Marriage vs. marriage (or, What is marriage?)

Yesterday morning there was quite a bit of activity in and near the Supreme Court of the United States. You may have heard about that.

Citizens who wish to uphold the traditional understanding of marriage as an institution built around sexual complementarity marched to the Supreme Court where they encountered people who wish to reform that understanding to include same-sex couples.

It was an opportunity for reporters to let their snark fly on Twitter, as Will Saletan of Slate did when he wrote derisively of marriage traditionalists:

Let me get this straight: The guys marching across from the Supreme Court in plaid skirts and puffy hats are AGAINST gay marriage?

A comment like that speaks volumes about the state and quality of media discourse on the topic. But another tweet really got me thinking. It comes from New York Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein. She writes:

Supreme Court surrounded today by marchers for marriage and their opponents, marchers for marriage.

I love it. Funny but also incisive. That both sides argue they are advocating “marriage” when they are directly opposed to each other reveals a truth that has been obscured through ignorance and/or activism in media coverage. What’s being fought about is what marriage is.

This is not to say that the media should pick sides about which definition is right (although they clearly have) but, rather, that the media should explain the different understandings of marriage and explore the societal ramifications of adopting differing views. We know that an understanding of marriage as an institution built around sexual complementarity has, for instance, the ramification of excluding same-sex couples. That’s been highly explored by the media.

But what about all the ramifications of changing that understanding? What will happen to our understanding of marital norms, if anything, and why? What will happen to our understanding of gender?

There are smart takes on this from both sides of the marriage debate (and, to blow your mind here, there are actually more than two sides to this debate) but in case I’m not being clear, here’s how some traditionalists arguing from natural law explain the two approaches to marriage:

Conjugal View: Marriage is the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together. The spouses seal (consummate) and renew their union by conjugal acts—acts that constitute the behavioral part of the process of reproduction, thus uniting them as a reproductive unit. Marriage is valuable in itself, but its inherent orientation to the bearing and rearing of children contributes to its distinctive structure, including norms of monogamy and fidelity. This link to the welfare of children also helps explain why marriage is important to the common good and why the state should recognize and regulate it.

Revisionist View: Marriage is the union of two people (whether of the same sex or of opposite sexes) who commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life. It is essentially a union of hearts and minds, enhanced by whatever forms of sexual intimacy both partners find agreeable. The state should recognize and regulate marriage because it has an interest in stable romantic partnerships and in the concrete needs of spouses and any children they may choose to rear.

The authors of that particular piece go on to argue that only the conjugal view of marriage offers a principled basis for marital norms and that a departure from this norm in favor of the revisionist view will damage the long-term health of society. Norms that have been traditionally associated with marriage — such as monogamy — and other rules — such as limiting it to two people — make less sense if the understanding of marriage changes and so on and so forth. And whether you agree with that or not (and the media surely do not), that is the crux of the debate. So why not talk about that? Why do we waste all this media coverage on meaningless angles that don’t get to the heart of the matter?

It’s almost impossible to have any meaningful conversation about whether to change marriage law to include same-sex couples without first talking about what marriage is. But if you do get your cards on the table about what marriage is, you can have much more interesting and fruitful journalistic explorations.

It’s almost painful to watch the journalism that happens when people don’t understand — as Goodstein pointed out in her tweet — that the debate hinges on what various groups say the legal definition of marriage is or should be.

Instead, this Onion article ignoring arguments against changing marriage law reads like it’s not satire at all. It reads exactly like much of the mainstream media has treated an issue of vast importance.

Print Friendly

  • http://derekjohnsonmuses.com DerekJohnsonMuses

    Unfortunately, the marriage argument is being fought on emotional grounds, and not rational grounds. All the public wants to see is the happy gay couple who love their kids get married for their sake. Our soundbite culture allows people to abandon reason and long, sound arguments, and just do what’s right in the moment, rather than see what’s going to be good for society over time: the support of unions that will produce many children and good attitudes naturally, and that don’t have to manufacture a human souls in a lab. On an Omaha news program that was interviewing a lesbian couple about changing adoption laws, one of the moms said that “just because you give birth to a child doesn’t make you its parent.” I think that’s the exact definition of what a parent is.
    At least in The Onion piece, it’s easy to accuse the LGBT advocates of being insensitive and not understanding.

