What Is Marriage? A Summary of a Secular Defense of Man and Woman


What Is Marriage

Sometimes the most obvious things in life are the hardest to define. For example, how does one define beauty? Or manhood? Or marriage? Traditionally, such features of human existence were taken for granted as objective and self-evident, requiring no defense. But things have changed. The obvious is no longer obvious. It’s not quite right to say that we now live in a “relativistic” age. Most people today are rather certain that there are absolutes; we just can’t agree on what those absolutes are. What’s more, we can’t even agree on the terms by which we might resolve our disagreements. Reason no longer serves as our common court of appeal, and persuasion isn’t possible when your opponent doesn’t even speak the same language as you. The only way to change a person’s mind now, it would seem, is through the weapons of public shame and state coercion. This explains the current state of the debate over gay marriage.

Nevertheless, just because others abandon reason, that doesn’t mean that one should stop making reasonable arguments. Truth is a basic good that ought to be pursued for its own sake, even if it fails to persuade others. Further, critical thinking is a relatively (and unfortunately) rare virtue that requires sustained practice, attention, and openness to correction. Most people today are probably more often persuaded by memes and sitcoms, so we should not expect abstract philosophical arguments to have mass appeal. But while such arguments in themselves may not turn the tide of social sentiment back toward reality, they might still get through to some—including, hopefully, some in positions of cultural influence.

That’s why I see value in a book like What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George (New York: Encounter Books, 2012). Their goal is to present a rational case for the traditional view of marriage that does not depend on appeal to religious authorities or proof-texts. This in no way is meant to undercut the Bible’s teachings on marriage; to the contrary, their case strengthens the Bible’s teachings by demonstrating that such teachings are not arbitrary. The biblical view of marriage makes sense because it goes with the grain of our human nature. It reflects the objective link between marriage and the values of bodily conjugal union, procreation, shared family life, exclusivity, and commitment. Proponents of gay marriage may attempt to mimic these values, but they cannot rationally justify them, since all that remains of marriage on their terms is an emotional bond.

What follows is not a review but an analytical summary (consider this the “CliffsNotes” version), with original chapter and section headings included. I have left out much of the book’s supporting sociological/historical evidence and secondary points. While the book itself is relatively short (only 97 pages, not counting the appendix), my goal here is to condense its arguments in order to make them more accessible for an even wider audience. Readers will have to judge for themselves whether these arguments are ultimately persuasive.

Introduction. The authors state at the outset that their book is not about homosexuality, but marriage. It’s less about who gets to marry than about what marriage actually means.

  • Two views of marriage. The authors contrast their own view, which they label the conjugal view, with that of modern revisionists.
    • Conjugal view: marriage is an objective human good, the essence of which is comprehensive (a union of mind and body), ordered toward procreation, permanent, exclusive, necessary to children’s welfare, and worthy of state recognition and support.
    • Revisionist view: marriage is an emotional/romantic union, enhanced by sexual activity, in which permanence and child-rearing are optional features. (Note that there is nothing specifically homosexual in this definition; it could also apply to, say, two adulterous heterosexual lovers who decide to leave their spouses to marry each other.)
  • Why this book now. The authors recount the recent history of shifting views and laws on marriage in America. This section is a bit outdated, especially since the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision of 2015. And yet, if anything, the past few years have only further reinforced the relevance of a book like this.
  • What we will show. The chief argument of the book is that, while conjugal marriage has always been society’s primary means of rearing healthy, productive children—which, in turn, is necessary to the common good—the revisionist view undermines people’s ability to recognize real marriage and experience its true fulfillment, thus harming the common good. From this chief problem, several effects follow (all of which are taken up in more detail in chapter 4):
    • The revisionist view undermines spousal well-being by undermining the principles of permanence, exclusivity, and orientation to family life.
    • The revisionist view undermines child well-being by denying the need for both a father and mother, and by softening the social and legal pressures that prevent divorce.
    • The revisionist view undermines friendship by redefining marriage merely in terms of the degree of shared emotion/experience it provides, making it only quantitatively (not qualitatively) different from friendship.
    • The revisionist view undermines religious liberty, making it more difficult for individuals, churches, and religious institutions to express and live by the values of the conjugal view.
    • The revisionist view undermines limited government by weakening marriages. If stable families fall apart, then state bureaucracies and welfare/correctional services will have to step in to fill the vacuum.
  • What our argument is not. The authors are not arguing against the morality of homosexuality per se; in fact, it is logically possible for a gay person to oppose gay marriage (even ancient Greece, which celebrated homoerotic relationships, had no concept of gay marriage). Further, they are not here using religious texts as the basis for their argument; their arguments are essentially philosophical and rooted in the natural law tradition. For this reason, evidence from history and social science play only a supporting role in their arguments. The empirical data are explained by the principles of conjugal marriage, but they do not determine such principles.

