Looking for Marriage in all the Wrong Places: A Must-Read Book on Marriage

Book Review: What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T Anderson, and Robert P George. Paperback; 133 pages, US$15.99.

Now that a large group of Republicans has joined the Obama administration’s Supreme Court brief in support of gay marriage, it’s time for conservatives to come to terms with the implications of this prospective sea-change in the culture. Robert P. George, whom the New York Times characterized as America’s leading Christian conservative philosopher, and two of his students have published a brilliant analysis of the issue and its ramifications which every conservative should read. My review appeared this morning in Asia Times Online. It is cross-posted below.


Looking for marriage in all the wrong places
By Spengler

Two mutually incompatible arguments are advanced to defend gay marriage. The first states that marriage is a good thing provided by the state, such that gay people have the same right to it as anyone else. The second states that marriage is a bad thing, and that bringing gay people into the institution of marriage will destroy it from the inside.

Michelangelo Signorile, a prominent gay activist, urges people in same-sex relationships to “demand the right to marry not as a

way of adhering to society’s moral codes but rather to debunk a myth and radically alter an archaic institution”. They should “fight for same-sex marriage and its benefits and then, once granted, redefine the institution of marriage completely, because the most subversive action lesbians and gay men can undertake … is to transform the notion of ‘family’ entirely”.

Signorile is quoted in a new book by the distinguished legal philosopher Robert P George and two of his students. They contend that marriage is an institution quite different from the domestic arrangement that advocates of gay marriage have in mind. Gay marriage as such isn’t the issue, argue the authors: it an attempt to do away with the traditional view of marriage as a comprehensive union, and replace it with a view marriage as an especially intense sort of emotional bond.

Signorile might be tardy in his plan to “redefine the institution of marriage”. Hedonistic heterosexuals have been hacking away at the traditional concept of marriage for years. Whether gay marriage becomes law or not, the institution of marriage in the United States may erode so quickly that it will cease to perform its social function, that is, rearing a new generation of Americans.

A Pew Research survey in 2010 found that almost 40% of Americans consider marriage “obsolete,” versus 28% in 1978. They are acting on their convictions. Politicians of both parties are adjusting to the perceived shift in opinion. The Obama administration has petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn California’s law against gay marriage, and 100 prominent Republicans last week signed a supporting legal brief to the Court.

Professor George and his colleagues defend traditional marriage from the vantage point of natural law, a minority viewpoint in an era where the capricious definition of one’s identity is the focal point of culture. One may quibble with natural law as a concept or with the way that Professor George applies it, but there are some natural criteria which cannot be gainsaid. Here’s one: will our actions make us extinct? The natural definition of marriage advanced by George, Girgis and Anderson is consistent with the continued existence of the United States; the “whatever” definition supported by their opponents manifestly is not.

America’s fertility rate dipped to just 1.9 children per female in 2010 in the Census Bureau’s estimate, well below the 2.1 level required to maintain the present population. Two-fifths of the fewer American children born in 2010, moreover, were born out of marriage.

Marriage rates have fallen in parallel to the decline in fertility. Only 51% of Americans 18 and over were married in 2010, compared to 72% in 1960. The numbers are much worse for minorities, with just 31% of adult African-Americans married in 2010, versus 72% in 1960. 40% of American women never have married, a proportion that is much higher among minorities (55% of black women and 49% of Hispanic women). Women who marry do so at a much later age (27 years in 2010 versus 21 years in 1950).

Sociologist Charles Murray argues that the great divide is less a matter of race than social status. “In 1960,” he wrote last year, “just 2% of all white births were nonmarital. When we first started recording the education level of mothers in 1970, 6% of births to white women with no more than a high-school education … were out of wedlock. By 2008, 44% were nonmarital. Among college-educated … less than 6% of all births were out of wedlock as of 2008, up from 1% in 1970.”

In the short run, the decline of the traditional family causes an increase in dependency. 35% of American families now receive some form of welfare, that is, means-tested government aid. “In 2007, single-parent families were nearly six times more likely to be poor than married-parent families,” notes Heather MacDonald.

In the long run, lower birth rates translate into an unsustainable proportion of elderly dependents. On the current trend, there will be only two workers to support every Social Security recipient, against five workers in 1960; if fertility continues to decline the situation will be much worse. And if more children are raised in single-parent households, fewer will be fit for employment.

Why should the state have an interest in intimate personal relationships? Nowhere do the authors suggest that consenting adults should be prevented from forming whatever intense emotional bonds they please. But it is a fallacy to conflate the issue of freedom of sexual expression with the institution of marriage. The state has an interest in children, first of all because it has a responsibility to promote their welfare, and secondly because the common institutions of society have an interest in our common future. Marriage, the authors write,

is a bond of a special kind. It unites spouses in body as well as mind and heart, and it is especially apt for, and enriched by, procreation and family life. In light of both these facts, it alone objectively calls for commitments of permanence and exclusivity. Spouses vow their whole selves for their whole lives. This comprehensiveness puts the value of marriage in a class apart from the value of other relationships.

That is the conjugal view of marriage, in the authors’ definition. It is permanent and comprehensive, as opposed to an intense emotional bond, which may dissolve as quickly as it was formed. That may be convenient for lovers but catastrophic for their children.

Only the union of a man and woman can be comprehensive, the authors argue. The issue isn’t dignity, which all human beings deserve. Instead, the issue is what a married man and woman can do that no other human arrangement can do: “Marriage is ordered to family life because the act by which spouses make love also makes new life; one and the same act both seals a marriage and brings forth children. That is why marriage alone is the loving union of mind and body fulfilled by the procreation – and rearing – of whole new human beings.”

