Defining Marriage Down

A question laid down by one of the most prominent television commentators in America (Bill O’Reilly) has been nagging at me for a couple of weeks: What is wrong with gay marriage? The people Mr. O’Reilly has had on the air did not persuade Mr. O’Reilly—and probably not many others, either. They did not offer reasons. Meanwhile, in America, the Courts are “defining marriage down.” The battle has to be addressed in the courts because very few legislative bodies throughout the land would be able to gain enough popular votes to sustain “same-sex marriage.” An American dictionary defines “marriage” as “the social institution under which a man and woman establish their decision to live as husband and wife by legal commitments, religious ceremonies, etc.” But in 2003, the high court of Massachusetts imposed a more flexible meaning: “a voluntary union,” “the commitment of two individuals to each other.”

In other words, the courts are trimming marriage down. The courts are hacking away the centuries-old meaning of marriage and transmuting it into a mere contract of friendship and sexual relation between any two persons who seek it.

Why do some homosexuals (not all, not even most) seek this ceremony? A public ceremony gives public vindication and public recognition. It elevates the relationship into a public (not merely a private) reality. It is true that there are practical motives in addition, the legal warrant for sharing in health, pension, and other benefits that now belong solely to traditional marriage. Actually speaking, these two aims could be kept separate from one another, but the real emotional force in the discussion is the seeking of public approval and recognition.

But if we water down the legal concept of “marriage” to include a mere contract between two individuals of whatever sex, we will not in principle be able to stop with same-sex unions. Under the same principle two spinster sisters should also qualify for similar benefits. Maybe, even, two elderly neighbors. Or any small band of needy people (not limited to two) who wish to enter into contract with one another.

If the main aim of “marriage” is reduced to “benefit-sharing,” why stop at husbands and wives, or same-sex couples. Are there not many sorts of companionships whose members might be far more needy?

What our common law has heretofore supported was a lifelong exchange of vows (not just a contract, but more than that, a covenant) between two persons (but not just any two persons). They needed to be man and woman. They needed to be able in principle to have children through their marital union, even though it is not the business of the state to check up to see if they are actually doing so. Because of the central importance of this “marriage act” suited to having children, traditionally a marital covenant is not even official until that act has occurred. The marriage covenant is not merely a matter of words.

In actual fact, of course, some gays and lesbians do rear children, even though not children conceived in the “marriage act,” and children who share in the blessings of having both a mother and a father, with all the benefits that provides. Yet these parents often provide a good upbringing, and that is to their credit.

Nonetheless, the state has its reasons for treating husband-wife marriages and same-sex marriages unequally. Virtually all children (excepting only test-tube babies) are born from man-woman unions. It is in the high interest of the state to regulate these unions carefully, and with special privileges. From the point of view of the state, not all sexual acts have the same public impact.

States that suffer a decline in childbearing and childrearing begin to wither in many other aspects of national life, such as prosperity, defense, and a financially well-undergirded future. Thus, states have long developed policies that encourage the married life of husbands and wives, who have the potential of rearing children in a safe and loving environment. They do this in the historically warranted expectation that such households will far more frequently raise accomplished human beings and good citizens. The extension of privileged (therefore unequal) benefits to this unique human relationship, defined not solely by sexual acts but by the probabilities of fecundity and the sound education of children, is a state’s investment in its own future.

The state has no comparable interest in the friendships or sexual relationships of its other citizens, however good, however noble. For sound reasons, it has heavily invested its ceremonies, formal recognition, and legal benefits in that single matrimonial form aimed at the transmission of valuable qualities, through the sexual intercourse of a man and a woman committed to a lifetime of rearing good children, who will become free responsible citizens, fit for maintaining a free republic long into the future.

A particularly fruitful activity of the state is to reinforce and to support the public recognition of the special beauty and utility of the permanent love of a mother and father. Such a love by its daily workings engenders between the parents a sense of unconditional trust. It engenders among their children the confidence of being unconditionally loved, the capability to give love to their fellow citizens, and a powerful example to emulate in their own commitment to a future generation.

Apart from the experience of such unwavering, outward-going love, the capacities of children to appropriate the habits of fraternity and equality with their fellow citizens are deeply deprived. What they have not received, how can they give? They are likely later to reveal certain emotional dependencies, which may also wound their capacities to act as freely and independently as free citizens must.

As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, Americans were prepared to trust their lives to the fellow citizens of their free republic by the marital fidelity experienced in a vast majority of their families. By contrast, he noted the ill effects of the widespread institution of the mistress:

In Europe almost all the disorders of society are born around the domestic hearth and not far from the nuptial bed. It is there that men come to feel scorn for natural ties and legitimate pleasures and develop a taste for disorder, restlessness of spirit, and instability of desires. Shaken by the tumultuous passions which have often troubled his own house, the European finds it hard to submit to the authority of the state's legislators.

In some of the more radical courts of law in America (such as the Supreme Courts of California and Massachusetts) the word “marriage” is being devalued. The seeds of this devaluation lie in cultural shifts outside the activities of the state. The Sexual Revolution brought “free love,” the severance of sex from procreation, and the desire for easy divorce. These developments did much to weaken monogamous marriage between husband and wife over the next three generations.

Thus, today’s devalued marriages have eroded the trust of men and women in one another, and of their children in them. This lack of trust in marriage has spread throughout the whole of society and now weakens even the joy of young people about to be married, and makes singles less likely to commit to this uncertain bond. (Even so, in America today, two out of every three couples that pledge to marry “until death do them part” do stay married until death.)

Maintaining the full faith and credit of the marital bond which gives birth to a nation’s families is a more serious responsibility of governments than protecting the full faith and credit of the nation’s currency. A strong currency is extremely beneficial to nations. Strong and faithful families, oriented toward the rearing of highly skilled, virtuous, creative, and responsible children are necessary to them.

One of the ways in which the state encourages actions crucial to its own health is by honoring such faithful married persons and rewarding them with benefits. It would seem difficult to argue plausibly that gay ‘marriages,’ however love-filled and satisfying they may be, give as much added value to the future of a nation as marriages that are able to bear, nourish, and give rich and complex example to the coming generations.

Published in Liberal, September 10, 2008