Why do governments recognize marriage? It’s unique among all relationships. If it’s just about deep friendship, governmental involvement makes no sense: friendships have no state-sanctioned conditions attached to them. Those relationships that do come under governmental oversight or endorsement are obviously public ones, like business relationships. Why does the state care about marriage?
Further: why does the state treat marriage in just the way it does? Married couples are exempt from testifying against one another, under the Fifth Amendment. Investment, taxation, liability, and inheritance laws treat married couples as a single unit. How does that make sense?
In a recent blog post I offered this definition of marriage:
Marriage is the legally-recognized faithful, uniquely committed, loving, social, economic, and sexual union of two non-blood-related consenting adults of opposite sex.
To which I added as non-essential additional features,
Marriage carries with it certain legal, economic, and social benefits, not least of which is the social approval accorded to the partners’ sexual relationship.
Christians typically add “God-ordained” to the definition I’ve given here; some even (correctly) recognize marriage as a reflection of God’s relationship to his people. That’s all well and good. Still I look at these definitions and I find nothing to explain why marriage gets privileged treatment from the state. So what if two people get along with each other and want to commit their lives to each other? Why treat them as a single economic unit for that? So what if members of a religious group see special doctrinal significance in marriage? Why should the state sanction that?
I can’t see any good reason for it at all. State-sanctioned marriage is a complete mystery, unless there’s something about marriage in which the state has an active and ongoing interest. I’m a conservative with respect to big government, and all I see here are reasons for government to get its nose out of the marriage business. Why should I support state approval for same-sex “marriage” (SSM) when I can’t see any good reason for state involvement of any marriage at all?
And yet governments (or their analogs or equivalents) the world over have recognized marriage since the dawn of history, and they have always recognized it in the form of man-and-woman. Up until the barest sliver of historical time ago, this has always made perfect sense to everyone. Now I’m having trouble making sense of it. What’s wrong with me, I wonder?
Same-sex “marriage” proponents typically say that what’s changed is that we’ve finally discovered that marriage need not be confined to the man-woman version. Based on the definition above, I’d have to agree. Based on that definition, though, we’ve also discovered the state has no good reason to be involved in marriage at all. This is very confusing.
But there’s something else that’s changed in recent history: contraception, along with a wave of not just homosexual but also heterosexual de-coupling of sex, childbearing, and marriage. We’ve found a way to separate sex from childbearing, and thus we’ve been able to freely separate sex from marriage, and marriage from any necessary connection to childbearing as well. So the definition of marriage I’ve been playing with so far here is deficient with respect to the whole grand sweep of human history. It’s the wrong definition. That’s why its implications seem so confusing.
Marriage isn’t just about the two partners. It’s about founding a family; or at least it has been until just a few decades ago. Marriage is about procreation as well as interpersonal union. Girgis, George, and Anderson speak of marriage as a comprehensive union of hearts, bodies, destinies, and more, and that this comprehensive union necessarily involves the kind of physical connection that is ordered toward the conception of children.
There is much to their argument that I cannot rehearse here, but there’s enough in what I’ve spoken already to explain why marriage matters to the state. Marriage is a joint venture in building the next generation. The future of any society depends on its next generation being birthed and nurtured in an environment healthy for growth and development, of which the best possible arrangement is (in the main, according to much research as well as plain old common sense) to be raised by one’s biological parents.
Parenting is a joint operation, necessarily involving not only a physical union but also the uniting of economic resources, decision-making, and for the sake of stability, even of the parents’ futures. This is worth supporting not only by the extended family or church but also by the state.
Now, I’ve seen arguments tossed back and forth about whether it’s really best for a child to be raised by her biological mom and dad. I can bring forth empirical studies to support the common-sense answer to that question, and I’m sure the opportunity will arise to do that.
In the meantime, though, here are the three questions on which I want to focus attention:
- If marriage is viewed as (among other important things) a joint venture in bringing forth the next generation, does it make sense for the government to endorse and support it as it always has done?
If marriage is not viewed that way, does it still make sense for the government to endorse and support it as it has always done?
What does that tell you about what marriage is, what marriage should be, and what the government’s relationship to marriage should be from this point on?
My answer to those questions goes like this:
If gay-rights advocates win this battle, they stand to lose more than they gain. It would be a Pyrrhic victory: they would win the right to enjoy all the benefits that have been accorded to marriage, and in the process they would strip the new “marriage” of any reason to be given those benefits.
There’s a reason marriage is what it is, everywhere around the world. It’s not about religion. Marriage is too universal, too widespread among too many diverse religions, for that to be the main issue. It’s not primarily about the moral status of certain sexual acts, although it is partly that. The ancient Greeks celebrated homoerotic relationships but they never confused them with marriage. Marriage is what it is because no other relationship expresses such a comprehensive private union with such a fundamental public purpose.
There’s more to be said on this, but this is enough for now.