Chapter 1: Challenge to Revisionists. Marriage is a basic and objective human good—an end pursued for its own sake, like health, knowledge, or friendship. But since it is an objective good, it has an objective meaning. Denying or attempting to refute that objective meaning does not thereby prove the revisionist view, which fails even on its own terms. The revisionist view cannot give a coherent explanation to three key points of agreement it shares with the conjugal view:

  • The state has an interest in regulating some relationships? Why do we have laws regulating marriages but not friendships? Because unlike friendship, marriage is necessarily tied to the raising of healthy, productive citizens. The revisionist view severs this connection between marriage and child-rearing, thus making state regulation nonsensical.
  • Only if they are sexual? What is it about sex that makes a relationship deserving of state regulation? What if, say, two bachelor brothers or close friends live together? On the conjugal view, sex is meaningful because it is naturally ordered toward procreation. On the revisionist view, sex is only meaningful insofar as it strengthens partners’ emotional bond. But there are other ways of strengthening emotional bonds. If we accept gay marriage, we would have no reason to reject non-sexual relationships as marriages too.
  • Only if they are monogamous? Why stop at two? If marriage is only an emotional union with no necessary connection to child-rearing, shouldn’t spouses be free to decide for themselves if opening their marriage to additional partners would help or hurt their union? Only the conjugal view explains why marriage ought to be a sexually exclusive pair (it takes two, and only two, to make a baby).

Chapter 2: Comprehensive Union. If the previous chapter highlights the incoherence of the revisionist view, this chapter highlights the value of the conjugal view according to three defining elements: acts, goods, and commitment.

  • Comprehensive unifying acts: mind and body. Marriage goes beyond friendship in that it unites not only minds, but also bodies. This bodily union is not merely physical pleasure (which is only a subjective mental state), but rather coordination toward an objectively shared biological end: procreation. This union exists even when the end (conception) is not realized.
  • Comprehensive unifying goods: procreation and domestic life. Shared domestic life involves cooperation in all the demands of parenting. This does not mean that marriage is defined by parenting (as if friends who adopt together are thereby married, or as if an infertile couple cannot be married), but rather that there is a natural fit or aptness of marriage to parenting (like a ball and socket). Procreation enriches and fulfills marriage, similar to how winning games fulfills the purpose of baseball teams. The team does not cease to be a team just because it never wins games; a losing team may still share other goods in common (such as cooperation and sportsmanship). However, the failure to win games is a genuine lack for the team. The same is true of childlessness for marriages (see more on the infertile couple objection in chapter 5 below).
  • Comprehensive commitment: a rational basis for norms of permanence and exclusivity. Marriage (on the conjugal view) is not the only relationship in which sexual exclusivity is possible, but it is the only relationship in which it is necessary. A gay couple may promise lifelong monogamy, but they can give no reason for doing so apart from their own preference (it is unsurprising that advocates of gay marriage are usually not opposed with equal fervor to gay divorce). On the other hand, if procreation is the natural end of conjugal bodily union, and if children need stable families, then the conjugal view explains the need for sexual exclusivity and permanence in marriage.

Chapter 3: The State and Marriage. Unlike other kinds of bonds, marriage has a distinctive public value. This chapter argues against libertarians on the Right, who deny marriage’s public value, and liberals on the Left, who deny marriage’s distinctive value.

