As someone who is LDS (Mormon), I belong to one of the more conservative religions around. As a social worker I belong to one of the more liberal professions around. Sometimes it’s quite a tightrope for me. Both views inform my own, of course. I tell folks in my church I’m more liberal than most Mormons, and folks in my profession that I’m more conservative than most social workers. In writing about the following topic however, I am deliberately not taking a conservative or liberal approach, but rather a legal one. If I have a faith- or politically-based belief that one view of marriage is correct, and you have a faith- or politically-based belief that another view is correct, the conversation will almost invariably end with “well that’s what I believe.” No opinions would change, we would likely get nowhere. This is an attempt to debate views on marriage purely on legal grounds. After all, it is on legal grounds that marriage will either continue in its current state or be revised. The ramifications must be considered with the seriousness and “long view” thinking that this topic deserves, with clarity that cannot be objected to or dismissed based on differing moral or political views alone.
It is with no small amount of trepidation that I begin to write about a subject which may be the most hotly debated and incendiary one in the United States today: whether marriage should be redefined or not. I have dear friends on both sides of this issue, and I have no desire to hurt their feelings or alienate them. The reason I’ve decided to go ahead is because I think too many folks misunderstand what this debate is about, and this issue is too big and will have effects that are too far-reaching not to be argued for. I am passionate about it and I hope to make my views clear. The timing of this article is meant to be very apropos: as of August 1 of this year, 12 states and Washington DC have redefined civil marriage to include same-sex relationships. DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, has recently been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. So I’ve decided to speak. To be transparent here, probably the best encapsulation of my view is found in the small book What is Marriage? by Girgis, Anderson and George. Since they are more eloquent than I and my views nearly perfectly align with theirs I will quote and summarize from them to put forth just what marriage is, what the marriage debate is really about, and the consequences of changing the definition of marriage. I will also clearly be espousing one view as correct. I’ll be quoting them so frequently I will not use quotes, however I have no intention of claiming credit for their words, nor is it my intention to make a profit from these articles. This first part of an eight-part series is best viewed as an introduction, and I’ll go into more detail in subsequent parts. I will add a new part of the series each day over the next week, check back daily. So, to begin:
First, a clarification. The debate today is not about homosexuality, it’s about marriage. It’s not about whom to let marry, but what marriage actually is. This is critical to understand. There are two primary competing views today. The view of marriage that Girgis, Anderson and George call the conjugal view of marriage is the one that has existed in more or less the same form for millennia, namely that of marriage as “a bodily as well as an emotional and spiritual bond, distinguished… by its comprehensiveness… flowing out into the wide sharing of family life and ahead to lifelong fidelity.” The view they define as revisionist is, in contrast, “a loving emotional bond, one distinguished by its intensity–a bond that needn’t point beyond the partners, in which fidelity is ultimately subject to one’s own desires. In marriage, so understood, partners seek emotional fulfillment, and remain as long as they find it.”
Let’s talk more about the conjugal vs. revisionist views for a moment. “Comprehensiveness” will be the focus of part two of this article, but an overview here is helpful. Comprehensive union means joining spouses in body as well as mind, it’s begun by consent and sealed by sexual intercourse. As it’s completed by the act by which new life is made, it’s apt for and deepened by procreation and calls for a broad sharing of domestic life. Uniting spouses in these all-encompassing ways, it calls for an all-encompassing commitment: permanent and exclusive. Comprehensive union is valuable in itself, but its link to childrens’ welfare makes marriage a public good that the state should recognize and support, in the conjugal view. The revisionist view sees marriage as the union of two people who commit to romantic partnership and domestic life: again, essentially an emotional union, merely enhanced by whatever sexual activity the partners find agreeable. Revisionists believe the state should recognize them because it has an interest in their stability, and in the needs of spouses and any children they choose to rear. As I’ve defined conjugal and revisionist twice now, let’s make clear that there is nothing specifically homosexual about the revisionist view of marriage, as this view informs many male-female relationships as well: both involve intense emotional union, so both can make a marriage. Comprehensive union, however, is something Girgis and I argue only a man and a woman can form. Enacting same-sex civil marriage would then not be an expansion of the institution of marriage, but a redefinition, replacing the conjugal view with the revisionist view. The revisionist view is, in short, “we love each other, so we should have the right to get married.” We will show over the following seven parts of this series that this is not sufficient to capture what marriage actually is, and indeed is a dangerous redefinition with serious negative social consequences.
Marriage is a basic human good. A basic human good is a condition or an activity that in itself makes us better off, whether or not it brings us other goods. For example health, knowledge, play, aesthetic delight and friendship all are basic human goods. We will argue that whatever else is true, the revisionist view must be false, in other words wrong about what marriage is. Those who assume the conjugal view of marriage is wrong tend to overlook revisionism’s errors and assume the revisionist view is right, which is mistaken logic. This is akin to thinking if Coca-Cola is “bad”, any other soft drink must be good. There are three points on which the revisionist view simply cannot account, which is vital for both sides of the debate, and which I will address:
- The state has an interest in regulating certain relationships
- That interest exists only if the relationships are sexual
- It exists only if they are monogamous.
