An Outline of What Is Marriage?

Wedding Cake Ornament1959
What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert George, is a brief book, but it is weighted with hefty arguments. Its 97 pages of text plus appendix, notes, and index, is an expanded revision of their article, What Is Marriage?, published in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy in winter of 2010. The introduction charts the course of their defense and the chapter titles signal the major points of their argument.

What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense


1. Challenges to Revisionists

2. Comprehensive Union

3. The State and Marriage

4. What’s the Harm?

5. Justice and Equality

6. A Cruel Bargain?

7. Conclusion

Whenever I read a book I usually try to find out something about the authors. I’d previously heard of Robert George as a pro-life champion and founder of the American Principles Project. The bios of all three men attest to their intelligence and academic credentials; their legal background is seen in their logic, and their depth and breadth of thinking is obvious in this tightly written book. The longest chapter is “What’s the Harm?”—I think because here the authors set forth the “heart of their argument” against redefining marriage. From the chapter titles it’s also evident that they’ve labored to address all of the attendant issues in the marriage debate that’s presently roiling here and in other countries.

What Is Marriage bookmarked borderThere were two things in the book that came as a surprise to me. They discuss friendship (the yellow tabs in the photo) throughout the book, and I was very appreciative of their thoughts on what friendship is and how it would be affected by a redefinition of marriage. The second surprise was that in comparison to other topics religious freedom (the purple tabs) was given only a very brief treatment.

If you’re curious about my bookmark tabs, I placed them on the pages that I thought were of importance in their discussion of what the authors labeled the “the many cultural and political goods that get the state involved in marriage in the first place.”1

  • Real marital fulfillment. (blue)
  • Spousal well-being. (blue)
  • Children’s well-being. (green)
  • Friendship. (yellow)
  • Religious liberty. (purple)
  • Limited government. (pink)

I began writing about What Is Marriage? a month ago, before spending time on the SCOTUS hearings. These three posts summarize its introduction:

Those posts are brief, and you might take the time over the weekend to look back at them if you haven’t read them before. I won’t repeat all that is in them, but let this quote suffice as a summation:

Our essential claims may be put succinctly. There is a distinct form of personal union and corresponding way of life, historically called marriage, whose basic features do not depend on the preferences of individuals or cultures. Marriage is, of its essence a comprehensive union: a union of will (by consent) and body (by sexual union); inherently ordered to procreation and thus the broad sharing of family life; and calling for permanent and exclusive commitment, whatever the spouses’ preferences. It has long been and remains a personal and social reality, sought and prized by individuals, couples, and whole societies. But it is also a moral reality: a human good with an objective structure, which it is inherently good for us to live out.

Marriages have always been the main and most effective means of rearing healthy, happy, and well-integrated children. The health and order of society depend on the rearing of healthy, happy, and well-integrated children.That is why law, though it may take no notice of ordinary friendships, should recognize and support marriages.

There can thus be no right for nonmarital relationships to be recognized as marriages. There can indeed be much harm, if recognizing them would obscure the shape, and so weaken the special norms, of an institution on which social order depends.

Next week I plan to begin working through their arguments. Marriage is a cornerstone of our well-being, and the necessity of being able to discuss it, affirm it and defend it is a responsibility for each of us who know its value.
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) 7, 6–7.


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