As any birder can tell you, sometimes the most obvious things are the hardest to see, and marriage is no exception. That’s why so many Americans are taking marriage back to its basics. Having now explored all the possibilities of what a marriage could be—straight or gay, permanent or temporary, sexual or asexual, monogamous or polygamous, adding or subtracting ad infinitum—we rediscovered an understanding of marriage that’s so old (no sexual technology, no operations, no Supreme Courts necessary!) it’s new again.
Pull Out Your Binoculars: Two Views
Whether you’re new to birding or a seasoned expert, it’s safe to say that everyone believes in marriage equality: we believe government should treat all marriages equally. What we might disagree about is what marriage is. Ken Myers, host of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, has observed that when a government takes steps to protect or preserve or prevent some activity or condition, it must first be able to define the thing in question. So when a government decides to protect wetlands, for example, it must first define what a wetland is, what qualifies a certain space to be a “wetland.” So also with marriage. If a government should provide public support for marriage, that government must have some agreed upon definition of what marriage is.
So, what constitutes a marriage? The authors of What is Marriage? have observed that the debate is primarily between two views of marriage: the conjugal view and the revisionist view.
Why does marriage exist? The conjugal view gives one answer: babies. Marriage exists because humans reproduce sexually, and human offspring are raised best with both the biological mother and father. Although not all marriages produce offspring, and although marriage has many other goods and purposes, marriage is different inkind from other relationships because other relationships do not so suitably conceive and rear children. Marriage came into being because humans reproduce sexually, and because human children require an unquantifiable amount of nurturing and education. So marriage is the institution that binds one man and one woman as husband and wife to be mother and father to any children that are born of that union.
Against this, the revisionist view is that—regardless of what it once was—marriage today is a loving emotional bond, a “sexual-romantic companionship” or “domestic partnership,” one distinguished from other relationships not in kind but by degree, by the intensity of emotional or sexual fulfillment. In the phrasing of same-sex advocate John Corvino, marriage is a relationship with “Your Number One Person.”
So. Is marriage gay, straight, or both? Is marriage monogamous or polygamous? Is marriage the conjugal union of one husband and one wife for life, normally for the procreation and provisioning of progeny, for the vitality and health of society … or is marriage simply a sexual-romantic bond between whomever, whenever, and for as long as they feel like it?
Let’s say a group of people, however mixed, claims to be married. Are these lovebirds really married? Is this a real marriage or an imitation? Here are four simple questions that will help you spot a real marriage when you see one.
1) Can It Be Consummated?
Why is marriage sexual? Marriage is a wide-ranging cooperation in domestic life, but nesting is not the distinctive feature of marriage. Unlike friendships, which are a relationship of hearts and minds, and unlike college roommates who simply share a living space, what makes a marriage so distinctive and unique is that it is also a bodily relationship. Robert P. George reminds us that, historically, a marriage was not considered valid until it had been consummated by the act that fulfills the behavioral conditions of procreation, until the husband and wife had become “one flesh.”
How can two people become “one flesh”? Two human beings genuinely become one flesh in the generative act. We digest our food, we walk, we think, as separateindividuals. But sexual reproduction is different. Sexual intercourse is a single act, but it is performed by two human beings—not as individuals—but as mated pairs, as male and female. Mating doesn’t always produce children: our law has always understood that, and it has never treated infertility as a barrier to marriage or as a ground for legal annulment; but it has always treated non-consummation as ground for a legal annulment. A marriage is not complete until it is consummated.
Marriage is different from other kinds of sexual or romantic unions not only in degreeof intensity, but different in kind: it can produce and rear offspring.
This does not mean that sexual intimacy and pleasure are not meaningful in themselves, for even when conception is not achieved, the bodily union is. Two men, two women, and groups cannot achieve bodily union for there is no function toward which their bodies can coordinate. Although same-sex partners can engage in acts that lead to orgasm, they cannot become a single reproductive principle; they cannot unite in a way that even infertile couples can unite in acts that fulfill the behavioral conditions of procreation.
