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Union University Department of Political Science
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Anderson Defends Marriage As Between One Man and One Woman

Feb 14, 2014

 Last night, Ryan Anderson spoke to a full room in the Grant Center on the topic of “What Is Marriage?” Anderson is the William Simon Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and editor of Public Discourse, an on-line journal on ethics and public policy.  He is also the author of What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, with Sherif Girgis and Robert George.

Anderson began by acknowledging that partisans of both sides of this issue have not always engaged in the best discourse, at times resorting to name-calling and sloganeering. He gave credit to supporters of same sex marriage insofar as their public relations have been effective with messages like "Marriage Equality" and "Freedom to Marry," but noted they were less willing to make a sustained case for what marriage actually is.  He says that everyone believes in marriage equality, but the key question is what is marriage? Same sex marriage advocates don't really have a good answer for this.  The best argument they make is that marriage is an intense personal relationship with one person.  He thinks this has three major problems.  First, it cannot distinguish marriage as qualitatively different from companionship and instead defines it as a more intense form of friendship as opposed to something different in kind (as opposed to degree).  Second, this definition cannot explain three historical norms about marriage recognized in our legal and civic tradition: monogamy, sexually exclusivity, and permanence. Third, if marriage is an intense personal relationship, why is government involved? 

Instead, Anderson argues that marriage is a comprehensive act, good, and commitment. It is a comprehensive act in that marriage unites mind, body, and soul.  This unity is similar to all the organs of a body working together so a human can live. It is a comprehensive good in that it unites a man and woman to create and raise a child.  It is a comprehensive commitment in that it lasts more that 5-10 years but throughout time itself.

Next, Anderson presented reasons why people should care about the definition of marriage.  With regard to public policy and the rationale for the state’s interest, marriage brings a man and woman together to provide for any children that may result from their union.  We know that whenever a child is born there is a mother nearby; biology makes this so. But what about the father? Marriage is society’s attempt to encourage the father to commit to the mother, so that they can both commit to raising the child. Children benefit from having a mother and father and when a child that lacks one or the other, society pays a higher cost in poorer education outcomes, more behavioral problems, greater likelihood of having illegitimate children, and other things.  Social science is clear that there is no parenting; there is mothering and fathering and mothers and fathers each bring something unique to the raising of children.

Finally, Anderson articulated three consequences of redefining marriage.  His arguments rely on the idea that laws teach people by promoting ideas which affect behavior.  First, no institution would be left to promote the idea that a child needs a mother and father.  The redefinition does this by changing marriage from being about the needs of the children to the desires of adult individuals. A perfect example of this is that no-fault divorce has undermined the idea of permanence in marriage, leading to more broken marriages and the resulting social costs.

Second, there is no logical, rational principle limiting marriage’s redefinition to just same sex marriage.  He then talked about three new ideas promoted in mainline outlets recently.  In The New Yorker, an article talked of throuples, which is a marriage of three people.  If marriage is just about an intense emotional commitment, why exclude throuples based on the number of partners? If gender is arbitrary, why isn’t number? Then in The New York Times Magazine, Dan Savage argued for a “monogamish” marital ethos, because expecting a lifetime of sexual fidelity is unrealistic and couples might benefit from experimenting with a more “open” arrangement. Then the Washington Post had an article discussing the positive potential of a “wedlease”.  Wedlease replaces wedlock, as people could sign a wedlease for five to ten years and then decide if they want to renew it at the end of the lease if things are going well.  This purportedly would eliminate the problems from divorce because people enter the relationship understanding that it is not permanent.

The third consequence is that it undermines religious liberty.  Recently, Christian adoption agencies have shut their doors after government agencies refused them licenses because they refuse to place children in same sex marriages. Then we have Christians who are forced to take pictures, make wedding cakes, or other things for same sex couples when it violates their belief.  It used to be that government had a "live and let live" mantra where if someone wanted to offer benefits to same sex benefits, that was fine.  Now, government is coercing people to violate their conscience and religious liberty rights in using their talents to celebrate same sex marriage ceremonies.

Anderson took several questions after his address, and his lecture will soon be available on the Union University website. Anderson’s talk was sponsored by the Union University’s Institute for Intellectual Discipleship and the Department of Political Science’s Center for Politics and Religion.

A copy of their article from the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy which formed the basis for their book is located here.