Two competing views of marriage

Ryan T. Anderson, Robert P. George, and Sherif Girgis, authors of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (Encounter Books), present two competing views of marriage in an article for National Review, “Marriage and the Presidency”:

The Historic View
Marriage as a comprehensive union: Joining spouses in body as well as mind, it is begun by commitment and sealed by sexual intercourse. So completed in the acts by which new life is made, it is specially apt for and deepened by procreation, and calls for that broad sharing of domestic life uniquely fit for family life. Uniting spouses in these all-encompassing ways, it also calls for all-encompassing commitment: permanent and exclusive. Comprehensive union is valuable in itself, but its link to children’s welfare makes marriage a public good that the state should recognize, support, and in certain ways regulate. Call this the conjugal view of marriage.

The Revisionist View
Marriage as the union of two people who commit to romantic partnership and domestic life: essentially an emotional union, merely enhanced by whatever sexual activity partners find agreeable. Such committed romantic unions are seen as valuable while emotion lasts. The state recognizes them because it has an interest in their stability, and in the needs of spouses and any children they choose to rear. Call this the revisionist view of marriage.

The authors contend that the revisionist view faces some tough questions:

Something must set marriages as a class apart from other bonds. But on every point where most agree that marriage is different, the conjugal view has a coherent explanation — and the revisionist has none.

President Obama, like most, surely thinks that marriage is inherently a sexual union. But why must it be, if sex contributes to marriage only by fostering and expressing emotional intimacy? Non-sexual bonding activities can do that. Why can’t the tender platonic bond of two sisters be a deep emotional union, and therefore a marriage? Or, if marriage is primarily about the concrete legal benefits — of hospital visitation, or inheritance rights — should these benefits be denied two cohabiting sisters just because their bond can’t legally be sexual? To all this, the conjugal view has an answer.

Again, if marriage is essentially about emotions and shared domestic experience, why should it be limited to two people? Newsweek says the U.S. has half a million polyamorous households — where emotions and experiences are shared with multiple partners. Surely three people can be emotionally united, and some say that the variety of polyamory fulfills them as the consistency of monogamy can’t. So if marriage is about emotional fulfillment, why stop at two? The conjugal view has an answer.

Finally, if marriage is distinguished just by being a person’s deepest bond, her number one relationship, why should the state get involved at all in what basically amounts to the legal regulation of tenderness? The conjugal view has an answer. The revisionist has none.

Indeed, our recently candid president should note that the more candid, and consistent, revisionists have long accepted these points. Years ago, 300 prominent scholars and activists signed a statement arguing that we should recognize polyamorous and multiple-household sexual relationships. These activists agree that making sexual complementarity optional would make all its other norms arbitrary — and therefore unjust to leave intact. We only disagree on whether this top-to-bottom dismantling of the institution of marriage would be a good or a bad thing.

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