Across the ideological spectrum, researchers agree that “the family structure that helps children the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage. Children in single-parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in stepfamilies or cohabiting relationships face higher risks of poorer outcomes,” as the research institution Child Trends concluded. And as Professor Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project concluded, “The core message…is that the wealth of nations depends in no small part on the health of the family.”

Adoption by gay parents does not do as well: The authors present a wide range of research showing that “compared to children of parents at least one of whom had a gay or lesbian relationship, those reared by their married biological parents were found to have fared better on dozens of indicators”. Part of the reason that married biological parents do better may have to do with sexual exclusivity, which is virtually nonexistent in male homosexual relationships according to the standard research on the subject.

The state cannot help but take an interest, for it gets the bill for the damages when marriage breaks down. As George et al write, “Since a strong marriage culture is good for children, spouses, indeed our whole economy, and especially the poor, it also serves the cause of limited government. Most obviously, where marriages never form or easily break down, the state expands to fill the domestic vacuum by lawsuits to determine paternity, visitation rights, child support, and alimony.”

That is the fallacy of the libertarian argument in favor of absenting the state from all questions involving personal intimacy. Society can get along with a small government if it has strong private institutions: families, churches, charities, schools and volunteer associations. Among these the family has more weight than all the rest put together. The state, and above all a state that seeks self-limitation, needs the family to flourish.

Professor George, like his co-author Ryan Anderson, is a religious Catholic (I do not know Gergis’ beliefs). It is a particular strength of their book to propound a concept of marriage on the basis of nature and social benefit, with no recourse to the tenets of any religion. All of their well-reasoned arguments, nonetheless, will appeal almost exclusively to those who believe in traditional marriage for religious reasons. Why should this be the case?

Gergis, Anderson and George rightly argue that the two contending concepts of marriage stem from two quite different views of human nature. But it is just as possible to argue that two incompatible religious concepts are at issue. A useful formulation of the problem is found in the 1987 film Moonstruck:

Rose: Listen, Johnny, there’s a question I want to ask you. And I want you to tell me the truth if you can. Why do men chase women?

Johnny: Well. There’s the Bible story. God took a rib from Adam and made Eve. Maybe men chase women to get the rib back. When God took the rib, he left a hole there, place where there used to be something. And the women have that. Maybe a man isn’t complete as a man without a woman.

Rose: But why would a man need more than one woman?

Johnny: I don’t know. Maybe because he fears death.

[Rose leaps up, very excited.] Rose: That’s it! That’s the reason!
Note that Johnny begins with the argument from Natural Law, and then proceeds to the problem of mortality. Why do people fall in love in the first place? Because, as Johnny Cammareri suggests, we are everywhere and always haunted by the specter of mortality, and a certain kind of connection to another human being (or in this case beings) can intrude into our lives like a burst of eternity entering the temporal world. When we are in love, we are eternally in love; if we are separated by death, we know that we shall be reunited in heaven, or, alternately, we might wish to follow our dead beloved into the grave, like Richard Wagner’s silly sopranos.

If we place our love in the context of raising children who will continue our lives, within a faith community that we believe to be called by God to his eternal service, we feel assured of immortality: not only does our flesh continue, but it will continue in the spirit of a community whose love-relationship with God mirrors our feelings for our beloved. Such folk as this will take Professor George’s reasoning to heart.

It is not only conjugal love in the Judeo-Christian context that gives us the sense of immortality. Every kind of love does so, from the Temple prostitutes of ancient Mesopotamia to the heroines of Harlequin romances. That is what makes it love to begin with. It can be heterosexual, or not. Some of the best poetry of classical Greece and most of the love poetry of medieval Persia celebrated pederasty, in the narcissistic quest for eternal youth. Goethe’s Mephistopheles is overcome by lust for the cherubs who come to claim the soul of Faust at the end of his drama. “Now I know how you feel, unhappy lovers, when you twist your necks to gawk at your beloved! This is much pricklier than hellfire!”

Left to its own devices, love tends toward idolatry. In the bestselling novel of the 16th century, Fernando de Rojas’ La Celestina, the protagonist Calixto is so obsessed with the unattainable Melibea that, when asked his religion, he pronounces himself a “Melibeist.” Adolescents should be made to read Celestina instead of Shakespeare’s mawkish Romeo and Juliet. There would be fewer teen pregnancies.

Everyone who has loved anything more sentient than a cheeseburger is in some sense “spiritual”. A decade ago a third of respondents described themselves as “spiritual not religious,” which means that they explicitly rejected the tenets of any religion in favor of whatever they chose to invent for themselves. When Gallup in 1999 asked, “Do you think of spirituality more in a personal and individual sense or more in terms of organized religion and church doctrine?,” almost three quarters chose the “personal and individual” option. Most Americans spend their loves looking for eternity in all the wrong places, seeking personal relationships that will lift them out of this mortal coil while preserving their prerogative for infantile self-aggrandizement.

The reason that it is impossible carry on a rational conversation with gay marriage advocates is that they belong to an implacably hostile alternate religion. This new religion has armed itself with an Inquisition, ferocious as its predecessor. Say a word against gay marriage and you will be drummed out of polite society in most parts of the cultivated world. Fail to vituperate in favor gay marriage, and you will never get tenure at a major university.

Gergis, Anderson and George may not change many minds on the other side of the great divide, but their work is so well-crafted and well-reasoned that it will provoke apoplexy among their opponents. Defenders of gay marriage style themselves enlightened and reasonable; the present book proves they are nothing of the sort. If it will not convince the opposition, it exposes its irrationality. Perhaps that is as great a victory as the times afford.