Perspective: The tables can still be turned on the marriage debate
In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court held that there is no right to abortion implicitly protected by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment or any other provision of the Constitution, thereby overturning Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas said the court should reconsider the precedents that similarly rely on what has come to be known as “substantive due process.” Among the cases he specifically mentioned was Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 decision that announced the discovery of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.
In response, Democrats in the House of Representatives, joined by 47 Republicans, passed the misnamed “Respect for Marriage Act,” which essentially imposes on states a federal requirement to recognize same-sex partnerships as marriages.
The Respect for Marriage Act — like the Obergefell decision — does not merely expand eligibility for marriage, as is often claimed; it changes the definition and meaning of marriage.
As historically understood, marriage is a conjugal bond. What does that mean? It means a permanent and exclusive union of man and woman ordered to procreation and the rearing of children.
A conjugal bond is a multilevel (physical, emotional, rational, spiritual) sharing of life by husband and wife in a relationship whose foundation and matrix is the bodily — biological — union made possibly by sexual-reproductive complementarity.
Does that suggest that marriage, as historically understood, is merely a means to the end of procreation? Not at all. According to the conjugal understanding of marriage, marriage is something intrinsically valuable — something good in itself — and not a mere means to extrinsic ends of any sort. But it is nevertheless the type of relationship ordered to, and naturally fulfilled, by having and rearing children together.
And that explains two things: 1) why infertility is not, and has never been considered to be, an impediment to marriage; and 2) why consummation of marriage is required for a marriage to be complete and not legally annullable.
It is in physical acts of conjugal union — acts that are of the procreative type, whether or not they are procreative in effect — that husband and wife become, to use the language of the Bible, “one flesh.” That, and that alone, is what explains the historic role of consummation in our marriage laws.
The revisionist ideas embodied in the Respect for Marriage Act and the Obergefell decision represent a radically different understanding. “Marriage” is no longer a conjugal bond but is reduced instead to a form of sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership. The revisionist account utterly dissolves the intrinsic connection of marriage to procreation precisely because doing so is necessary to eliminate the norm of sexual complementarity.
If marriage is basically a form of sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership, then there is no reason that a man cannot be married to another man, or a woman to another woman, just as a man and woman can be married. But, by precisely the same token, there is no reason that marriage should be monogamous rather than polyamorous —an ensemble of three or four or five people united as a group in a sexual partnership. If sex (or gender) doesn’t matter, then the number cannot matter either.
What’s more, in the revisionist conception of marriage, there is no reason why marriage must or even should be consummated, sexually exclusive or pledged to permanence (’til death do us part). A perfectly valid “marriage” could be “open” by agreement of the parties, or could be for a term of years (or months or weeks) — perhaps, “five years, renewable” or “for as long as love lasts.”
Nor would there be any reason for marriages to be recognized by government — any more than baptisms, bar mitzvahs or confirmations are recognized by governments. The entire reason governments recognize and regulate marriage — and always have — is that marriage as historically understood is a procreative-type of relationship, a conjugal union.
Properly understood, marriage is the relationship that unites a man and woman as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children born of their union, conferring upon those children the blessing of being brought up in the committed bond of the parents whose love brought them into being, linking them to the larger families of those parents (grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins), and also providing them with the inestimable benefits of both paternal and maternal care and influence.
One hundred and fifty-seven Republicans in the House voted against the Respect for Marriage Act and were immediately branded by marriage revisionists as “homophobic bigots.” The mainstream media — dominated as it is by people deeply committed to the doctrines and dogmas of social liberalism — cried out in horror, wondering how in 2022 there could possibly be people who have not embraced “sexual liberation” and do not celebrate what it pleases them to call “marriage equality.”
The media breathlessly point out that polls now show strong majorities supporting same-sex marriage — a reversal of the situation of a decade ago. But one must wonder whether people are in many cases telling pollsters what they think they want to hear. It wouldn’t be the first time. And after all, we’re in the third decade of a campaign to smear defenders of the historic, conjugal understanding of marriage and traditional norms of sexual morality as “bigots” and “haters.” The campaign of intimidation waged against marriage realists has certainly had its effects.
But a great many Americans are also noting what has predictably come in the wake of the redefinition and revision of marriage imposed by the Supreme Court in Obergefell and embraced now by nearly all Democratic members of Congress and some wayward Republicans: the further deterioration of standards of sexual morality, to include the mainstreaming of polyamory in the media (and its legal recognition now by three municipalities in Massachusetts, with more undoubtedly to come in other hotbeds of social liberalism); “drag queen” events for children in public schools and local libraries; and gender and transgender ideology being mandated in school curricula, in the practice of medicine and in elite institutions across the board.
We went from same-sex marriage to pronoun policing, puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones and mastectomies for 13-year-old girls (all in the name of “gender affirmation”) in no time flat — with parents, religious leaders and others being tarred as bigots merely for saying, “Wait, what’s going on here?”
Although many Americans do not approve of same-sex marriage or what has come in its train, they feel powerless and even frightened to express dissent over the new orthodoxy. That reflects what New York Times columnist David Brooks rightly describes as the “progressive monopoly on cultural power.” People who are deeply — one might say religiously — committed to social liberalism largely control the universities, the news and entertainment media, the arts, the major professional associations, mainline religion and corporate boards.
Even worse, the freedom to dissent is under severe assault. People who criticize woke sexual ideology are accused of “causing harm.” In a truly Orwellian manipulation of language, we are told that “words are violence.”
Having gotten their way in law, at least for now, the forces who wish to redefine marriage are seeking to secure their victory, setting it in stone, making it irreversible, by demoralizing their opposition. This means demonstrating their power at every turn and making opponents fear to express their dissent. One must admit, this strategy has been highly successful.
The tables can, however, be turned. Just as the pro-life movement, with persistence, grit and determination, prevailed in its nearly 50-year-long battle to overturn Roe v. Wade — despite the overwhelming support for abortion among cultural elites — the battle for marriage reality and sexual sanity can be won.
But it will take courage.
How sad it is that courage is required to defend something as basic and critical to the well-being of any society as the institution of marriage, or that it requires bravery to oppose things as self-evidently harmful as performing “gender affirming” mastectomies on adolescent girls. But that is where we are today. And the situation will deteriorate further — you can count on it — if we fail to exhibit the courage now required, if we fail to speak moral truth to cultural power.
Standing boldly for what is true, good, right and just is everybody’s responsibility. Especially to my fellow Christians and other believers, I stress that it is our job. It is hard, I grant you. No one wants to be vilified, defamed, smeared as a “bigot” or “hater.” Discipleship is costly. But discipleship is what we are called to.
Every time you, I or anyone else fails to muster the courage to do what is right, there is a deeper failure: a failure of love. Moral norms and requirements are not abstract rules or arbitrary commandments. Their content is shaped by the human goods that these norms and requirements protect, preserve, uphold and advance — the goods of flesh-and-blood human beings, our brothers and sisters — whom we are called on to love and serve. We seek to preserve marriage and reject its counterfeits because of the profound respects in which a flourishing marriage culture benefits all members of the community, especially children.
We need courage to love as we should — extravagantly, fearlessly, self-sacrificially. Pray for it, for surely God will not deny it to anyone who, standing for so worthy a cause, humbly requests it.