The Wisdom of Upholding Tradition

21 November 2012

There is a reason why conjugal unions have been distinguished from all others since antiquity.
The Wall Street Journal 20 Nov 2012
The U.S. Supreme Court decides next week whether to hear challenges to laws defining marriage as the conjugal union of a man and a woman. It does so after two different electoral outcomes. In May, North Carolinians voted to amend their state constitution to protect the conjugal definition of marriage, a definition that 41 states retain. But on Nov. 6, voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington state endorsed a revisionist view of marriage as the union of any two adults.

How should the Supreme Court decide? How should voters?

We can’t move one inch toward an answer simply by appealing to equality. Every marriage policy draws lines, leaving out some types of relationships. Equality forbids arbitrary line-drawing. But we cannot know which lines are arbitrary without answering two questions: What is marriage, and why does it matter for policy?

The conjugal and revisionist views are two rival answers; neither is morally neutral. Each is supported by some religious and secular worldviews but rejected by others. Nothing in the Constitution bans or favors either. The Supreme Court therefore has no basis to impose either view of marriage. So voters must decide: Which view is right?

As we argue in our book “What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense,” marriage is a uniquely comprehensive union. It involves a union of hearts and minds; but also—and distinctively—a bodily union made possible by sexual-reproductive complementarity. Hence marriage is inherently extended and enriched by procreation and family life and objectively calls for similarly all-encompassing commitment, permanent and exclusive.

In short, marriage unites a man and woman holistically—emotionally and bodily, in acts of conjugal love and in the children such love brings forth—for the whole of life.

These insights require no particular theology. Ancient thinkers untouched by Judaism or Christianity—including Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Musonius Rufus, Xenophanes and Plutarch—also distinguished conjugal unions from all others. Nor did animus against any group produce this conclusion, which arose everywhere quite apart from debates about same-sex unions. The conjugal view best fits our social practices and judgments about what marriage is.

After all, if two men can marry, or two women, then what sets marriage apart from other bonds must be emotional intensity or priority. But nothing about emotional union requires it to be permanent. Or limited to two. Or sexual, much less sexually exclusive. Or inherently oriented to family life and shaped by its demands. Yet as most people see, bonds that lack these features aren’t marriages.

Far from being “slippery slope” predictions, these points show that the revisionist view gets marriage wrong: It conflates marriage and companionship, an obviously broader category. That conflation has consequences. Marriage law shapes behavior by promoting a vision of what marriage is and requires. Redefinition will deepen the social distortion of marriage—and consequent harms—begun by policies such as “no-fault” divorce. As marital norms make less sense, adherence to them erodes.

Conservative scaremongering? No. Same-sex marriage activist Victoria Brownworth, like other candid revisionists, says that redefinition “almost certainly will weaken the institution of marriage,” and she welcomes that result.


Enter your email address:

Follow Family First on Twitter