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In 2008 the Supreme Court of Connecticut decided that the provision of civil unions for same-sex couples violated the state constitution guaranteeing equality. Marriage, the majority opinion argued, is an institution with a long history. Unlike the recent legal invention of civil unions, it has a “metaphysical meaning.” To deprive gay couples of that metaphysical meaning is to treat them as second-class citizens. Thus the decision: Marriage must be redefined to allow men to marry men and women marry women.

But what is the “metaphysical meaning” of marriage? The Connecticut judges offered no insights. And they didn’t pause to consider the possibility that redefining marriage to allow men to marry men and women, women very likely undermines its metaphysical meaning. We can redistribute money, to be sure, but meaning depends on deep cultural traditions and therefore cannot be uprooted, redefined, and then parceled out in accord with abstract legal principles.

The short-sightedness of the Connecticut judges is to be expected, however. Few Americans are very articulate about marriage these days. We know it’s important, but by and large we don’t know why. No-fault divorce has transformed marriage from a sacred, indissoluble bond into a fragile union easier to get out of than most commercial contracts. The sexual revolution has separated sex from marriage for just about everyone, including many religious believers. These days the wedding night brings no revelations. Contraception makes children into choices, a trend accelerated dramatically by reproductive technologies that allow two men to contract with one women for her eggs and another for her womb to produce a child they will rear.

And yet. And yet.

I went to a wedding recently. The bride was aglow with joy as she walked down the isle. The groom waited for her by the altar rale with an anxious anticipation of someone he desired very much. They wanted to bind themselves together by a thousand turns of an unbreakable rope. They wanted to leap together into an abyss of commitment. The pews inhaled and exhaled as two hundred friends and family members silently chanted “yes, forever.”

When they recited their vows the bride’s mother cried. I cried. They were no longer a couple or item. They were entering into something ancient and timeless, something with a transcendent, mysterious power able to fuse them together: one flesh, as the Bible puts it, two become one. Something new was being created, something almost as powerful as the birth of a child.

This happens again and again, even in our secular age. Not every wedding takes place in a church. Not every bride and groom has the support of his or her families or even clear thoughts about what marriage means. But even in Las Vegas chapels, in living rooms and on beaches, and in dingy city halls throughout America couples enter into marriage dreaming of its transcendent, mysterious power. They don’t need to get married. Today’s social attitudes are for the most part very accepting of live-together relationships. And yet they still do, often with great fanfare—and great hopes.

Those hopes are often realized. Ralph and Jane celebrated their fiftieth anniversary. One of their grandchildren, David, asked Jane, “How did you know you’re compatible?” She answered, “I didn’t—and we’re not.” Mary, her daughter, overheard and turned away. She closed her eyes, at once bitter and grateful. “They were incompatible, are incompatible,” she said to herself, remembering her father’s angry tirades and her mother’s long, silent, stoic, set-jaw moods that sometimes lasted for weeks. “But thank God, O thank God.” She opened her eyes and surveyed the living room and her brother and their wives coming and going and attending to their children. “It’s not perfect, but what is?” Then she turned and kissed her husband gently on cheek. “Hey, what’s that for?” “Nothing,” she replied, “Everything.”

It’s not an accident that proponents of gay rights have fixed upon marriage. Some say it’s a cynical play for social acceptance: If they can win equality in marriage, then they can win it anywhere. Undoubtedly true, but superficial. The mystery of marriage conducts a powerful electrical current. It not only legitimates same-sex relationships; it also answers a basic human need for permanence, for union with another, for family, for a place to stand in the terrible flux of human life.

We’re making a mess of marriage in America today, not because we want to destroy it, but because we want it so very much—and can’t abide its limitations and disciplines. As a society we’re not like Sweden or France. We still say, “I do”—but then turn around and in countless ways say, “I don’t.”

It’s a mistake to fix on the “I don’ts” and ignore the “I dos.” If we take in the full reality we won’t conclude that we’ve “lost” the marriage battle. Most people still want the full reality of marriage. That’s the case even though they can’t articulate it, can’t fully endorse or accept it—and they often wrongly imagine it can be redeployed to include same-sex marriage.

Marriage remains an alluring ideal, a potent reality. This evident fact gives us a strong place to stand. If we articulate anew what marriage means, people will listen. If we embody its life-giving, permanence-making promises in our own lives, people will notice. 

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous articles can be found here

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