What is Marriage Review

wim2012Ryan T. Anderson, Robert P. George, & Sherif Girgis, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. (New York: Encounter Books, 2012.)

Nothing can elicit such strong emotions and responses as the marriage debate in American society today. There are those who believe the Church needs to dig their heels into the ground to defend the institution by political involvement and others who think the government should get out of marriage completely. Who is right? Are Christians doomed to be branded as bigots and pushed out of the public sphere because of their narrow-minded religious claims about the world? Robert P. George, Ryan T. Anderson, and Sherif Girgis[1] argue that marriage is an institution we ought to keep as is—one between a man and a woman. For all of history, marriage has been viewed as a comprehensive union of body and mind between a man and a woman that is ordered towards family life and fidelity (the conjugal view). Current debate concerning the legalization of same-sex unions is not an “expansion of the institution of marriage, but a redefinition.” For the authors, tolerating any such redefinition is both novel and harmful. Accepting the idea that marriage is nothing more than an emotional bond between adults (the revisionist view) will allow true marriage to be misunderstood, make remaining restrictions on marriage become obsolete, and damage many cultural and political goods that got the state involved in the marriage in the first place.

The book begins with a polemic against the revisionist view of marriage. If marriage is nothing more than an emotional bond between individuals, what separates it from any other form of companionship and why should the state have a role in its regulation? Furthermore, if marriage is to be redefined along the revisionist lines, why should it be limited to merely two people? Given that maxim, the authors note “if [one] insists as a matter of principle that we should recognize same-sex relationships as marriages, the same principle will require [one] to accept polyamorous—and nonsexual— relationships as marriages.” Marriage is more than an emotional bond. Marriage is a comprehensive union that brings a man and a woman together in three unique ways: 1) it unites two people in their most basic dimensions (body and minds), 2) it unites them with respect to procreation, family life, and its broad domestic sharing, and 3) it unite them permanently and exclusively. All three of these converging features of the conjugal view are discussed and defended within the second chapter. vxdc c

Chapter three argues that the state has a role in defending the conjugal view of marriage. Responding to social libertarians, the authors note that the foundation of a well-ordered, civil society depends on good citizens. Good citizens depend on strong families who create children that can work within a society as functioning members. There are also various, public benefits to marriage including studies suggesting children flourish most in households where both the biological parents are present, the flourishing of spouses which is better for everyone, the role of government is limited when families succeed, and many other goods. The authors also respond to constructivists and revisionist who see marriage as endlessly malleable by noting that if that is the case, there is no natural right to marriage for anyone and there are no reasonable grounds for limiting marriage to two homosexual partners. The next chapter notes that the redefinition of marriage will weaken marriage making it harder to realize, erode marital norms which will harm the material interests of couples and children, make fathers and mothers superfluous despite its ill effects, threaten moral and religious freedom, and also undermine healthy notions of friendship. The fourth section ends responding to the so-called “conservative” objection.

Chapter five responds to various objections against the conjugal view, one from infertility and another from the ban on interracial marriages in the past. Infertile couples still have true marriages because they still form a comprehensive union and “differ only in degree, not type, from a fertile union before or after the first childbirth.” Concerning the interracial marriage ban, the authors respond in two ways. First, they note that “opponents of interracial marriage did not deny that marriage was possible between blacks and whites.” One of the central issues within the debate is whether or not two men or two women can form the comprehensive union entailed in the conjugal view. Second, they write, “while history compels the conclusion that hostility or animus motivated antimiscegenation laws, it rules out this explanation of traditional marriage laws.” Distinctions simply do not entail discrimination.

Chapter six also seeks to answer various objections to the conjugal view of marriage. Some argue that same-sex couples ought to be allowed to marry for the legal and financial benefits the institution warrants for spouses. The problem with this objection is one can obtain those benefits legally without redefining marriage. People also argue that the dignity of one’s union and personhood are diminished if they are not afforded the same rights as a married couple. Those laws engender hatred. The authors respond that the state cannot grant the ability to two men or two women to marry for it would be a fictitious decree because there’s no bodily union being made between the agents who are partnered together. Furthermore, redefining marriage would not prevent people committed to their hatred from changing their views. The chapter ends with the objection that it is wrong to deny someone the joys of marriage simply because of their gender. This is a misunderstanding though because the conjugal does not deny anyone companionship or discourage it. Homosexuals can have meaningful relationships apart from having the state recognize what they do in the privacy of their own lives. The book ends by noting, “Marriage understood as the conjugal union of husband and wife really serves the good of children, the good of spouses, and the common good of society.”

mjyhnbfgvdOne theme that is very clear from the work that has relevance for Christian ethics is the idea of social goods. Ethics certainly have communal implications. If the authors’ thesis is correct, there does seem to be a dire need to preserve and protect the traditional viewpoint concerning marriage for the sake of the majority. It is in the nation’s best interests to not expand the meaning of this concept because the consequences could be incalculable. Unfortunately, many Christians have forgotten that they are meant to be a light to the world. Christian eschatology is not so much going to heaven when we die as the world burns but working towards the renewal and resurrection of all things. We seek the welfare of the city (Jer. 29:7) because what we do for the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). Instead of creating a Christian subculture, the Church ought to recognize that advocating for faith, hope, and love in the public square is a part of Christian faithfulness. Marriage can be and ought to be defended from various angles within the Church.

