By Shane Scott
Any day now the Supreme Court is set to rule on whether the states can define marriage as between a man and woman. I don’t know how the Court will rule, but given the general tendency of the Court, my fear is that the Court will overturn the laws of 37 states, as well as millennia of tradition, in redefining “marriage.” And that is the issue here. While proponents of same-sex marriage have skillfully framed the issue in terms of “marriage equality,” this clever rhetorical strategy simply begs the question. No one questions whether all marriages should be given equal standing under the law. The real issue is what marriage is. So this is not about “marriage equality” but marriage redefinition.
In this article I want to lay out a basic argument against same-sex marriage (SSM), and I hope it will provide you with some ideas for how to reason with your friends about this issue.
Premise 1: Men and women are different. As Christians, we believe this is the case because God created male and female in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). But I don’t think anyone would find this point too controversial even if they were an atheist!
Premise 2: By virtue of their differences, men and women can reproduce (“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” Genesis 1:28). Again, this is not an especially controversial point. But it calls for further clarification. Considered even from a purely biological point of view, just as surely as the eye is naturally ordered to see, and the ears are naturally ordered to hear, the reproductive organs are naturally ordered to…well, reproduce. While we as Christians believe that nature has rational order because of a transcendent Creator, even an unbeliever can acknowledge these common-sense purposes in nature.
Premise 3: For human beings, reproduction is more than mere procreation. Since humans are rational beings, children must also be taught, nurtured, and disciplined, a fairly long-term commitment. So the natural ordering toward reproduction for humans is also a natural ordering toward a long term commitment to care for children. Even unbelievers understand this, which is why failing to care for one’s family makes a person “worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).
Premise 4: The same act that creates children also creates an intense bond between the man and woman. Sex is not only procreative but also pleasurable, and stirs incredible emotion and fosters intense intimacy. It is truly “conjugal,” conjoining the man and woman in a comprehensive union. The Bible calls this union a “one flesh” relationship (Genesis 2:24). But universal human experience testifies to the reality of this powerful bond.
Premise 5: To be a comprehensive union – joining a man and woman in all facets of personality as well as physically – it must be mutual, exclusive, and permanent. It must be mutual because a comprehensive union is one in which both parties consent. It must be exclusive, or else the union is not truly comprehensive – a part of you belongs to someone other than the spouse. And it must be permanent, or else it is not a genuine union. “The two shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
Summary. What I have argued is that male/female sexual complementarity is naturally ordered to a long-term commitment to raise children and a mutual, exclusive, and permanent comprehensive union. In short, male/female sexual complementarity is naturally ordered toward marriage.
How could a proponent of SSM try to counter this argument? One approach might be to challenge the consistency of this rationale for marriage. If marriage is built on the premise of male/female sexual complementarity that is naturally ordered toward producing children, then wouldn’t that mean that couples who could not have children because of infertility or advanced age should not be allowed to marry? And the answer is no – for two reasons. First, the argument regarding what sexual complementarity is naturally ordered toward has to do with nature’s general purposes, not specific individual performance. The eye is generally ordered toward sight regardless of whether my particular eye is diseased with glaucoma and can no longer see. An infertile heterosexual couple is still naturally ordered toward reproduction by virtue of general male/female sexual complementarity, even if in their specific case they will not be able to have children. Second, while such a couple may not be able to have children, they can still enjoy the other naturally ordered purpose of male/female sexual complementarity – the comprehensive union.
The argument that I have set forth is built on premises that are common sense observations. That is why for millennia of philosophical reflection on marriage, thinkers from all sorts of backgrounds conceived of marriage as between a man and a woman. Even in pagan Greece, where homosexual behavior was widely tolerated, it was never considered appropriate as a definition of marriage. That was reserved for men and women.
Once the definition of marriage is cut loose from its moorings in male/female sexual complementarity, there is simply no coherent way to define marriage other than in terms of consent. Without male/female sexual complementarity naturally ordered in its reproductive and unitive aspects, all that is left for a same-sex couple is romantic feelings plus the consent to marry. But the government cannot give out marriage licenses on the basis of romantic feelings. So all that remains is consent. Which means that “marriage” becomes nothing more than contract law. And since any number of parties can enter into a contract for any number of reasons, “marriage” could mean anything. And if it can mean anything, it means nothing.
This is why SSM is an incoherent position. And the challenge for any proponent of SSM is to explain on what principled grounds “marriage” should be reserved for two people. Since “consent” is all that matters, why not three (“throuples” is a new catchword in some communities)? Or why should marriage be exclusive (“monagamish” is another new catchword)? If “marriage” can mean anything, it means nothing.
The current debate over SSM is really a reflection of a much deeper philosophical issue. Does nature have order that we can rationally observe, or is nature simply the random collection of parts? If “parts is parts” (as an old Wendy’s commercial used to say), then there is no natural ordering, and people can be seen to be as interchangeable as the parts of a machine, and “marriage” can be any combination of parts we want it to be.
But this “parts is parts!” outlook doesn’t reflect what I think most of us find to be common sense. Consider this statement by an American politician: “We’re going to support efforts to build healthy relationships between parents as well — because we know that children benefit not just from loving mothers and loving fathers, but from strong and loving marriages as well.”
Who do you think said this? Ben Carson? Ted Cruz? The answer is President Obama, on Father’s Day five years ago. Since then the President has made clear his change of heart in support of SSM, but in this Father’s Day address he summarized as ably as anyone the case for traditional marriage, the union of a man and woman ordered toward raising children.
And that brings me to my last point. I have written this article on Father’s Day weekend. By definition, a “father” is a male parent, and a “mother” is the “female” parent. The traditional understanding of marriage places great value on both mothers and fathers. This is especially important in our society when so many social pathologies can be traced to the problem of fatherlessness (and I say this as someone born to an unwed mother). All things being equal, I agree with President Obama that children benefit “from loving mothers and fathers.” But the legal acceptance of SSM means that if there is no “husband and wife” there is also no “mother and father.” There are simply spousal units and parental units. “Parts is parts!” But I strongly disagree with this concept. I believe fathers and mothers are very important as fathers and mothers, that each has unique gifts to bring to children, and that as the President said just five years ago, strong marriages are the best environment in which children should be raised. This was President Obama’s unintended argument against SSM.