  • DearbornGuy

    Thanks for pointing out the real issue, Mollie. And defining what marriage is is what this is all about. What is it today? What will it be tomorrow? More importantly, what will it be in 5-10 years? What lines will be crossed, because once you cross the line of traditional line, then it becomes easier and easier to continue to move than line going forward. Group marriage? Brazil recognizes three-person unions. Holland is now discussing it. Where is the line?

  • DearbornGuy

    Sorry … hit the wrong button … wanted my post to end with … Mollie is correct in pointing out that very few media are willing to focus on what does it mean long-term, and that is a major part of this story.

  • http://holyincarnation.org Fr John W Fenton

    Mollie, What is your source for the two definitions of marriage?

  • Jerry

    Mollie, when you write of more than two definitions of marriage, I’m reminded of the very cogent question from Justice Kagan about people over 55 getting married. If you define the purpose of marriage solely about having children, then there’s a real argument that any two people who can’t have children can’t get married. So what appears to be going on is that the lawyers are doing their best to avoid religion. Because a much more straight forward and honest way of putting the argument would be to say that the court should affirm the traditional religious view of marriage instead of weasel-wording a secular argument.

    As far as the Onion goes, life is funnier than art sometimes as when Justice Anthony Kennedy said

    “The problem with the case is that you’re really asking, particularly because of the sociological evidence you cite, for us to go into uncharted waters, and you can play with that metaphor, there’s a wonderful destination — it is a cliff. Whatever that was.”

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics/2013/03/26/175374536/gay-marriage-arguments-cell-phones-the-internet-and-fertility-over-55

    • mollie

      Well, what was most interesting about Kagan’s question is that *both* partners were over 55 and — in terms of probability — unlikely to procreate with each other. But, of course, while women have limited abilities for bearing children, men can procreate well past the age of 55 and have.

      Modern interpretations of marriage — and Vaughn Walker’s ruling in the Prop 8 case — treat men and women as interchangeable.

      I don’t think you have to be religious to acknowledge that they are not and that they have different biological limitations, but sometimes I do wonder.

      • mollie

        It is interesting to note, though, that this disparity in procreation and the vulnerability of child gestation and child rearing (as well as children’s inherent vulnerability) has so much to do with the traditional understanding of marriage with its norms that we’re disposing with as quickly as possible.

        I’ve always thought the big religion story in marriage debates was religious liberty. It is. But care and protection for children and mothers also is a big religion story. Unfortunately societal norms are both surprisingly strong and surprisingly fragile — and unbelievably complex.

        Our media aren’t well situated for a grown-up discussion about marital norms and how changing law affects these norms. Part of this could be because the elite are — and always have been — very well insulated from the implosion of social norms.

        Even on the marriage topic you see that while failure to marry causes huge problems for lower classes, elites haven’t experienced it because, by and large, they are insulated from the negative effects through income and other benefits.

        Since most media are, in at least some senses, elite (and I acknowledge this even if my salary doesn’t reflect it), this bubble probably says as much as anything else about why media coverage is so shallow.

      • Phil

        I don’t think the fact that men and women have different biological limitations was lost on the court, as Justice Scalia made this point immediately after (actually, during) Kagan’s comments.

      • Jerry

        Um, Mollie, if a married man over 55 who is married to a woman over 55 “procreates” with another woman who is not 55, it’s called adultery. That is, unless we’re talking about polygamy. And that’s one think I found bizarre about that argument – it is not related to the question of a faithful man and a woman both 55 getting married.

        The rest of your point made sense but I wish someone had followed up with that adultery rejoinder to his comment.

        • mollie

          Right. The point is that women’s procreative abilities have a shelf life not shared by men. But we can’t acknowledge these gender distinctions without acknowledging that gender plays a fairly significant role in marriage law and that men and women are not completely interchangeable. Which is the opposite of what Vaughn Walker asserted in his Prop 8 ruling. Making both parties more than 55 elides those important distinctions and how they relate to marital norms under a traditional understanding of marriage.

          • Phil

            How do these gender distinctions “play a fairly significant role in marriage law?”

          • Brian Westley

            Does this mean you support not recognizing marriages for post-menopausal women, or anyone who is sterile?

    • Mr. X

      “Mollie, when you write of more than two definitions of marriage, I’m reminded of the very cogent question from Justice Kagan about people over 55 getting married. If you define the purpose of marriage solely about having children, then there’s a real argument that any two people who can’t have children can’t get married.”

