The PJ Tatler

Rubio's Utilitarian Case for Traditional Marriage Dodges More Powerful, Controversial Approach

How many more social conservatives must we endure as they make the utilitarian case for traditional marriage, dodging the more frank, powerful and controversial biblical case, summarized thus: “God says.”?

In Sen. Marco Rubio’s recent speech at Catholic University, as my colleague Rodrigo Sermeño reports, Rubio defended “strong values for a strong America.” But the senator connected these values only tangentially with the God who designed us and who sanctifies our relationships. He rested the weight of his argument upon the social sciences, history, conventional wisdom and stats about wealth and happiness.

Thousands of years of human history have shown that the ideal setting for children to grow up is with a mother and a father committed to one another, living together, and sharing the responsibility of raising their children. And since traditional marriage has such an extraordinary record of success at raising children into strong and successful adults, states in our country have long elevated this institution and set it apart in our laws.

This is what I mean by the utilitarian argument. Essentially, he says that marriage works, so the government should recognize it.

“I was taught certain values that led me to live my life in a sequence that has a proven track record of success. In America, if you get an education, find a good job, and wait until marriage to have children, your chances of achieving economic security and professional fulfillment are incredibly high,” Rubio said.

Rubio calls this the “success sequence,” and attributes our moral decline to the “erosion of the success sequence.”

But the truth is that the social and moral wellbeing of our people has a direct and consequential impact on their economic wellbeing.


This abstract formulation takes what is holy and casts it before academics. (After all, he was speaking at a university.) Rather than founding his values in the gospel of grace — where the loving judge grants pardon and reward to a lawbreaking, judge-hater — Rubio pushes a prosperity gospel in which we do right in order to do well.  

I understand that the utilitarian argument intends to appeal to those who recoil at the mention of God (and who go apoplectic at the name of Jesus). But it’s a weak tactic for at least two reasons.

1. It’s weasely: Advocates of heterosexual marriage rarely come to that principle while perusing statistical abstracts. If Marco Rubio — a professing Roman Catholic who attends a Southern Baptist church — can’t anchor his argument in divine revelation while making a speech at Catholic University, political equivocation has reached a new nadir.

2. It’s fragile: The utilitarian argument takes the case out of God’s court. The change of venue moves it into the courts of statistics and of public opinion. Rather than dealing with first principles, your opponents can then quibble over your footnotes and question your math to undermine your credibility.

That is the definition of marriage that I personally support – not because I seek to discriminate against people who love someone of the same sex, but because I believe that the union of one man and one woman is a special relationship that has proven to be of great benefit to our society, our nation and our people, and therefore deserves to be elevated in our laws.

How can humans “elevate” an institution established by God? I know that we fancy ourselves little gods who have filled innumerable tablets with laws to command that our will be done, but marriage does not endure due to the invisible hand of the state, nor does it require such a tainted blessing.

The scriptural picture of marriage is as a miniature of Christ and His church — the former loving her unto death, the latter joyfully submitting to his perfect righteousness and mercy. It’s not a contract. It’s a three-way covenant instituted by the Creator, cemented by His love and suffused with His mercy — even as human frailty and wickedness claw at its trunk daily, endeavoring to uproot it.

Of course, here’s where some “social conservatives” may part company with me.

Your constitutionally-guaranteed rights and privileges should not vary based on “who you love” to use the now-familiar phrase. The moral case for God’s model of marriage need not include government mandate, imprimatur nor involvement.

Government can tax and regulate me without regard to my wife, and it can do the same for (to) her. I didn’t marry her to get the tax break, and I suggest that most couples don’t need a government incentive to jump the broom. Among so-called millennials, the trend toward delaying or eschewing marriage shows that the incentives don’t work anyway. If our Constitution guards our individual liberties, why does the federal government need to interfere with our social, sexual and covenantal connections…beyond providing laws and courts to punish breach of contract?

But it seems Rubio wants only to keep the federal government from redefining marriage. So, he moves from a historical justification of the “success sequence” to advising same-sex marriage advocates to pursue legislative remedy at the state level.

Today, public opinion polls show there is a growing acceptance in society of the idea that marriage should be redefined to include the union of two adults of the same sex. And as a result, a number of state legislatures have changed their laws to redefine marriage. States have always regulated marriage in America, and state legislatures have a right, a constitutional right to change those regulations.

Timidly, Rubio warns his opponents that a “state’s right” to define marriage may backfire on them and buttress the status quo. He also warns judges not to overturn traditional marriage laws.

Now, Sen. Rubio doesn’t deserve our opprobrium for this approach. After all, at least he’s talking about it and, in fairness, his speech did mention God a handful of times. Think of this as a rebuke aimed at restoring one who’s straying.

And the Rubio speech at Catholic University does crescendo — briefly hanging on a higher note (albeit with a success-sequence descant)…

This idea, that all people have certain rights given to them by their creator, this idea has shaped our identity as a people and a country.

No plan to restore the American Dream is complete without addressing these things. We will never improve our people’s economic wellbeing without also improving their moral and social wellbeing.

The ultimate responsibility for our social wellbeing rests on us as a people. What we do as parents, neighbors and members of a church, a charity or community will often have a greater impact on our nation’s future than what we do as voters or even as a Senator.

Senator Rubio, I don’t care if you run for president in 2016, but if you’re going to make the case for heterosexual marriage, please, as President Obama’s supporters often urge him: “Go big. Go bold.”