The framing of a public debate often determines the winner. Traditionalists may be losing the debate on “same-sex marriage” because many of them have accepted the revisionist framing around the question of equality (Who is marriage for?) instead of advancing it around the question of teleology (What is marriage for?). Conservative writer Rod Dreher says “that the moment traditional marriage became seen as a choice we made as a society, as opposed to something that just is, then the battle was over.” While I do not share Dreher’s pessimism, he is right to observe that we must reckon with the ontological and existential realities of marriage.
Thankfully, some traditionalists are centering the debate on teleology. Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George, authors of What Is Marriage?, argue that marriage is a conjugal union involving “a union of hearts and minds; but also—and distinctively—a bodily union made possible by sexual-reproductive complementarity. Hence marriage is inherently extended and enriched by procreation and family life and objectively calls for similarly all-encompassing commitment, permanent and exclusive. In short, marriage unites a man and woman holistically—emotionally and bodily, in acts of conjugal love and in the children such love brings forth—for the whole of life.”
Other traditionalists, like Roger Scruton and Phillip Blond, are weakening revisionists at their point of greatest strength: equality. In an article entitled, “Marriage equality or the destruction of difference”, they write:
Lacking religion or a more communal understanding, people no longer live by unbreakable ties. Vows become contracts and long-term commitments become temporary deals. We may regret this, but we cannot alter it; still less can the State impose a discipline that conflicts with it. Having assumed the right to solemnise marriages and to endow them with legal status, the State must then follow the desires and inclinations of its current citizens, and redefine the institution accordingly.
If marriage is without religious overtones or sacrificial demands, then many people will begin to believe that it is no more than a prejudice to think that marriage is to be conceived in traditional terms, as the relation of matrimony, devoted to motherhood and child-raising. If two people of the same sex wished to be joined by marriage, and if the definition of marriage lies entirely with the State, why should the institution not be amended in order to accommodate them? Is not this simply the next step in a natural process of decay which, viewed from another perspective, is also a process of growth — the growth of a new institution, and one more suited to our times? Are we not merely witnessing the latest manifestation of the transition (commented upon a century and a half ago by Sir Henry Maine) from status to contract? And in a secular, liberal democracy, it is contract not status that counts.
Underlying that argument is a conception of equality that is having an ever-increasing influence over legal reasoning and social practices in our time, and that is undermining and destroying every institution that human beings have erected in order to defend and perpetuate difference. Equality no longer means — as it ought to mean — the equal opportunity to participate in the benefits of society. Instead, it means the removal of all forms of social difference, all the ways in which people have tried to define and maintain institutions and paths through life that require something more than mere humanity of their members.
Already, all our institutions and all employment contracts must conform to principles of “non-discrimination,” providing open-ended lists of the differences between people that must be discounted if the law is to permit things to continue. The idea of an institution whose benefit depends precisely on emphasizing sexual difference begins to look like an offence against the first principles of social order.
However, the argument from “non-discrimination” is deeply flawed. For it assumes that the institution of marriage has been only accidentally connected to its social function — the function of passing on social capital from one generation to the next. It assumes that an institution, in which absent generations are essentially involved, can be endlessly amended for the sake of the living and without reference to the unborn and the dead (to use the terms bequeathed to us by Burke). To put it another way: marriage is an arrangement whose beneficiaries, in the normal case, exist only after it and because of it.
If people have accepted the idea of civil marriage, it is because they have accepted that the State is both competent and willing to uphold the matrimonial ideal. The State was accepted as competent to grant and administer marriages because it endorsed the principle that marriage exists for the sake of motherhood and all that motherhood means. But an institution that exists to protect motherhood discriminates against half of mankind.
Nor is that the only function of traditional marriage, which was not only a way of endorsing and guaranteeing the raising of children, but also a dramatisation of sexual difference. Marriage kept the sexes at such a distance from each other that their coming together became an existential leap rather than a passing experiment. Sexual attraction was shaped by this, and even if the shaping was – at some deep level — a cultural and not a human universal, it made desire into a kind of tribute paid to the other sex.
Marriage has grown around the idea of sexual difference and all that sexual difference means. To make this feature accidental rather than essential is to change marriage beyond recognition. Gay people want marriage because they want quite rightly a variant of the social endorsement that it signifies; but by admitting gay marriage we deprive marriage of its social meaning. It ceases to be what it has been hitherto — namely, a union of the sexes and a blessing conferred by the living on the unborn.
