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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