A Neglected Question About Gay Marriage

What did the President’s inaugural remarks about gay marriage reveal about the direction of the debate?

In his second inaugural address, President Obama strongly endorsed gay marriage. In his own words: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

The president is surely right that everyone should be treated equally under the law. But it is precisely the nature of the law and the meaning of its equal application that is in question. Those who support gay marriage believe that in a just society everyone should be able to marry the person they love, without further questions. President Obama confirmed his place among those who think that love is the sole basis for marriage; but there remain some (myself included) who do not think that this is self-evident. Perhaps there should be a bit more ado about marriage.

There are obviously some situations in which desire and choice should be the only deciding factors. On the one hand, it does not make sense for someone to tell me that I can’t choose which out of the available lollipop flavors I want. On the other hand it does make sense that some people can become cops and others cannot. No, I’m not saying that marriage is strictly analogous either to choosing the flavor of one’s lollipop, or of meeting the requirements for the work of a policeman in the field, only that there are some cases where desire suffices as the sole criterion (as in deciding between lollipop flavors), and others where it does not (as in licensing police officers). Does marriage fall in the former camp, or the latter?

There is a relevant distinction between choosing pops and choosing cops: not just anyone can be a cop because not just anyone can be a good cop. Cops exist for the sake of the public good, not for the sake of people who want to be cops. I should clarify that I do not think there is a one-to-one analogy between getting married and becoming a police officer. Marriage is a far more complicated question. For starters, unlike the police department, marriage is not merely a public institution.

But, although it is not merely, it is fundamentally, a public institution. In fact, marriage is only marriage because the state recognizes it as such. This is why people bother petitioning the state to change what it recognizes as marriage. And it is confirmed by the fact that the state confers special status on married couples. Marriage is public because it is the basis for the family. It is where children are born, raised, acculturated, and eventually become citizens of age; it inaugurates a network of relations extending both outward toward one’s own current generation (cousins), and toward older and future generations (ancestors, grandparents, future children, and future generations); it is the locus of human activity from which children go out into the world for school, play, and eventually work. It carries old traditions and creates new ones. This is only a rough sketch of the ways in which marriage is a public institution. The point is, without family, there is no society, and without marriage, there is no family.

If marriage is simply about love, then President Obama is quite right: it does not make sense to tell someone that he can choose his favorite flavor, and then turn around and tell another that she cannot. But if marriage is a public institution that is not completely defined by the love of two individuals for one another, then President Obama’s remarks have little bearing on the question of whether gay marriage should be legal.

Some would probably argue that legalizing gay marriage does not entail a shift in the definition of marriage. This is true if marriage is only about love. But if marriage is not only about love, it seems evident that a man and a woman is not the same sort of grouping as a man and a man or a woman and a woman. If gender is meaningless, it doesn’t make sense to talk about transsexuals, and it is nonsense to think of oneself as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. If it does make sense to talk about these things, then there is obviously a shift in the definition of marriage if it is changed to accommodate different gender groupings. We should be turning our attention to the question whether this shift makes sense in the context of the purpose of marriage as a public institution.

This should lead us to ask: what is marriage, and why do we have it? Why does the government take it upon itself to politically recognize the love of two individual citizens? Why on earth do we have an institution by which two people become in many ways one before the eyes of the law? When we start to think about it in these terms, I think the very existence of marriage might begin to seem like part of a strange dream.

But it only seems strange because we take it for granted that marriage is about nothing but love. “Because they love each other” will only partially satisfy someone who is asking any of those questions. Because our perspective is so firmly rooted in the assumption that marriage is only about love, I think the only way to make heads or tails of these questions is to welcome a perspective that is not our own. This means: to understand marriage, we need to look to our past, and not simply for policies—not simply for answers to the question “how did people legislate marriage in the past?”—but for reasons—“Why?”

Before you go about reshaping a cornerstone, you had better understand what it’s doing there. The same goes for marriage: if we want to change it, we had better do everything in our power to make sure we understand why it’s there. Perhaps we haven’t done that. Perhaps we have shrunk from questions whose answers we fear are too difficult to accept.



2 responses to “A Neglected Question About Gay Marriage

  1. I think it is valuable to reflect on the true original form of marriage and understand fully why it was there. This is also why I think Jefferson called for the separation of church/state. Because he may have wisely understood that for the state to take action in some things like this it could very well lead toward a state legislated marriage and continue down that path. Would there be anything to stop them from legislation more state craft?

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