This work challenged my thinking in many areas. At the beginning of the work, I was very skeptical at how the writers would answer the objection from infertility. The focus on the bodily union instead of the production of children is a helpful distinction. Though the body does not produce a child, the intention of the act aimed at “embodying and renewing their marriage, a valuable part of a valuable whole” is sufficient. The marriage is not invalidated by the lack of children. Many infertile couples actively pursue a culture where marriage is affirmed. I also at one time believed that advocating civil unions would solve the marriage debate. If the real issue is all the financial and legal benefits spouses receive because of their marriage, just extend those benefits to homosexuals and the debate would be over. That is naïve. It is not about the benefits as highlighted well by the sources the authors cited within the work. Furthermore, it is right for the government to attach monetary incentives to activities and actions which benefit society as a whole. If the social sciences, ethics, and other areas of knowledge can determine certain behaviors are damaging, then there is nothing inherently wrong with prohibiting those deeds. Discrimination need not always have a pejorative or negative nuance. It is no more discriminatory to hold the door open for a lady than it is to limit marriage to its true form. fdgbhg

Another challenge to my thinking was the role of the government within the institution of marriage. At one time I believed that it was best to get the government out of marriage completely. Not only is such an idea not even remotely possible, but it also is immature. The government has a role in the preservation of a just and good society. Along with militarily defending our country and making sure our constitutional rights are guaranteed, public officials create and enact legislation on behalf of the people they represent. As the authors noted, “Law tends to shape beliefs. Beliefs shape behavior. Beliefs and behavior affect human interests and human well-being.” If we truly care about children and the type of citizens we create as a nation, the government needs a voice at the table concerning what is harmful and helpful in the parenting process.

Two strengths of the book are its philosophical foundation and its succinct argumentation. Concerning the first, the work does not depend on religious premises for its success. The writers declare, “Because marriage uniquely meets essential needs in such a structured way, it should be regulated for the common good, which can be understood apart from specifically religious arguments.” In a day and age where religious values and truth claims are viewed with suspicion, this commitment to avoid such underpinnings truly makes the book stand out. It cannot merely be dismissed as a pious effort at Christian evangelization. The second strength of the book is that it is a sustained argument that does not appear to veer off on rabbit trails or unhelpful tangents. The authors make their case and simply move forward answering objections and refining certain points as necessary. If there is an intellectual debate to be had, a work such as this is helpful.

There are some weaknesses though. First, though the writer agrees that there are communal benefits to social goods, I am skeptical that they can be so easily divorced from moral and religious systems. Any discussion relating to the flourishing of human beings and the protection of “rights” will inevitably return to the value and dignity of humans. Humans are self-evidently valuable but why? The problem in such a discussion is “without that sense of human beings made in the image of something higher, it may indeed be harder to explain why that fellow in the gutter should claim anything called ‘dignity,’ or have even the slenderest claim to our respect.”[2] Second, can an argument about restricting marriage to the biological complements of a male and female happen without some discussion concerning the ill effects of homosexuality? In my experience and at a popular level, homosexuality is assumed to be just as good and right as heterosexuality. Because of that, many ask why would you avoid extending marriage to them?  The author’s case could have been strengthened by putting their moral cards on the table and discussing the issue of homosexuality itself. As one writer noted, “Just as the book powerfully exposes the myth that acceptance of gay marriage would have no significant social consequences, so too the authors could have made the further argument that, to varying degrees, all sexual unions outside marriage (as traditionally understood) are harmful to society. After all, such unions are harmful in the same sense that the authors argue that implementation of the revisionist view is harmful, namely, by way of consequence.”[3] The social sciences have revealed higher levels of sexual promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, mental illnesses, substance abuse, and domestic violence.[4] Though it would certainly not be popular, an argument could be made against homosexual practices in general.

gfbfgI would highly recommend this work to anyone concerned with the marriage debate. Unfortunately, this work will not have its intended effect because of the nature of the debate about gay marriage. As one writer lamented, “Proponents of traditional marriage must realize that we are not engaged in an honest intellectual debate aimed at the discovery of truth. Politics has always been downstream from culture, but long gone are the days of Lincoln v. Douglas, Keynes v. Hayek, and Buckley v. Everybody. We are no longer a nation engaged in a rigorous debate about ideas; we are a country of cast members whose leaders vie for top billing.”[5] Until a recovery of caring for others and communal ethics are revived, arguments will not ultimately matter. Hans Boersma is right to say, “In a culture driven by pleasure and emotional fulfillment, all sorts of other options seem equally viable. As long as our society doesn’t recognize the inherent value of the common good at which proper sexual activity aims” namely, new life” but instead focuses on individual fulfillment, it is hard to imagine that opposition to gay marriage will win the day.”

[1] Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, Sherif Girgis is a Ph.D. candidate at the same institution, and Ryan T. Anderson is a Ph.D candidate in Political Science at Notre Dame University. The book is a collaborative project with Girgis listed as the primary author within the beginning of the book.

[2] Hadley Arkes, Natural rights and the Right to Choose. (New York, NY.: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 175.

[3] Hans Boersma, “Defending Marriage: A Review of What is Marriage: Man and Woman,” First Things, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/03/a-review-what-is-marriage-man-and-woman-a-defense (accessed March 18, 2004).

[4] Austin DeArmond, “Homosexuality is Not Conducive to Human Flourishing,” Austin’s Blog, February 2013, https://austind90.wordpress.com/2013/02/07/homosexuality-is-not-conducive-to-human-flourishing/ (accessed March 18, 2004.

[5] Eric Teetsel, “The Gay Marriage Beauty Pageant,” The Spectacle Blog, February 2013, The American Spectator, http://spectator.org/blog/31588/gay-marriage-beauty-pageant (accessed March 18, 2004).


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