The revisionist view sees your spouse as your “Number One person” according to John Corvino, a revisionist marriage advocate in a book called Debating Same-Sex Marriage. This view cannot distinguish marriage from simple companionship, and this is a core flaw. Point one. Let’s imagine briefly a world in which the law set the terms of ordinary friendships: you had to get approval to be friends with someone else, and could not end the friendship without the state’s permission. You could even be forced to pay for projects once pursued with estranged friends, until your death, and under threat of imprisonment. This would be nuts, yes? The reason why the state does not care about regulating friendships is because they simply don’t affect the common good in structured ways that could justify legal regulation. So then why do we, and every culture we know of, legally regulate marriage? Because societies rely on families built on strong marriages to produce what they need but cannot get: healthy, upright children who become conscientious citizens. Unlike friendships, marriage has enough structure to justify legal regulation. I’ll discuss this in more detail in a subsequent post. The revisionist view severs this link altogether. If marriage is centrally an emotional union, rather than one inherently ordered to family life, it becomes much harder to show why the state should concern itself with marriage any more than with friendship. Why involve the state in what amounts to legal regulation of tenderness? One who agrees with this view proposes a policy that he or she cannot give reasons for enacting.
Point two. Some argue that government should grant people certain legal benefits if they provide one another with domestic support and care. But this would not be marriage, nor could it make sense of the features of marriage law. I’ll use Girgis’s example: let’s say Oscar and Alfred live together, support each other, share domestic responsibilities and have no dependents. Oscar knows and trusts Alfred more than anyone else, so he wants Alfred to be the one to visit him in the hospital if he’s ill, give directives for his care if he is unconscious and inherit his assets if he dies. Alfred feels the same about Oscar. They rely on each other and face the world together. You may be assuming they have a sexual relationship, but does it matter? What if they are brothers? Or college best friends who never stopped rooming together, or two close friends that are both widowers? In these cases they would not be spouses. And yet by revisionists’ arguments they would be: a Syracuse law professor has actually argued that the state should recognize social units made up of committed friends. Should the benefits that Oscar and Alfred receive depend on whether their relationship is sexual? Would it be unjust for the state to withhold benefits from them only because they were not having sex with each other? Emotional bonds are certainly important, but if sex matters for marriage only for its emotional effects, as the revisionist must believe, then sex must also be replaceable, as nobody believes. Emotional intimacy can be fostered by deep conversation, cooperation under pressure, and in a thousand other activities that two sisters or a father and son could choose without raising an eyebrow. So why is sex more expressive of marriage than other activities? Maybe because something about sex besides its emotional effects is also crucial. This is a critical point. What is so different about sex that it can set a class of bonds apart from non-sexual bonds? In my next article I’ll show that only the conjugal view can answer this question. You might say “people in love naturally seek sex and commitment, and so we call them married, what’s the problem?” But this misses the point. What is so different about sex that it can set a whole class of bonds apart? What unifies sex and the other features of marriage as one good? Marriage essentially involves all-encompassing–including bodily–union, and sex unites bodily as no other activity can. As I said, I’ll discuss this more.
Point three. If you insist as a matter of principle that we should recognize same-sex relationships as marriages, the same principle will require you to accept and favor legalizing polyamorous and non-sexual relationships as marriages. If you think conjugal marriage laws unjustly discriminate against same-sex relationships, you will have no way of showing why the same is not true of multiple-partner and nonsexual ones (such as two brothers living together). Let’s further the example. Let’s add Herman to the mix of Oscar and Alfred and say they are all romantically linked, a story just like one featured in New York Magazine in 2012. Does anything change? If one dies, the other two are coheirs; if one is ill, the other two can visit or give directives, etc. For revisionists, marriage must be distinguished simply by emotional union and those activities that foster it. If some relationships, as is sometime reported, are more stable or fulfilling when sexually open, and marriage is an emotional union, how could monogamy be essential? Why can only two make a marriage? Oscar, Alfred and Herman want social recognition and its accompanying advantages: economic benefits, legal protections, freedom from stigma for themselves and their children. In part two I’ll explain why true marriage is only possible between two people, and how spousal commitment can be exclusive. The conjugal view sees marriage as something more specific than emotional union, and draws a bright line around sexual activity as the behavior that spouses must pledge to share only with each other. In fact only the conjugal view can justify such extensive commitment as the norm for marriage.
Please understand that several prominent individuals are clamoring for polyamorous unions, I’m not making this up. Nationally famous feminist icon Gloria Steinem, political activist and author Barbara Ehrenreich, and NYU law professor Kenji Yoshino have already demanded legal recognition of multiple-partner sexual relationships. Newsweek Magazine reports there are more than 500,000 such relationships in the US alone. In Brazil a public notary has recognized a trio as a civil union. The Toronto District School Board has been promoting polyamorous relationships among its students! Most revisionists do support monogamy as a matter of principle in marriage, but when asked to explain the basis of these norms have been unable to give a coherent explanation; this is because there is none for their position.