What is marriage?

This seemingly straightforward question is proving difficult to answer these days. But it’s the question the Supreme Court will have to wrestle with and answer as it considers 1996 The Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as being between one man and one woman, and California’s Proposition 8, which amended the state’s constitution affirming the traditional definition of marriage. The Court’s ruling on these two laws could have a profound impact not only on our view of marriage but also on the health and stability of families and the wellbeing of the country.

What Is Marriage CoverThank God for Princeton professor Robert George and two of his students, Sherif Girgis and Ryan Anderson, who answer this question in a new book by the same title: What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense.

The authors takes pains not to make arguments against homosexuality or same-sex marriage, any more than they argue against polygamy. Rather, they argue for marriage—what they call “conjugal marriage.” This is refreshing because it’s easy to decry the darkness; it’s hard to shine a light in the darkness.

The authors also steer clear of making religious or biblical arguments for marriage. This was smart. To argue from the biblical position in a post-biblical culture is to concede the argument before the argument has been made. Rather, they reserve their arguments to cultural and common sensical positions.

What Is Marriage? is short and simple, but not simplistic. You ought to approach it with thought, taking time to mull over and chew on the arguments for the classic, conjugal definition of marriage.

And what is that definition? “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.” [1]

The authors argue that those who favor redefining marriage—the “revisionists”—want to reduce marriage “as essentially an emotional union.” [2] Such a reduction would open the door for same-sex marriage for sure but, as the authors argue, it would also open the door for other types of non-traditional marriage.

Revisionists, as the authors summarize it, see the spousal relationship as simply “[the] ‘Number One person’” in each other lives. [3] In other words, there is nothing distinctively unique about the marriage relationship, except the choices of spouses to treat each other as their top relationship priority. To put the revisionists position in the form of a question we might ask: What makes marriage distinct and unique from any relationship or friendship? In chapter one the authors address this question, raising objections to the revisionists’ view of marriage.

In chapter two, the authors take up the conjugal view of marriage in detail. Within this chapter they have thought deeper about the biblical concept of one fleshness than have most pastors who preach passages such as Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:5; or 1 Corinthians 6:16. They sum up the mystery of one fleshness:

It is a remarkable fact that there is one respect in which this highest kind of bodily unity is possible between two individuals, one function for which a mate really does compete us: sexual reproduction. In coitus, and there alone, a man and a woman’s bodies participate by virtue of their sexual complementarity in a coordination that has the biological purpose of reproduction—a function that neither can perform alone. . . .

All interpersonal unions are, so far as they go, valuable in themselves: not just as a means to other ends. So a husband and wife’s loving bodily union in coitus and the special kind of relationship that it seals are valuable, even when conception is neither sought nor achieved. But two men, two women, and larger groups cannot achieve organic bodily union: there is no bodily good or function toward which their bodies can coordinate. [4]

Revisionists might argue that one fleshness can be achieved by same-sex couples or polygamists because the good in these sexual encounters is pleasure. But no—pleasure cannot produce oneness, and for three reasons:

  1. Pleasure is individual and may not represent the common good of the couple as a whole.
  2. Pleasure is experiential and therefore fleeting; it doesn’t have the potential of embodying another human being.
  3. Pleasure is only good in itself when experienced in conjunction with some other good—like producing another human being—therefore it has no inherent value.

Chapter three takes up the question of the state’s involvement in marriage. In other words, is marriage simply a private matter with no public value? Or, on the other hand, is marriage without distinctive public value and something the state can reshape to fit our ever-changing culture? Or, is marriage something else entirely—an institution the state should regulate but not redefine? The authors take the third view. They state: “[Here is] a widely acceptable rule: If something would serve an important good, if people have a right to it, if private groups cannot secure it well, everyone suffers if it is lost, and the state can secure it without undue cost, then the state may step in—and should.” [5] Such is marriage.

Chapter four asks and answers the question, “What’s the harm?” if the revisionists’ view were to prevail. The authors provide five answers:

  1. It would make marriage harder to realize
  2. It would expand government as marital norms erode
  3. It would make mothers and fathers superfluous
  4. It would threaten moral and religious freedom
  5. It would undermine friendship

Chapter five addresses the issues of justice and equality. And chapter six deals with dignity, personal fulfillment, and public recognition.

The authors close the book with an appendix, extending their argument about one fleshness.