  • Why civil marriage? We do not have legal restrictions or civil ceremonies for friendships, so why would marriage be different? The authors provide several reasons:
    • As almost all cultures throughout history have recognized, no other bond is so central to the production of healthy, upright, productive citizens. In the pithy words of Maggie Gallagher, “Sex makes babies, society needs babies, and children need mothers and fathers.” While marriage is necessary to society, it is also costly and fragile, which is why it needs social and legal pressures to keep it intact.
    • While politics often flows downstream from culture, the reverse can also be true: laws shape beliefs. Popular opinion is that what is legal is normal, and what is normal is good (consider how common divorce has become since the rise of no-fault divorce laws). Therefore the state has an interest in ensuring the prevalence of a healthy marriage culture through appropriate legislation.
    • Legislating marriage is unavoidable, since when marriages break down the state will still have to deal with collateral issues like custody, property rights, incarceration, etc. Ironically, ignoring the state’s interest in marriage will only result in expanding the state’s intrusion into our lives.
    • The authors give specific parameters for when something warrants state involvement: when it serves an important good, when people have a right to it, when private groups cannot secure it well, when everyone suffers if it is lost, and when the state can secure it without undue cost. Marriage meets all these conditions, since it benefits children, benefits spouses, helps create wealth, helps the poor, and checks state power.
  • Is marriage endlessly malleable? The authors challenge the viewpoint known as constructivism, which is the belief that a society is free to define marriage however it wishes, according to the demands of utility. On this view, there is no objective “essence” to marriage. There are three key problems with the social constructivist’s position:
    • Can a social practice have necessary features? Just because some aspects of marriage are socially constructed (say, whether they are arranged, or what kind of tax benefits they confer), that does not mean all aspects of it are. There is still an objective core to marriage. One could use the analogy of friendship, which might vary in many of its cultural expressions (in the Middle East, for example, friends of the same sex kiss on the cheek and hold hands), but retains an objective core meaning that can be recognized by all cultures.
    • Philosophical and legal traditions. Thousands of years of reasoned reflection have confirmed the the necessary link between conjugal bodily union and marriage. Philosophers and statesmen throughout history have recognized that only coitus (not some other sexual act, and not conception or birth) consummates a marriage. That is why impotence was regarded as grounds for annulment but infertility was not. Such a wide historical consensus can only be explained as the product of the rational judgment of the conjugal view; if the constructivists were correct, we would not expect such unanimity.
    • Constructivism and revisionism. If marriage is nothing more than a construct defined by its social utility, then how can anyone demand a right to it? If constructivism is true, justice-based arguments would be secondary to utility-based arguments, so if the traditionalist can claim even some reasonable degree of social utility to the conjugal view (and babies certainly provide social utility), then that necessarily trumps any justice-based objections of the revisionist. Further, on the constructivist view, the revisionist can offer no principled objection to granting marriage status to polyamorous relationships as well, unless they could show how the social cost of doing so would outweigh the perceived benefit.

Chapter 4: What’s the Harm? One common objection to the conjugal view is that people should be free to do as they please as long as they don’t harm others, and gay marriage doesn’t harm anyone. The authors respond that this is mistaken. Changing marriage laws will inevitably shape people’s beliefs and behaviors, which will in turn impact society’s well-being.

  • Weakening marriage: making it harder to realize. The chief harm caused by the revisionist view is that redefining marriage makes it harder to recognize real marriage and thus harder to achieve and live out. If I am mistaken in my view of what, say, friendship means, how can I possibly be a good friend? The same applies to marriage.
  • Weakening marriage and expanding government: eroding marital norms. By redefining marriage as an emotional union, there is no reason to insist on its permanence or exclusivity. What will keep a marriage going when emotions fade? Whether revisionists intend it or not, their view cannot provide a coherent rationale to prevent the erosion of monogamy and its disastrous consequences on child well-being and ballooning state intervention.
  • Making mother or father superfluous. For the traditionalist, a husband and wife provide the ideal environment for raising children. Revisionists, on the other hand, would deny this and, insofar as they sever the connection between marriage and parenting, make it impossible to define any ideal environment for parenting. The result, if this view prevails, would be more homes without a father and mother, at great cost to children’s well-being. To the extent that we have reliable statistical studies on this subject, the evidence supports this conclusion.
  • Threatening moral and religious freedom. Consider how our society treats racists. That will be the outcome for defenders of conjugal marriage if the revisionist view prevails. They will increasingly be treated as bigots, and their liberties curtailed. Of course, this is precisely what many revisionists want.
  • Undermining friendship. The more we define marriage solely by the intensity of emotion it offers, the more we cheapen the emotional value of friendship. If marriage is understood as the pinnacle of emotional fulfillment, what becomes of single people? Must they resign themselves to second-rate emotional satisfaction? The conjugal view preserves the distinct value of marriage and friendship by delineating the type of fulfillment that each can provide. (Incidentally, this is also a good reason not to equate one’s spouse with one’s “best friend.”)
  • The “conservative” objection. Some revisionists might object that they are actually promoting the traditional marital norms of exclusivity, permanence, and connection to family life, by extending these norms to more relationships. But in reality, they are having the opposite effect. This is because revisionists detach these norms from the reasons for following them. Over time, such norms would make less sense, and fewer and fewer people would see the point in continuing to abide by them. Again, this is precisely the outcome that many other revisionists want.

Chapter 5: Justice and Equality. This chapter focuses on two common objections to the conjugal view: that it cannot be consistently applied to infertile couples, and that it denies equality of access to marriage.

