In an unsurprising but still disappointing decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in Obergefell vs Hodges that states may not define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Many Catholics, along with other people of good-will who believe marriage is intrinsically related to men, women, sex, and children, are asking, “What next?” Let me offer a proposal: Go back to the basics.
How We Got Here
In the span of twenty years, redefining marriage to include homosexual unions went from being opposed by both political parties and a supermajority of the American electorate to being a position that must be embraced lest one be branded a bigot. How did this issue move forward so quickly? My opinion is it is the necessary outcome of previous redefinitions of marriage. Or, the tsunami we see today started with an earthquake that rumbled decades and even centuries earlier.
In 1644, John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost, published another work called Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. In it he argued that England should change its laws based on Catholic canon law that prohibited divorce. According to Milton, marriage was not an indissoluble union that comprehensively unites men and women. Instead, its purpose is to promote “the apt and cheerful conversation of man with woman, to comfort and refresh him against the evils of solitary life.”
Notice how this parallel’s Justice Anthony Kennedy’s definition of marriage in Obergefell:
Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.
But if this can’t be achieved in marriage, Milton says, a divorce is justified, and history has adopted his thinking. In 1969, California governor Ronald Reagan passed the first state law allowing for no-fault divorce. Through the new law, couples did not have to prove one partner committed a fault such as adultery or abuse in order to end the marriage. Instead, as Milton argued 300 years earlier, a marriage could be ended simply because both people had “irreconcilable differences.” Women could now easily escape marriage, or what feminist Betty Freidan at the time called “a comfortable concentration camp.”
Throw in the new birth control pill and you had the perfect storm for changing the public’s view of marriage from being an institution for the benefit of children that is anchored in permanence and sexual exclusivity to one that is ordered toward the benefits of adults and is anchored in whatever makes them happy at the moment. It’s not surprising that if the point of marriage for opposite sex couples is to fulfill one another’s happiness, that the courts and public opinion now feel that same-sex couples should have a right to this happiness as well.
Indeed, Kennedy writes in Obergefell:
[T]he right to marry is fundamental because it supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals. The intimate association protected by this right was central to Griswold v. Connecticut, which held the Constitution protects the right of married couples to use contraception.
Consider also what self-identified gay columnist Andrew Sullivan (who married another man in 2007) wrote back in 2001:
Surely the world of no-strings heterosexual hookups and 50 percent divorce rates preceded gay marriage. It was heterosexuals in the 1970s who changed marriage into something more like a partnership between equals, with both partners often working and gender roles less rigid than in the past. All homosexuals are saying, three decades later, is that, under the current definition, there's no reason to exclude us. If you want to return straight marriage to the 1950s, go ahead. But until you do, the exclusion of gays is simply an anomaly—and a denial of basic civil equality.
What do I mean by “go back to the basics?” I mean we call Sullivan’s bluff and go back to the“1950s” view of marriage as being ordered toward a permanent and sexually exclusive bond that is good for the spouses and for any children those spouses may produce.
An End Run Around Bigotry
The biggest obstacle I face when I speak on this issue is the accusation that my position simply represents hatred against individuals who identify as being gay or lesbian. That’s why I like to borrow a phrase from my friend Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse: “When it comes to the issue of same-sex marriage, let’s focus on the marriage part.”
My ultimate concern is that redefining marriage again will lead to the erosion of marriage as a social institution. Indeed, some of the advocates for redefining marriage have even admitted that their support of this movement is predicated on destabilizing the institution of marriage as a whole.
For example, Irene Javors, the former president of the pro-redefinition group Freedom to Marry, writes, “In my view, if we gained access to marriage, the whole institution could be turned upside down. For that perverse reason alone, I wholeheartedly support our right to marry” (The Future of Marriage, 143).
Of course, defenders of redefinition will say that opinions like Javor’s are representative of only a few wild-eyed academics. Everyone else just wants same-sex couples to have the same freedom to love as opposite-sex couples. Alright, then let’s take them at their word and invite those who disagree with us about what marriage is to join our campaign to build up a culture of “marriage.”
We can ask them, “If you believe in marriage (however you may define it), would you join me in opposing laws that allow divorce for any reason? Will you uphold the sexually exclusive nature of marriage and condemn the rhetoric of people like Dan Savage who support “monogamish” relationships that allow for consensual infidelity? Will you stand with me in recognizing the harm caused by the millions of fathers who walk out on the children they have helped procreate? Will you fight for a child’s right to a relationship with the mother and father who brought him into existence?”
Now, some of these redefinition advocates will be on board with this approach (people like Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution come to mind), but don’t be surprised if others worry about how more regulations on divorce will “keep people from finding love.” Indeed, Julie and Hillary Goodridge, the couple whose marriage was the first to be legally recognized by a high court back in 2003, are now divorced. Or don’t be surprised if moral opposition to polyamorous relationships and surrogate parenthood, be they heterosexual or homosexual in nature, is said to represent a “close-minded” and “judgmental” Christian attitude.
The benefit of this approach is that it’s “bigot proof.” No one can say that in promoting the lifelong or sexually exclusive nature of marriage I am working against a vocal minority’s rights or engaged in outright hatred of some group of people. Sure, those who want to divorce and remarry for any reason or have sexually open marriages will feel under attack, but they won’t be able to defend their actions as being a part of their sexual identity. They will have to explain why society is better if it treats marriage licenses like municipally regulated dating certificates.
As long as opposition to so-called same-sex marriage is perceived as an attack on people with a particular sexual identity, we won’t make any appreciable headway in defending marriage. Therefore, we must double down on fighting for marriage’s permanence and sexual exclusivity, both in our arguments in the public square and in choosing to value permanence, sexual exclusivity, and openness to life in the privacy of our own homes.