Marriage Debate Far From Over

Progressives keep telling us that the marriage debate is over. Some Republicans have joined the chorus. Mark McKinnon this week explained that,

Allowing committed gay couples to marry never has—and never will—lead to these sorts of things. Instead, the impact of gay marriage—legal now in 44 percent of the country—has been stronger families, less government and more freedom.

And this is what the Texas marriage case is all about: freedom and family. It’s about whether loving, committed gay couples can marry like my wife and I did and raise stable, loving families. It’s about equal protection under the law, the rationale used by the federal judge out of San Antonio earlier this year in correctly striking down our state ban on same-sex marriage.

Got that? There’s absolutely nothing left to discuss about this whole marriage thing. No legitimate questions. No valid concerns. Shut up and get in line.

Marriage reformers are probably wise to opt for strangling the opposition rather than rebutting. They know that their strength is in the short game. They know how to marshal impressionable masses into one big, happy, transgressive parade. But those moments are by their nature fleeting. In the long game it’s conservatives who really excel. We have more children, and we inculcate them into the ancient faiths and traditions of our forefathers. Liberals have a knack for generating momentum, but let’s face it: it’s still nice to be on the team that likes babies.

In order to win the day, then, the liberal “kumbaya” moment has to be dramatic enough to break the back of the opposition. Otherwise, the battle shifts to conservative ground and they may end up losing the war. That partially explains the desperation some feel to declare the issue settled.

It’s anything but settled. And stifling debate is a strategy with a limited shelf life, since social changes do raise questions that eventually have to be addressed. At this juncture, marriage supporters may do their best work just by pushing those questions to the fore, in such a way as to invite the as-yet-uncommitted to reflect on them more meaningfully. For some people, it is helpful to feel that they’ve been granted “permission” to wonder about these issues.

Here, then, are a few questions that are worth pressing, particularly among friends or acquaintances who are still thinking through the marriage question.

What is marriage?

Ryan Anderson thinks he knows, but he’s a dangerous radical, or so I’ve heard. Discussing the matter with progressives, I tend to find that they’re a lot less clear on the issue.

For several semesters running, I’ve encouraged the students of my introductory ethics course to discuss the issue, and it’s striking how quickly they give up. The problem isn’t that they disagree. They just frankly don’t know.

My students are pretty quick to agree that marriage must be a contract of some kind. When we try to spell out the terms, though, they can’t come up with a single thing that definitely seems to belong on the list. Should spouses live together? It’s generally a good idea, but you know, depends on circumstances. Should they have children, or try? Totally optional. How about sexual exclusivity? That’s probably a good idea, but ultimately up to the spouses themselves.

They end up concluding that marriage is a completely do-it-yourself sort of project. Spouses just have to talk things over and decide what they want their marriage to be. Here’s the thing, though. If our young people (so, the people who should be getting married in the foreseeable future) can’t say anything about what marriage actually is, then the concept is just meaningless. That should maybe worry you if you think that marriage has some significance to a healthy society.

Are there differences between homosexual and heterosexual couples that we should notice and discuss?

The push to “expand” marriage was mostly predicated on the claim that there is no morally or socially relevant difference between homosexual and heterosexual couples. Sociological research doesn’t support that. In the Western world, sexual fidelity and permanence have long been central pillars of marriage. But the evidence suggests that gay men (even when joined together in a legally binding arrangement) are far less likely to be sexually exclusive to one another. Lesbian women are almost as likely as heterosexuals to be faithful to their partners, but they “divorce” at much higher rates.

In my experience, homosexuals themselves are often prepared to admit this in private conversation. They know that same-sex and opposite-sex coupling is not precisely the same. It is even sometimes suggested that homosexual patterns might be healthier, and that the modeling should go the other way! Now that that suggestion is on the table, it should clearly be acceptable to discuss whether or not homosexual relationship norms are good, healthy, or morally equivalent to traditional marital norms, without being accused of bigotry.

Are children better off with mothers and fathers?

This question certainly touches a nerve. More than once homosexuals have told me how hurtful it is when people suggest that any child they raised (with their partner) would be deprived of something important. I can understand why that would sting, and I don’t wish to cause anyone pain. But I stand by the general principle that when children’s welfare is at issue, adult feelings should take a back seat.

Mothers and fathers contribute different things to the lives of their offspring. Mothers, for example, tend to be more attuned to the moods and feelings of young children especially; fathers excel at discipline and at pushing children to give their best effort. On this topic, though, I think it can help to move beyond the sociological research and ask people: are you really comfortable asserting that a child suffers no misfortune by being motherless? Or by being fatherless? Of course there will always be children who grow up under sub-optimal circumstances, often for reasons beyond anyone’s control. That’s not a justification for cementing sub-optimal circumstances as a new norm.

Where is the expansion of marriage going to stop?

Little more than ten years ago, traditional marriage supporters were roundly mocked for suggesting that same-sex marriage would open the door to other “innovations” like polygamy and polyamory. Obviously we’ve moved on from that point.

Given how rapidly things have been changing, it’s reasonable to ask what else may be subject to change. And given progressives’ comfort with ignoring normal democratic processes, there’s no reason to think that future changes will happen gradually, or that people’s views and objections will be respected.


Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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