It is only because a man and a woman can become a mated pair—and not because humans long for intimacy or friendship or release from sexual tension—that marriage came into being. Yet the Supreme Court’s reasoning turns marriage into an especially intense emotional relationship with Your Number One Person, and a definition so subjective, so dependant on personal feelings, tastes, or opinions, is hardly viable for society. Marriage is more than roosting.
What are we left with now that the Supreme Court has abandoned the conjugal definition of marriage and embraced the idea of marriage as a sexual-romantic companionship to Your Number One Person? We cannot explain why marriage should be a sexual relationship. We cannot explain why two people couldn’t just as well consider the central integrating feature of their marriage to be mixing cocktails together or worm-fishing or some other non-sexual interest.
But why, then, should the state be involved at all? Government is not ordinarily invested in people’s relationships—of ordinary friends, or siblings, or cousins, or tennis players, or book clubs. Even more, if marriage is just a commitment to Your Number One Person, why should a marriage be sexual?
Government cares about civilization, and marriage is the foundation of civilization. Government does not care about the romantic partnerships to Number One Persons. As author Ryan T. Anderson puts it, the government is not in the “intense companionship business.” Historically, government has been concerned about marriage because marriage is connected to procreation and child rearing in a very natural and fundamental way that is good for society.
Here’s a bird’s-eye view: Every single child is begotten of a man and born of a woman, and every single child has the right to be raised by his biological mother and father. Who are we to preemptively deprive them of this right by normalizing gay marriage?
2) Is It Two?
A flock of geese may come in any number. Not so with marriage. Why is marriage a bond of two people, and not five or eight? Again, however strange it might sound to us today, the short answer is babies. How many people does it take to make a baby?
It’s true: a husband and wife share a common life that is not only physical but also financial, emotional, moral, intellectual, and spiritual. But the comprehensiveness of this sharing is distinct from other kinds of relationships in its unique suitability for begetting and rearing children.
Marriage, historically understood, is a union recognized by society that formalizes legal rights and obligations between the husband and wife, the parents and child, and the family and community. This recognition is not only necessary for the benefit of the spouses, but especially for the benefit of any children the marriage might produce.
Three or four people may choose to sexually stimulate one another, but they cannot become a single reproductive principle. The idea that marriage is the conjugal union of one husband and one wife emerges out of human nature and is therefore universal. Only one man and one woman can become “one flesh.”
The revisionist definition of marriage cannot explain why marriage should be the union of two and only two people, and not three or more people in so-called “polyamorous relationships,” since three or five people can feel a close emotional bond and can decide that they like to express their emotional feelings for each other in mutually agreeable sexual play.
Birds of a feather flock together. It’s only natural that people with the same tastes and interests will be found together. But marriage is not a grouping of any number of persons for any number of reasons because every single human child has one biological mother and one biological father, and unless there is a tragedy (either abuse or abandonment or death), it is best for human children to be raised by their biological parents.
Husband and wife are sexually complementary. This is what makes them so suitable for a shared life as spouses and for being the parents of their children, conferring upon them the natural benefit of both maternal and paternal contributions to child rearing.
Besides, trying to be 100 percent committed to more than one person in a “polygamous marriage” could never result in a truly equal relationship. Despite the best of intentions, multiple lovers and children by multiple spouses always leads to competition and disharmony within the “family.” This is why monogamy (being married to one person at a time) is a good idea.
3) Is It Exclusive?
“Whose child is this?” It’s an important question for any society, and the vow of fidelity helps to answer that question. Historically, sexual infidelity has been grounds for divorce because sexual infidelity threatens the one thing that makes marriage so unique and so distinct from other kinds of relationships: making babies. For example, if a wife is sexually unfaithful to her husband and a child is conceived, a very problematic question rises: who is the father?
George Gilder makes a compelling case in his book Men and Marriage that when a child is born the mother is always there. Biology takes care of that. But will the father be there? Will the biological father stay with the biological mother and help that mother raise and nurture their child, conferring on him or her the enormous benefit of being brought up in the committed bond of the union that brought that child into being? Biology does not take care of that. If that happens, it’s because culture makes it happen. And the way a culture secures for its children the benefit of a father and a mother in a committed bond is marriage.
