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What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense
by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George
Encounter, 168 pages, $15.99

No argument is more effective in promoting gay marriage than the insistence that its rejection offends our sense of justice and equality, especially as concern for the underprivileged and marginalized lies at the heart of our Judeo-Christian heritage. Many today believe it patently “unfair” and “unjust” to ban an entire group of people from the benefits of marriage merely because they happen to be attracted to people of the same sex.

First, it is argued, restricting marriage to heterosexual couples requires linking marriage to procreation, but many marriages are infertile. So, unless we’re prepared to insist that infertility is an impediment to marriage, it makes no sense to deny gay couples the right to marry. Second, restricting marriage by sex is no less egregious than doing so by race. Since sexual orientation is no less beyond our control than is our skin color, it is entirely legitimate to compare the rejection of gay marriage to racism. No matter the advantages of traditional marriage, at the end of the day, the institution imposes arbitrary discrimination on a minority of the population and therefore is cruel and unjust.

I have never before encountered a book that so effectively demolishes these seemingly convincing arguments as What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. Sherif Girgis, a Yale law student and doctoral student in philosophy at Princeton, is the lead author, writing with Ryan T. Anderson, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton.

Everything flows from the opening sentence of the book, an expansion of a 2010 article from the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy: “What we have come to call the gay marriage debate is not directly about homosexuality, but about marriage.” The authors steadfastly refuse to enter into a discussion about the religious or moral pros and cons of homosexuality.

Religious arguments are, so they insist, superfluous in defending a traditional view of marriage: “Because marriage uniquely meets essential needs in such a structured way, it should be regulated for the common good, which can be understood apart from specifically religious arguments.” It is their refusal to touch on the question of the morality of same-sex relationships that enables the authors of What Is Marriage? to counter accusations of “irrational” prejudice.

After all, if marriage requires actions or relations unique to male–female unions, then to say that marriage is between a man and a woman is akin to a tautology, and we could perhaps regard the question of how we approach same-sex relationships as an altogether different issue. On this account, to refuse marriage to gay couples is not to say that they may not marry (which might seem arbitrary and unjust) but simply that, given the very nature of marriage itself, they cannot marry.

The authors argue that marriage is a comprehensive union. It joins spouses in body as well as in mind, is completed and deepened in the biological good of procreation, and objectively demands all-encompassing commitment, in the sense of being both life-long (permanent) and exclusive (monogamous).

For this traditional or “conjugal” view of marriage, the focus is on bodily union (coitus), which in turn is oriented to procreation. Just as we can say of our bodily organs that they are naturally completed only because they are united for the sake of sustaining our biological life, so also we can say of two individuals that their union is comprehensive only if and when their bodies coordinate so as to work toward a common biological end—which is sexual reproduction. It may be possible for people of the same sex or for larger groups to engage in sexual activity together, but such unions are not comprehensive: They do not work together toward the common biological good of reproduction.

While the conjugal view centers on comprehensiveness (including a sexual union that is ordered to a common good), the “revisionist view” sees marriage primarily as an emotional bond—as the pinnacle of various kinds of emotional bonds, to be sure, but as essentially an emotional bond all the same. Hence, if one is emotionally attracted to people of the same sex, marriage would not seem out of place. The difference in understanding between “comprehensiveness” and “emotionality” also explains the close link between high divorce rates and acceptance of gay marriage, and helps explain why so many people are no longer able to see the validity of objections to gay marriage.

Only a conjugal view, the authors argue, is reasonable. Insisting that emotional attraction (often linked with pleasure) constitutes marriage doesn’t just overlook the fact that same-sex relationships simply are not biologically comprehensive; it also ignores social ills that would result from such a view of marriage.

Noting that laws shape our beliefs and behaviors, the authors explain that marriage laws affect the well-being of society. A legal victory of the revisionist view would predispose people to think of marriage in terms of emotional union. If this defines marriage, then there is no reason to insist either on permanence or on exclusivity, and—as our experience with increasing divorce rates has shown—this would require the state to extend its reach in order to deal with issues of custody, children’s educational and emotional well-being, spousal needs, and so on.

I am sympathetic to the common-sense argument that the book presents—especially as it is remarkably well documented and proceeds with a lawyer’s precision. Still, the “purely natural” argument has its limits.

For one, it easily moves from a bracketing of religion for the sake of argument to a faulty view of religion as private by definition. Unfortunately, Girgis, Anderson, and George do not escape this pitfall. They classify churches, synagogues, and temples as “civic” or “voluntary” associations in the same league as “schools, recreation leagues, Boy Scouts, and Camp Fire.” They insist that the state has an interest in marriage because “private institutions can bind only their own.”

It seems to me legitimate to make an appeal to common reason in order to defend a conjugal view of marriage. But I am less thrilled when such an appeal is based on a view of religion as essentially private.

Similarly, while there may be some value in the refusal to take a moral stance on homosexuality—in order to focus squarely on the nature of marriage rather than on same-sex relationships—I am less than persuaded by the authors’ moral judgment that people’s sexual relationships are a private issue. “The same-sex civil marriage debate is not about anyone’s private behavior,” they claim, “but about legal recognition. The decision to honor conjugal marriage bans nothing.”

But this makes for a very limited argument. It is unsurprising, and entirely right, that the authors reject all “arbitrary or abusive treatment” of gays. But that does not mean that society as a whole has no interest in what happens, sexually, outside of conjugal marriage. As the authors themselves note, all sorts of sexual relationships are legally proscribed—many of which are no less private than one in which two men or two women unite.

Just as the book powerfully exposes the myth that acceptance of gay marriage would have no significant social consequences, so too the authors could have made the further argument that, to varying degrees, all sexual unions outside marriage (as traditionally understood) are harmful to society. After all, such unions are harmful in the same sense that the authors argue that implementation of the revisionist view is harmful, namely, by way of consequence.

Treating homosexual activity as a private matter (and some people now treat group sexual activity this way as well) shapes our society’s mores. Acceptance of sex in contexts that do not allow for comprehensive union will end up shaping the way many of us handle sexuality, with detrimental consequences for our general ability to raise strong families. As a society, therefore, we have an interest in restraining sexual activity outside (conjugal) marriage.

By rigorously sticking to the point that the gay marriage debate is primarily about marriage itself, the authors present a powerful argument that deserves a wide hearing. But many will remain unconvinced. This is not because the argument isn’t cogent or well presented. It is because many today are simply no longer convinced that marriage is, in fact, about comprehensive union.

In a culture driven by pleasure and emotional fulfillment, all sorts of other options seem equally viable. As long as our society doesn’t recognize the inherent value of the common good at which proper sexual activity aims—namely, new life—but instead focuses on individual fulfillment, it is hard to imagine that opposition to gay marriage will win the day. Perhaps, therefore, the gay marriage debate isn’t just about marriage, but must also deal with homosexuality after all.

Hans Boersma is J. I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College.

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