Lincoln’s Five-Legged Dog: An Realist Argument Against Redefining Marriage

Lincoln’s Five-Legged Dog: An Realist Argument Against Redefining Marriage December 4, 2012

Timothy Dalrymple recently wrote a provocative post listing “Ten Things I Believe About Evangelicals and Same-Sex Marriage.” I agree almost completely with each of the ten items, as would, I suspect, most evangelicals. Within this context Tim asks:

(P1) Should we hold fast to our convictions, profess those convictions publicly, and organize legally and politically to ensure that the laws reflect our convictions – OR (P2) should we hold fast to our convictions, profess those convictions publicly, and accept a legal definition of marriage that does not preclude same-sex marriage?

I would reframe Tim’s question in a slightly different way: Should we accept a legal definition of marriage that redefines the term in a way that does not correspond to reality? I am, in the most basic sense, a “legal realist”: If a law does not correspond to reality, and is thus incoherent, then it it cannot be a legitimate law. The same holds true for “same-sex marriage.” No matter what sort of impossible nonsense the legal system tries to impose, evangelicals should stand firmly on the side of reality.

Eight years ago I wrote a post that I think is still relevant to this point, so I thought it would be worth dusting off and reposting.


Abraham Lincoln was fond of asking, “If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?” “Five,” his audience would invariably answer. “No,” he would politely respond,” the correct answer is four. Calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg.”

Like Lincoln’s associates, many of our fellow citizens appear to fall for the notion that a change of name causes a change in essence. A prime example is the attempt to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex unions. Simply calling such relationships “gay marriages”, they believe, will actually make them “marriages.” Such reasoning, however, is as flawed as thinking that changing “tail” to “leg” changes the function of the appendage.

In order to understand whether marriage can be legitimately redefined by the government we must first understand its relation to the state. Fortunately, we only have two options to choose from. Marriage is either an institution that has an existence and autonomy apart from the state or it’s a construct that only comes into being after being created by positive law.

If marriage is autonomous and separate from the state, the common view for the past 5,000 years, then the government cannot simply define the term in any way it chooses. Because the two institutions stand apart, they can decide whether to recognize the legitimacy of the other but they cannot delineate each others boundaries. In this way, the relationship is similar to nation-states. The U.S. government, for example, can decide to “recognize” the state of Israel but it cannot redefine the country in a way that contracts its border to exclude the Gaza Strip. The U.S. either recognizes Israel as it defines itself or it rejects its legitimacy altogether.

Whether they would articulate it this way, I suspect this is what most Americans mean when they claim that the government does not have the right to redefine marriage. The fact that such an argument even needs to be made shows how degraded and confused both language and law have become.

But what if marriage is a social construct that is created by the state? If we assume this is true then we must admit that the state has the right to change and redefine the meaning of marriage in any way it chooses. Naturally, this would be good news for gay marriage advocates. It will also be welcome news for polygamists and those in incestuous relationships. After all, if the government is allowed to expand the definition in order not to discriminate against homosexuals, then it should not exclude other groups either.

Gay marriage advocates, however, bristle at the idea that polygamists should have the same “rights” that they seek for homosexuals. While they lobby for a redefinition of marriage, they want to do so in a way that includes same-sex unions but will still exclude other minority interests that they themselves do not recognize as legitimate. Their reasons for closing the marriage gate behind them are remarkably similar to the ones given by their opposition. Unfortunately, the irony of their “bigotry” appears to be lost on them.

Naturally, it would take a radical reinterpretation of both history and law to draw the conclusion that marriage is solely a creation of the state. But if such a view is espoused then it opens other areas for possible reinterpretation. Can I as a blue-eyed, light skinned Caucasian petition the government to “redefine” my race in order to take advantage of affirmative action programs? If not, then what would be the argument against such a redefinition? If the boundaries of marriage can be stretched then shouldn’t other institutions (and race has indeed become an institution) be open as well?

And why should the government have sole control over the lexicon? Why shouldn’t the common man—like me—be able to redefine words in whatever way we choose? Think of the possibilities! I could call my dog’s tail a leg, take him to the dog track, and make a fortune by winning every race. No matter how fast the other dogs ran they wouldn’t be able to keep up with my five-legged canine.

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