So marriage is sexually exclusive. By vowing fidelity, each partner makes it public that they are no longer sexually available for others. Fidelity not only encourages spouses to commit to raising the children that this marriage has produced in a stable union, but it also ensures the emotional commitment of the bond. Marital jealousy is real, and fidelity helps to preserve trust and peace—for the parents and the children.
According to the revisionist view of marriage, there is no ground or principle—opinion, maybe, but no principle—for why marriages should be sexually closed, rather than open. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; it’s better to be content with what you have than to risk losing everything by seeking more. A proverb, however, is not a principle. According to gay marriage ideology, there is no principle for why there should be fidelity and not promiscuity apart from feelings. But feelings wax and wane, and marriage is “till death do us part.”
4) Is It Permanent?
“Till death do us part.” Who would ever promise something so … permanent? Because humans are not sharks. Marriage has historically included a vow of permanence because the children who come into being as the result of human sexual reproduction do not come into being like baby sharks, who simply swim away from their mothers as soon as they are born. Human children need to have their diapers changed, they need to be nursed, swaddled, loved, and educated. The idea that marriage is permanent is linked to human nature.
The stability of the marital bond is beneficial for the spouses themselves, since a commitment to a lifelong bond is a power incentive to give the marriage your best, but it is especially beneficial for their children. A child’s sense of belonging and security is directly linked to the stability of his parents’ marriage. Even more, a child benefits enormously from receiving both the maternal and paternal contributions in education. Biological parents have a unique incentive to raise their children well. Many parents fail to do the best they can, of course, but there is no other bond which can be relied on to provide a greater possibility that children will be raised by people committed to them than the parental bond.
—And parenting never stops. Even when children become adults and fly the nest, the fact remains that they still have a biological mother and father, and that the committed bond of that union is a positive good in their lives. Except for in the case of abuse, abandonment, or sexual infidelity, the stability and harmony of life-long marriage is good for both the husband and the wife and any children they might have.
Without admitting that marriage and children are linked, no account can be given according to the revisionist understanding of why marriage should involve a pledge of permanence as opposed to being a temporary partnership for as long as the love lasts. But a diamond is forever. And marriage is for life.
The Misidentification of Marriage
Is it a friendship or a love affair? Is it a brotherhood or a partnership or a marriage? It’s time to take your birding to the next level, and these four questions will help for fast identification in the field. The Supreme Court’s ruling is not a tiny tweak that simply helps gay people to consider their relationships as marriages. We are talking about a fundamental misidentification—an abolition—of marriage, because it would abolish all the historic norms and criteria and principles of matrimony that make it so suitable and fruitful and healthy for the great project of child-rearing and human flourishing.
This guide fully admits that a real marriage is not necessarily a good or happy marriage. The degree to which married couples respect and love one another differs, and the level of mutual support varies as much as the level of enthusiasm. But even the worst of marriages are more real than the imitations. However well intentioned or happy other kinds of relationships may be, if they are not a bond between one man and one woman as husband and wife to be sexually faithful, to be committed for life, and to be mother and father to any children born of that union, then they are not a marriage.
I think everyone can agree that the new definition of marriage is pretty indefinite. Two guys? Five women? A woman and two cats? Cohabitating sisters? The book club that feels they’re being treated like second-class citizens? The soccer team that wants to adopt a child? Hey—love is love!
Love is love, and a platitude is a platitude. The question in the so-called “gay marriage debate” is not about if gay people love each other, but about if love is enough to make any relationship a marriage. That’s why the Birdwatcher’s Guide To Marriage is not directly about who gets to marry, but about what marriage is.
Marriage is one of our greatest natural resources. If we redefine marriage to be something other than a conjugal union of husband and wife for the procreation and rearing of children, the meaning of marriage simply dissolves. All of this, of course, will be seen as bigoted and closed-minded and insane, but in the end marriage is the only thing that keeps humanity going—at least when it comes to the birds and the bees.
Tyler Blanski, a Catholic convert, is the author of When Donkeys Talk: Rediscovering the Mystery and Wonder of Christianity (Zondervan, 2012) and Mud & Poetry: Love, Sex, and the Sacred (Upper Room Books, 2010). www.holyrenaissance.com This post originally appeared at Crisis Magazine and is reprinted with permission.