      I don’t think that anybody says marriage is *solely* about having children; it also reflects (among other things) the complementary nature of the two sexes, which elderly couples are able to do just as well as younger ones.

      More importantly, perhaps, the question of older couples getting married isn’t the same as the gay marriage question because infertile marriages have always been recognised as not ideally fulfilling all the purposes of marriage; they have always been considered something of an anomaly. It’s sort of like how some houses are shoddily built to such a degree that it would be unsafe to live in them, but this doesn’t invalidate the fact that the practice of house-building grew up so that people would have somewhere to live in. Gay marriage, on the other hand, seeks to deny the purpose itself; it’s kind of like pointing to an uninhabitable house and saying “See, that’s a house even though you can’t live in it, therefore house-building has nothing to do with having somewhere to live. Therefore my single brick wall has just as much right to be called a house as your place does!”

      • Phil

        I don’t think that anybody says marriage is *solely* about having children; it also reflects (among other things) the complementary nature of the two sexes, which elderly couples are able to do just as well as younger ones.

        But the question at hand is why do only heterosexuals get to experience “complementarianism”? Why cannot homosexuals, who feel that someone of the same sex “complements” them, also get the same (marriage) rights?

        More importantly, perhaps, the question of older couples getting married isn’t the same as the gay marriage question because infertile marriages have always been recognised as not ideally fulfilling all the purposes of marriage; they have always been considered something of an anomaly.

        But older couples still get to get married, anyway, even if they are an “anomaly.” So let’s add another “anomaly” (gay people), who are similarly situated, to those who get to be married! Or let’s do away with the “anomaly” of married older couples.

        It’s sort of like how some houses are shoddily built to such a degree that it would be unsafe to live in them, but this doesn’t invalidate the fact that the practice of house-building grew up so that people would have somewhere to live in. Gay marriage, on the other hand, seeks to deny the purpose itself; it’s kind of like pointing to an uninhabitable house and saying “See, that’s a house even though you can’t live in it, therefore house-building has nothing to do with having somewhere to live. Therefore my single brick wall has just as much right to be called a house as your place does!”

        I am not 100 percent sure I follow this analogy. Why is a same sex marriage a single brick wall, and not just another shoddy house that you cannot live in (i.e., a heterosexual marriage of an older couple)? Or, another way, “Why do you let older couples get married (build shoddy brick houses that no one can live) and deny gay couples the right to also build a shoddy brick house that no one can live in?”

  • SouthCoast

    Just an observationa (and not knowinggly aimed at anyone posting here), but anyone who is pulling for either side of this situation who happens to be shacking up, please sit down and hold your tongue. You have no credibility.

  • Fam

    I couldn’t help but comment on the Piers Morgan segment:
    It is modern secularist hypocrisy at its finest.

    Notice how the guest, Ryan T. Anderson is literally grilled by Piers Morgan trying to get him to say things he is careful not to say by using his own terminology. When he is smart enough not to fall into that trap, Piers Morgan says, “Now you are sounding like a politician.” Anderson could have responded, “Now you are sounding like a courtroom lawyer with leading questions.”

    Anderson is finally given a chance to speak. But then he is practically mandated to address Orman as to the reason why she is sub-human. Of course, he refuses to do so. Piers Morgan then invites Orman to speak.

    Orman starts off wanting applause for how virtuous she has been patiently keeping quiet while man speaks.

    Then she shows us how compassionate she is because she can appreciate his strong feelings (never mind his logic).

    Then she paternally points out to everyone how ignorant he is; to which the audience mindlessly claps.

    Anderson then quickly diffuses the ad hominem and brings the discussion back to his logical argument.

    Orman then goes on to further attack him (albeit obliviously to her) by calling him a good “tape recorder” for having his facts down (get it: he’s mindlessly regurgitating, nothing more).

    Orman goes on a tirade about how economically disadvantageous it is for gay couples to raise children because they don’t have the benefits of married couples. But this is the funny thing… she does so all while CNN mindlessly shows in the background pictures of Orman and her lover cruising around some sun-drenched vacation spot in a fancy speedboat.

    Mind you, I have nothing against gay people in the sun on boats, but I’m just saying it really didn’t fit in to the script at that particular time.

    All of which points to the fact that our society is in decline. And I’m not even addressing the moral issue…we are becoming a democracy of idiots.