Sex is the one area in particular that Satan, the enemy of God and of God’s creation, wishes to pervert the most. Why? Because it is the particular area of God’s creation wherein His image bearers can particularly communicate His image—that is, they have the potential of creating God’s particular image in another, distinct image bearer. And if the Supreme Court or our culture is hellbent on perverting the definition of marriage, reducing it to an emotional union only, then we as God’s image bearers have become perverted indeed. What Is Marriage? goes a long way to making cogent arguments to keep marriage and us, God’s image bearers, pure and undefiled.

[1] Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York: Encounter Books, 2012), 6.

[2] Girgis, Anderson, George, What Is Marriage?, 7.

[3] Girgis, Anderson, George, What Is Marriage?, 15.

[4] Girgis, Anderson, George, What Is Marriage?, 26, 27.

[5] Girgis, Anderson, George, What Is Marriage?, 41.

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4 Responses to “What Is Marriage?”: A Review

  1. Hey, Derrick,

    Does the book address the constitutionality of the federal government defining marriage at all? The federal government is supposed to act as the agent of the people and the states, using only the powers specifically granted to it via the Constitution. Where does the Constitution grant government the power to define or construct civil unions of any sort? (I think a fair arguement could possibly be made that they are empowered by the Commerce Clause to define business unions.)


    • Darrin, you make an important point on the constitutionality of defining marriage. The answer to your specific question is no, the book doesn’t make a constitutional argument. Robert George is more than able to make that argument, but I won’t speculate as to how he might frame it. We can surmise, however, that George, et.al. do believe the federal government has a right and responsibility to regulate what is and what is not a legal marriage, since they spend a chapter on the question (though, again, not on the specific constitutional question).

      If you’ll indulge me, I’ll make the constitutional argument.The purpose of the Constitution, as laid out in the Preamble, is to, among other things, “promote the general Welfare” — sometimes called the “common good.” The general welfare (or common good) concerns what is inherently good for all citizens, for all times, not individuals in the majority or the minority who happen to have opinions about the nature of marriage at this specific time. So, as the authors argue in the book, if marriage is redefined simply as an emotional union, which would allow for same-sex unions or polygamous unions, then the common good becomes something less common and less good. Obviously, we can argue whether the authors arguments about the detrimental effects on the common good are sound, but I don’t think we can argue about the Constitutional grounding of the government’s responsibility to define marriage.

      Let me give you another argument to support my claim — the full faith and credit clause in Article IV, Section 1. “Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.” In other words, since the ratification of the Constitution a legal, contractual marriage in one state must be recognized as legal and contractual in another state. So, if my wife and I moved from Texas to Oklahoma (God forbid!), Oklahoma must recognize my marriage as legal; I can’t be compelled to file a marriage license or get remarried in Oklahoma. Here’s where it gets sticky: Massachusetts, for example, has said it’s legal for same-sex couples to marry. Should Texas recognize the “marriage” of a gay couple that moves from Massachusetts to Texas? Or what if a Texas lesbian couple travels to Massachusetts to marry and returns to Texas? Who’s law takes precedent? What is Texas’s obligation under the full faith and credit clause in the Constitution?

      Something similar happened in 1993 in Hawaii, which led to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996. For federal purposes, DOMA defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman and expressly exempts states from recognizing same-sex unions performed in other states. DOMA and California’s Proposition 8 are now being challenged constitutionally, which opponents have a right to do. Personally, I’m in favor of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as only between one man and one woman. Such an amendment might be superfluous or more necessary depending on how the Supreme Court rules on DOMA and Proposition 8, but federally recognizing marriage as it has been recognized by every human society since the history of humanity (as outlined in George’s book) is the only guarantee of fulfilling the Founders purpose in establishing the Constitution — to promote the general welfare.

  2. Steve M says:

    A fundamental right to marriage was recognized by the Supreme Ct. in Loving v. Virginia (1967) based on the Substantive Due Process theory. I think a better position would be to say that it is derived from the Privileges and Immunities Clause.

    • Steve, thanks for your input. You make an interesting point. I think the 14 amendment could be used on the constitutional question Darrin raised earlier. However, I think the full faith and credit clause is a stronger argument on the whole — it certainly a more straightforward argument. Regardless, I think we’ve addressed Darrin’s concern. I appreciate your contribution.

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