In Check Your Blind Spot: What Is Marriage? Sherif Girgis explains why the question What Is Marriage? is the core of the debate on marriage:
Marriage is a human good with its own structure, like knowledge or friendship. The present debate is not a debate about whom to let marry, but about what marriage (the human good that the law has reasons to track) really is. Two answers compete for legal enshrinement.
The first, driving the push for same-sex marriage, is that a certain emotional intimacy makes a marriage. But as our book shows, this answer can’t coherently distinguish marriage from companionship, an obviously broader category. So it gets marriage (the human good) wrong.
The second view of marriage begins from basics. Any voluntary form of community involves common action; it unites people toward common ends in the context of commitment. And in these respects, what sets marital community apart is its comprehensiveness: in (1) how it unites people, (2) what it unites them with respect to, and (3) how extensive a commitment it demands.
Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert George give more detailed definitions of the two views in the introduction to What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense.
The conjugal view of marriage:
…a comprehensive union: Joining spouses in body as well as in mind, it is begun by consent and sealed by sexual intercourse. So completed in the acts of bodily union in which new life is made, it is especially apt for and deepened by pro- creation, and calls for that broad sharing of domestic life fit for family life. Uniting spouses in these all-encompassing ways, it also objectively calls for all-encom- passing commitment: permanent and exclusive. Comprehensive union is valuable itself, but its link to children’s welfare makes marriage a public good that the state should recognize and support.1
The revisionist view of marriage:
…the union of two people who commit to romantic partnership and domestic life: essentially an emotional union, merely enhanced by whatever sexual activity the partners find agreeable. Such committed romantic unions are seen as valuable while the 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.2
Girgis, Anderson, and George bring into their discussion the role of no-fault divorce in beginning the shift from a societal conjugal understanding of marriage to the revisionist view of marriage simply as a romantic, emotional attachment. I don’t remember the movie or book in which years ago I first heard the phrase, “As long as you both shall love,” substituted for the question asked to both man and woman in traditional marriage vows “so long as you both shall live?” and to which both answer “I will.”
I’ve touched on these different views in Playing The Race Card On Marriage and Marriage Math & Grammar: On Equality & Rights, but I wanted to bring them front and center because it’s important the distinction be made to understand what the debate on marriage is about. If the distinction is not made, whether or not that is unintentional, then we’re talking at cross purposes. From what I’ve read, those who argue for the legal marriage of same-sex couples do not realize or else do not admit that the debate is about what marriage is.
If we’d thought through What Is Marriage? years ago, I doubt we’d be having this debate now. But we’re here, so let us understand what this marriage debate really is about, and then if we are able to understand and acknowledge what marriage is, perhaps we will find in the aftermath that the discussion has strengthened our marriages by giving us eyes to value what marriage is.
Ceramic ornament used on the top of a wedding cake in Birmingham, England in August 1959, Andy Mabbett, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
1,2Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (Encounter Books, New York NY: 2012) 3, 4.