The pressure for gay marriage is therefore in a certain measure self-defeating. It resembles Henry VIII’s move to gain ecclesiastical endorsement for his divorce by making himself head of the Church. The Church that endorsed his divorce thereby ceased to be the Church whose endorsement he was seeking.
Past societies have tended to amplify sexual difference, not only through clothing, role-playing and the separation of public and private spheres, but also through activities like dancing which place sexual difference on display. Our society has begun to treat men and women as equal and exchangeable in virtually all the roles that they occupy, and to condone styles of dress and conduct which make no distinction between the male and the female. This too has had an impact on marriage, since it has diminished the distance between the sexes and made it less obvious than it was — for example, in Jane Austen’s day — that marriage is a threshold, which you cross into territory defined in part by the opposite sex. This is another reason for the fragility of marriage in the world today. In a society that refuses to treat sexual difference as the great ontological divide that it was for our grandparents, it becomes possible to regard the sex of your partner as a minor detail in any arrangement between you.
However, if we believe, on those grounds, that marriage between people of the same sex involves no deep upheaval in our social consciousness, it is because we are no longer talking of marriage as commonly or traditionally conceived. We are using the word to describe something else — a contract of cohabitation representing a partnership shorn of external reference.
One immediate consequence of this is that the laws that exist in order to protect marriage lose their traditional rationale. Incestuous and bigamous marriages are currently forbidden, and indeed severely punished — but why should this be so, if marriages are simply contracts of cohabitation, in which only the partners have an interest? Adultery and non-consummation are currently grounds for divorce. But why, if the contract makes no reference to these things? And what, in any case, does non-consummation and adultery amount to?
Surely, the correct response to those observations is to retreat from the claim that the new arrangements are really marriages, and to recognise that the distinction between matrimony and cohabitation or conjugal model as opposed to that of pure partnership is an essential distinction. This does not mean that all marriages must produce children, or that marriages cannot end in divorce. It means rather that marriage is a special kind of relationship, in which man and woman make a commitment beyond any contract between them. It means that marriage retains its primary function, as the means whereby children enter into the world and also inherit the world, receiving from their parents the social capital that their parents in turn inherited. It means that marriage retains its fundamental aura, as a display of sexual difference, in which man becomes fully man and woman fully woman.
All those features of marriage, which in our view are essential to its moral standing as well as its social function, will be jeopardised by the removal of sexual difference from the foundation of the arrangement. The institution will become a deal between the partners, rather than a joint entry into an institution whose duties and rewards transcend any contract between them. This is why matrimony has been described as holy: in entering it you are passing from one sphere of being to another, a sphere that remains to be discovered, and whose duties are as yet unknown.
And there is another and politically urgent reason for reaffirming that old idea. Monogamous marriage has been, historically, rare. It is the valuation of this institution that sets Western civilisation apart, an institution that we inherited from Greece and Rome along with the polis and the secular law. It was affirmed and incorporated by Christianity, and the sacramentalisation of marriage in the Middle Ages went hand in hand with the cult of the Virgin Mary and the idealisation of woman. We may not identify with that great current of ideas and emotions now, but we are downstream from its benefits.
The recognition of women as the equals of men, the disgust that we feel when women are treated as chattels, the desire that women move in our society face to face with men, neither veiled nor concealed but competing on equal terms and entitled to equal respect — all this, it seems to us, is the gift of a history in which monogamous marriage has been the institution that defined what the sexes are for each other.
We are entering a period in which we are in direct confrontation with cultures that treat women as chattels, which regard marriage as a form of male domination, and which permit one man to have up to four wives – in some cases more. We have, in our midst, sub-cultures that endorse the genital mutilation of girls, which condemn girls to marry whoever has been chosen for them by others and which do not baulk at “honour killings” when a girl has followed the inclination of her heart.
All those things we regard, and rightly, with abhorrence, and we do so because of that long history of the matrimonial ideal, which we inherited from Greece and Rome by means of “Holy Matrimony” and the cult of courtly love. Why should we throw this away at such a critical point in our history, simply in order to bestow on gay couples a benefit that will not accrue to them what they truly desire and will be by then no more than a word without a referent?