The partisan weighing in on the issue of so-called “gay marriage” has one simple choice to make. On the one hand, he can choose to either join the consensus of the vast majority of people who have ever lived by choosing to preserve the exclusively heterosexual character of marriage. On the other hand, he can choose to cast his vote in favor of the “enlightened” preferences of a minority of his contemporaries who seek to re-imagine marriage by transforming it into a bi-sexual institution.
Being a relatively low risk taker, my money is on the wisdom of the species.
Many of the most outspoken critics of “gay marriage” are certain that the decision to permit gays to “marry” promises to undermine marriage. I do not share their certitude.
So-called “gay marriage” may weaken institutional marriage—or it may not. The point, though, is that precisely because we cannot know for sure how the adoption of such a revolutionary, historically unprecedented measure like “gay marriage” will impact this hallowed, socially indispensable institution—or any other aspect of our lives—prudence and humility counsel us to submit to the teachings of our ancestors on this score.
Marriage, though of crucial import, is but one institution in a complex of institutions. This much we know for sure: a change as radical in nature as that of “gay marriage” most certainly will have an impact, not just on marriage, but upon the web of institutions of which marriage is a component. The very fabric of our culture will be altered—even if it is quite a while before we determine either the nature or even the existence of the alteration.
In the interests of fairness, however, it needs to be said that “gay marriage” does not appear as likely to deleteriously affect marriage and the family as other forms of conduct that we, as a society, have long since sanctioned. Moreover, because of these other trends, it seems to me that the case against “gay marriage” is itself on extremely perilous ground.
In a “state of nature”—a pre-political or pre-social condition—there would be no marriage. Marriage is a legal entity, a social institution. As such, it exists for the sake, not of procuring satisfactions for those who marry, but, rather, civilizing the married and their offspring.
In the past, marriage has been viewed almost exclusively as the means by which the species can be propagated and educated. As the early nineteenth century conservative theorist Louis de Bonald put the matter: “The production of man is the purpose of the relationship between the sexes; his conservation is the purpose of the relationship between the ages, which is to say that man and woman produce the child, and the father and mother conserve it.” And there is no doubt that the production and nurturance of children remain critical reasons for society’s need to preserve and strengthen marriage.
But in the past, in advance of marriage, there was no way to determine whether prospective spouses were capable of producing children. Today, obviously, there are. Among such methods is the now commonplace practice of pre-marital sex. Thus, not only have we long permitted non-marital sexual activity; for just as long, we have permitted marriage between couples who are either incapable of or unwilling to have children.
My point here is not to criticize either of these practices. Instead, I seek only to show that well before anyone ever dreamt up “gay marriage,” heterosexuals had done much to deprive the classical justification for marriage articulated by de Bonald of much of its force.
Of course, the argument that marriage is a great civilizing institution remains sound.
Marriage demands and encourages the cultivation of a host of virtues: honesty, fidelity, patience, forbearance, perseverance, temperance, humility, and, selflessness are some of the more salient human excellences that it promotes. Ideally, marriage should endure through sickness and health, better and worse.
And it should last until death.
But the ease with which we grant divorce and the frequency with which couples avail themselves of it has rendered this ideal of marriage that much more remote. For many, marriage has become but another relationship of convenience.
It becomes increasingly difficult to argue that “gay marriage” is impermissible while permitting pre-marital sex, illegitimate births, cohabitation, and no fault divorce. If “gay marriage” should be forbidden because it threatens to weaken marriage and the family, then pre-marital sex, illegitimacy, cohabitation, and divorce must be forbidden as well. In fact, inasmuch as homosexuals claim to want to marry, the latter activities appear to pose a much clearer and more imminent threat to marriage.
Conservatives in the past were well aware of this. Take the eighteenth century German thinker Justus Moser, for instance. Moser authored a brief essay entitled, On the Diminished Disgrace of Whores and Their Children in Our Day. In it, he writes that since “matrimony is always a highly important means to check vice and preserve virtue,” states must appropriate those measures that make this institution inviting while eschewing those that marginalize it.
This being so, “It is impolitic to give the children of whores the same honor as the legitimately born, since by so doing one destroys one of the strongest incentives for marriage.” Moser makes frequent references to “our ancestors, who were guided by experience rather than by theories [.]” Past generations stigmatized illegitimate children, not because the children themselves did anything that warranted unequal treatment, but because they sought “to reserve all honor and all civic benefits for matrimony, in order to encourage it.”
It is not my intention here to argue for or against “gay marriage.” Nor is it my intention to argue for or against the criminalization, or even stigmatization, of non-marital sex, divorce, illegitimacy, or anything else.
My objective is simpler than this: I want to bring to the reader’s attention the fact that the enemies of “gay marriage” must do better than they currently have if they want to sound convincing, for they have allowed the development of trends that weaken, not just traditional heterosexual marriage, but their own case for traditional, heterosexual marriage.
Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.