do you think of the basis of Equalities legislation? If gay people may be dismissed or refused access to services because they are gay, this makes them second class citizens and is a bad thing. Do you think gay people being second class citizens tends to social cohesion?

    We do not need the same legal understanding. English law has “judicial separation” on the same grounds as divorce, but the couple remain married. So a couple can decide that their marriage is life-long, though their partnership is not. And where polygamy is enshrined in law, for example Bangladesh, some people are monogamous. It is permissive not required.

    Your “social utility” preferences not heterosexual couples per se, but couples who intend to have children and do. Yet we permit marriage for those who don’t or can’t.

    • “Do you think gay people being second class citizens tends to social cohesion?”

      A tiered social hierarchy has and is used as a means of social ordering, which, from a historical perspective saps much of the rhetorical force from this question. More to the point, however, in our egalitarian society, having “second-class citizens” clearly does not tend toward social cohesion. But that was more or less my point. We do not have a unified cultural definition of marriage (or else we wouldn’t be arguing about it), ergo our social cohesion suffers.

      As for the arguments about different legal understandings, you have not demonstrated that either Bangladesh or the UK have diverse and contradictory notions of marriage enshrined in law. Bangladesh, going off your statement, has a single legal definition of marriage which is expansive enough to include monogamy and polygamy. What we have in the States right now is two groups trying to enshrine two contradictory notions of marriage in national law. It’s not possible. If all people are equal before and subject to the same law (as I presume is your hope and the hope of all advocates for gay marriage), then there can only be the one self-consistent law for everyone.

      Meanwhile, you “what about couples who can’t have children” argument is as tired as it is irrelevant here. We are not talking about the actuality of reproduction, just parsing the government interest in marriage. The social utility of marriage is tied to its historical tendency to be the locus of reproduction. The state has no interest in legitimating your love connection, but it does have an interest in formalizing the social structures most likely to propagate the nation. Heterosexual marriage does that. Homosexual marriage does not.

      And for all that pious vitriol, you can see in the conclusion of the main post that my typical response to the gay marriage issue is that the state needs to remove vestiges of a more traditional, utilitarian understanding of marriage, and adapt the law to suit the needs of our present culture (something that lawmakers ought always be flexible enough to do). I’m not opposed to gay marriage as a legal principle. You’re arguing with the choir.

      • Oh, don’t be so harsh on yourself. I don’t think your post was pious vitriol. Not all of it, anyway.

        Has marriage ever been “permanent, monogamous and exclusive” without exception? There have always been affairs, marriages in name only without love, couples separating. There have been violent husbands with wives unable to escape. I think there is benefit in law enshrining an ideal. Still, some couples stay together life long. And, if gay marriages are recognised, more of those couples will be married!

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