A couple of days after Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, I posted on a comment Brandon Vogt had gotten on Facebook: “So not allowing certain individuals rights based on a religious viewpoint is not dictatorship?” In the central paragraph, I contended:
He’s assuming that opposition to same-sex marriage can be based on nothing other than traditional Christian morality, that a secular case can’t be made against it, and that therefore one-man-one-woman state laws and amendments amount to an establishment of religion. He’s wrong; but had he said just that, a fruitful discussion on the First Amendment and the place of religion in the public square might have followed. But no-ooo-o! he had to phrase it in a manner that implicitly equates religion with totalitarian regimes.Them’s fightin’ words. Or, to put it another way, that’s not how you change people's hearts and minds.
The one response I’ve gotten so far at this writing — and it was a nice comment, too! — came from Abraham:
I cannot help but notice that you do not make any attempts to provide any secular argument against same-sex marriage. Couldn’t it be successfully argued that once removed from a religious context, there is no valid reason not to recognize homosexual unions in the same way as heterosexual ones?
Of course, I didn’t provide one there, because that would have been a distraction from the point of that particular post (to paraphrase Gustave Flaubert: by dint of railing at bigots you run the risk of becoming a bigot yourself). Besides, to take on SSM is in a sense to take on the whole of the Sexual Revolution, from the Pill to in vitro fertilization to gendersilly theory. Third, any attempt to articulate a secular theory of any sort almost requires citation of social science data; however, the GLBT lobby has made it clear they will not tolerate any study whose findings contradict the Preferred Narrative. No, thank you, I don’t want to get sidetracked into “My scientist can beat up your scientist”.
Rather than present a full defense at this time, I propose to sketch an outline of such a defense, to present the skeleton stripped of quotations, citations, historical examples and case studies. This way, I can see where the foundation needs firming before I go to build the superstructure (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphors).
* * *
I: What is marriage?
Translations of words from one language to another depends on the fact that brute facts, whether they be concrete or somewhat abstract, remain constant over cultural barriers. One language may have finer distinctions than another other, and for some abstractions cognates may not line up exactly (e.g. Latin dignitas vs. modern English dignity). Yet noting the differences between the Roman gladius, the Japanese dai-katana and the French épée doesn’t truly obscure the fact that they’re all swords.
At the same time, though, different words do live on different levels of abstraction; the gladius, dai-katana and épée are all types of swords, yet they’re used in different combat styles for different kinds of attack. Noting that sedans, pickups, sport-utility vehicles, busses, tractor-trailer rigs and APCs are all truthfully and logically described by the term vehicle doesn’t make your Mini Cooper interchangeable with an M1A2 Abrams tank.
So it is with relationships. From the moment we’re conceived, we exist in a web of different kinds of relationships with other people, some of which we can choose and some of which are “baked in”. “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your relatives,” the old truism runs; it’s easy to forget that the most relevant feature of truisms is that they’re true. Sister, wife and mistress are all specific kinds of relationships, but each has different sets of functions, expectations and limits, as well as different places on the human love map. They’re not interchangeable; in fact, they’re mutually exclusive (morally, at least, in almost all cultures).
Marriage isn’t just another word for relationship; it’s a specific kind of relationship that fills a specific social purpose. Stray far enough from that purpose, and the relationship is no longer a marriage … whatever else it may be.
What is that purpose, then?
To a certain extent, the argument for same-sex marriage is predicated on the belief that love is the defining quality of marriage, a common enough belief stemming from our Judeo-Christian cultural heritage. Certainly, it’s commonly believed that love motivates most love matches. However, other relationship categories are marked by erotic love and yet aren’t marriages even by analogy; as other kinds lose their social odium, marriage as a community-approved sexual relationship becomes less relevant.
No, we see what marriage is by looking at what it does. Namely, it first establishes legal claims by the partners over each other’s bodies as matters of right rather than convenience. But not just over each other’s bodies; the institution establishes rights and responsibilities over the fruit of that union. This is specifically true of paternity: it establishes the rights of the mother and the children against the husband and father, as social ballast to his physical and psychological ability to walk away from his paternal responsibilities.
In other words, marriage attaches legitimacy (as opposed to bastardy) not only to the sexual union but also to the children that spring from the union. It also establishes exclusivity because the marriage propagates a specific line of genetic heritage; multiple fathers create mixed lines of heritage, which works against the father’s genetic self-interest. The community is called to be, in the legal sense, witnesses to the formal union, so the fact of the marriage is established before as many people as possible; their approval is nice but not specifically required.
Function, not motive, is the central issue: the question is not, “Why do people get married?” but rather, “Why is there such a thing as marriage?” Reproduction and child-rearing are at the heart of marriage because they’re at the heart of sex and human sexuality … a fact we’ve not forgotten so much as we’ve blocked out of our minds.