  • The case of infertility. The authors argue that an infertile husband and wife differ only in degree (not in kind) from a fertile husband and wife. 
    • Still true marriages. Infertile marriages share all the same essential traits as fertile marriages. Infertile couples share the same behavior (coitus) and intention (making concrete their bodily union) that, under other circumstances, would lead to procreation. The only thing that makes a fertile couple different from an infertile couple is a biological process beyond anyone’s control. An analogy can be drawn from another biological process: digestion. This involves the coordination of certain voluntary behaviors (chewing and swallowing) and involuntary processes (the intestines’ nutrient absorption) toward the shared goal of nourishment. The voluntary behaviors still constitute digestive acts, even if there is a failure in the involuntary processes, and even if this is known before eating. This explains why, historically, marriages were considered consummated by coitus, not conception.
    • None of the costs. If one accepts the arguments of chapter 4 on the harmful social costs of revisionist marriages, it remains the case that recognizing infertile marriages as true marriages carries none of these costs.
    • Many of the benefits. Infertile couples still contribute to a strong and healthy marriage culture. By embodying all the essential features of marriage, infertile couples make true marriage more recognizable, thus encouraging more fertile individuals to seek out marriage toward the end of healthy child-rearing.
    • A special benefit. Infertile couples also uniquely help us to see that marriage is a good in itself, and not merely a means to the end of rearing children. This in turn will encourage greater family stability in society.
  • The injustice of bans on interracial marriage. It is often argued that prohibiting same-sex marriage is morally equivalent to prohibiting interracial marriage, on the grounds that both kinds of prohibition violate the principle of equality. The authors argue that this analogy fails on several counts:
    • Opponents of interracial marriage never denied that real marriage was possible between blacks and whites; the purpose of antimiscegenation laws was rather for maintaining white supremacy.
    • Unlike the antimiscegenation laws, opposition to gay marriage cannot be explained merely by hostility or animus. Even cultures that celebrated homoerotic relationships (like ancient Greece) recognized that only coitus could consummate a marriage (ruling out other sexual acts between a husband and wife as well).
    • If discrimination against gay marriage is unjust, then by that logic so must be discrimination against open, temporary, and/or polyamorous marriages. The revisionist can either bite the bullet and accept these other forms of relationships as legitimate marriages, or they can insist on their immorality. If they take the latter approach, then they must accept three things as a consequence:
      • Marriage is not just a contract; it has a moral reality.
      • The state is within its rights to recognize only true marriages. Recognizing only some kinds of relationships as marriages will necessarily leave other kinds out (i.e., discrimination).
      • There is no such thing as a right to have any consensual relationship recognized as marriage; only a right not to be prevented from forming a true marriage.
    • By accepting these three truths, the revisionist must accept that the principle of equality in itself does not automatically justify same-sex marriage, any more than it justifies other kinds of relationships as marriage.

Chapter 6: A Cruel Bargain? One might also object that the conjugal view comes at too cruel a cost for many people. The so-called “cruelty objection” (or, positively, the “argument from compassion”) takes a number of forms, which the authors break down as follows:

  • Practical needs. Revisionists point out that marriage confers several practical benefits related to property, hospital visitation, inheritance, taxes, etc. However, there is no reason why receiving these kinds of benefits requires marriage (or even a sexual relationship, for that matter). At most, it may warrant sex-neutral civil unions, to which the authors have no objection in principle.
  • Dignitary harm. Even apart from practical benefits, revisionists argue that legalizing gay marriage confers dignity to gay couples that the lack on the traditional view. But why would the traditional view rob them of dignity any more than it robs, say, roommates or polyamorous relationships of dignity? If the arguments for the conjugal view are sound, then the state cannot turn an unreality into a reality.
  • Personal fulfillment, public recognition. The most common objection to the conjugal view today is that denying marriage status to so many people deprives them of the ideals of companionship provided by marriage. The response is simply that there is nothing about companionship per se that requires legal recognition. There is nothing about marriage law (whether conjugal or revisionist) that hinders anyone from seeking intimacy with other consenting adults. Indeed, do friendships require legal recognition for their fulfillment? Neither should non-conjugal romantic relationships.

Conclusion. Defending the conjugal view of marriage in no way violates a commitment to religious neutrality. There are plenty of other moral controversies of consequence for public policy, such as affirmative action, abortion, capital punishment, etc. Just because these issues are morally or religiously controversial, that does not mean the state can or should keep silent on them. What we owe one another are reasoned arguments for our views. It is precisely such arguments that the authors have attempted to provide in defending marriage as a comprehensive union, ordered toward procreation and family life, requiring exclusivity and permanence, in the service of the common good of society.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

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