    • Will

      Literally grilled? Like St. Lawrence?

      Sorry, but that makes me want to literally beat with a dictionary.

  • Julia

    “Even the typically conservative wing of the court maintained that, despite their personal views, it would be “downright silly” for them to rule that same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.”

    This is the funniest line in the Onion piece. Nobody is asking the court to rule that same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

  • http://derekjohnsonmuses.com DerekJohnsonMuses

    Mattingly brought up this angle in an Issues, Etc. podcast late last year, but I wanted to share this article that I found in the Chicago Tribune, by a supporter of SSM who worries that they aggression shown by the advocates of SSM is going to take faith out of the public square. (Finally, someone in the regular media admits that SSM could have a downside.)
    http://my.chicagotribune.com/#section/-1/article/p2p-75055310/

  • Julia

    I watched the video. The S. Ct. case is not about whether same-sex marriage is a good idea or not. The issue is whether the people of California had the authority in adopting Proposition 8 to reverse a court ruling that same-sex marriage was legal in California.

    The people also overlooked the point about 2 sisters who had lived together their whole lives and were financially dependent on each other, etc. I’ve often thought that benefits should be extended to people in a Kate & Ally scenario – remember where 2 divorced mothers threw in together to share chores, living costs and child care? That’s what the young guy was trying to say, why limit government benefits to people who have sexual relationships, and he was run-over by irrelevancies and emotional pitches.

    And what about the kids at Thanksgiving in heterosexual homes where the parents aren’t married or where the parents are polygamous? What is going to be the new definition of marriage? WHo is going to craft it? Are there any limits to who can get married? Will people like Suzy think it’s OK to discriminate against polygamous unions?

  • dalea

    Mollie states:

    ‘It’s almost impossible to have any meaningful conversation about whether to change marriage law to include same-sex couples without first talking about what marriage is.’

    My understanding of the issue is somewhat different. What marriage is is whatever the relevent legal statute says it is. That is the entire matter under discussion; not some platonic essense of ‘marriage’ or some ultimate meaning of marriage. Just plain old local legal marriage.

    I find the examples given to misunderstand the discussion. The argument is that Lesbian and Gay citizens are equal citizens of our Republic. And as equal citizens entitled to participate in all forms of social contractual arrangements including marriage. The question is about civic participation and inclusion. Not about some esoteric comprehension of marriage and its purpose.

    • Dale

      dalea wrote

      What marriage is is whatever the relevent legal statute says it is.

      So you’re a proponent of legal positivism? The sovereign (meaning the people acting through the legislature, the executive and the judiciary) can redefine any term at will? What if, perchance, the sovereign redefines “person” as used in the Constitution to exclude homosexuals? If “marriage” is what the state says it is, then “person” is, too. I don’t think you want to go there, Dalea.

      You don’t need to refer to a statute or a Platonic ideal to define marriage– there’s plenty of concrete biological, social and cultural evidence on which to base a definition. If you’re going to change a legal definition, you need to justify the change by arguments that extend beyond the letter of the law. And, apropos to this blog, a journalist needs to identify when someone is changing a definition, and address the justifications for changing that definition.

      The argument is that Lesbian and Gay citizens are equal citizens of our Republic.

      O.K.

      And as equal citizens entitled to participate in all forms of social contractual arrangements including marriage.

      That reduces legal marriage to a mere contract. It’s more than that, and the law recognizes the difference. The law doesn’t require a license to enter into a contract. The law doesn’t prohibit parents and their offspring, and brothers and sisters, from contracting with each other. The law doesn’t consider the welfare of the products of a contract when the parties wish to void the contract. All of these differences address the procreative aspect of marriage, something that is beyond a mere contract.

  • FW Ken

    So was the Piers Morgan interview, properly speaking, “journalism?

    In any case, I ran across another interview that effectively re-framed the discussion.

    http://m.usatoday.com/article/news/2001085?preferredArticleViewMode=single

  • John M.

    James Taranto asserted in a recent column that the reason why gay “marriage” is gaining traction so quickly whereas other culture war issues aren’t (see abortion), is because gay “marriage” is a logical follow-on from the basic feminist assertion that men and women are completely interchangeable. This isn’t a failure of the American people to reason, it’s a consequence of the American people reasoning from faulty premises.

    -John

  • Pingback: Same-Sex 'Marriage' and the Infertility Objection - Big Pulpit


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X