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:

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At last! Actual journalism on the same-sex marriage beat

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War. I was an early skeptic of the war, back when that was a somewhat lonely place to be. Journalists who engaged in more cheerleading than skepticism toward that war have been spending the week issuing mea culpas for their failure to consider unintended consequences. In fact, so many people have been writing their “I was wrong” pieces that the contrarian in me wonders whether I should change my mind and now support the war.

Anyway, some of their regrets overstate how bad their coverage was — many media outlets provided at least some balance and gave skeptics a chance to say their piece.

But if we’re going to talk about journalistic failures, the pre-Iraq War coverage was Woodward and Bernstein compared to how journalists have handled the debates about whether to change marriage law to include same-sex couples.

There has been extremely little coverage of opponents and no skepticism present in the coverage. There has been very little that amounts to meaningful coverage beyond cheerleading. There has been no exploration of short- or long-term consequences — particularly those that might be unintended — to changing marriage law. And opponents have been derided with utter contempt on the very pages and programs that claim they’re devoted to news and not opinion.

Perhaps in 10 years we’ll see some mea culpas.

But here are two stories (admittedly, yes, out of the eleventy billion that have been published on this matter) that cover skeptics and their arguments. Who knew such a thing was even possible?

The first comes from the New York Times and it does what should have been done years ago and repeatedly since then — mentions the people and arguments in support of retaining marriage as a heterosexual institution. Yes, there are lots of qualifiers in the piece but it manages to mention some of the actual arguments — imagine that! — of traditional marriage supporters by looking at a group of young scholars working on the topic. For example:

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