The procreation and care of children play a central role in the current debates over the meaning of marriage. For supporters of the conjugal view of marriage, children are the dominant reality driving the state’s recognition of marriage. Because sex leads to babies, the state wants to channel sex into a stable relationship that bonds both a mother and a father to their children. Those two parents, the mom and the dad, are then present from birth through their child’s emergence into adulthood as a constant source of love, education, and provision. As the social science presented at Public Discourse and elsewhere has documented, a married mom and dad provide the best possible home for raising their children. And so the state recognizes, supports, and promotes marriages—for the sake of the children.
Making children the integral attribute of marriage has shaped the legal and political debate over marriage, and it has led to several obvious objections from those seeking to overthrow the conjugal vision. “Why does the state permit people who cannot conceive to get married?” “Why allow anyone over age 50 to marry?” “Why not require a fertility test before marriage?”
We’ve all heard some version of this argument before—it is a go-to set of questions from the other side. These questions demonstrate that focusing on marriage as a self-existing and solitary unit misses a vital and persuasive feature of marriage. The concept of kinship fills this gap by enlarging the meaning and purpose of marriage and family to stretch across families, years, and generations.
Humans are social animals. Although we exist as individuals, we do not live in isolation. The need for community is woven into our being: to be human is to be part of a community of individuals. We do not reproduce asexually, but by means of the sexual union of two individuals, male and female, which generates the gift of new humanity. Our marriages are not lone, solitary institutions: we may enter marriage as individuals, but marriage finds its truest expression in the “one-flesh union” that unites a man and a woman as one.
The promise of marriage is the communal benefit it offers society. Where questions arise that purportedly imply exceptions to the conjugal definition of marriage, the tacit assumption behind many such questions is a latent and false conception of individuality—that men and women within a marriage are lone actors who unite for the purpose of marriage, fulfill an act of social obligation, and continue on in singular, non-generative roles as the participants in marriage mature. This version of marriage—one where individuals within a marriage itself define marriage—misses the forest for the trees.
Kinship demonstrates how societies, not just lone marital units, are established. Kinship connotes a truth about sociality: once procreation and rearing in the home are done, we are still interlocked by permanent, inter-generational bonds of dependence. Perhaps the most important factor of kinship is how it extracts the simultaneous and multifarious roles individuals play in society, roles that only marriage fosters. Even with a pairing of two, marriage is never static, but boundlessly dynamic.
Indeed, kinship suffuses marriage with a potent social dynamism, as the following example demonstrates. Consider Margaret, a 67-year-old woman. In her life, her roles as a beneficiary from her parents’ marriage and her own marriage to Elliot have contributed to her identity in ways that only marriage can. She has been given titles and assigned social roles that can only be conferred on her by the reality of marriage. Margaret is a wife to Elliot. Over their forty years of marriage, they have had three children, all of whom are now grown and married. Two of her children have children, making Margaret a grandmother. Margaret is a twin sister to Grace, who is married to Reginald. Grace and Reginald have four children, all grown with children of their own.
Margaret isn’t unique in her many roles and identities. She has been an actor in the game of life that bears fruit for civilization. Margaret has been a daughter, a sister, a cousin, a wife, a mom, a grandmother, and an aunt. God willing, she will someday be a great grandmother.
These roles may not all occur simultaneously, but many do. All these roles embody and solidify what marriage does: it transforms an individual by placing her in various roles that are created from successive acts of prior marriage; though she did not participate in those prior marriages, she reaps their social capital and benefits from them.
Margaret’s life embodies the reality of marriage as the union of a man and woman who come together as husband and wife to be father and mother to their children. Because of her mom and dad’s marriage, Margaret was (and is) a daughter. Because Margaret married Elliot, she became a wife. Because Margaret and Elliot’s companionship bore children, she became a mom. Because Margaret’s children got married and had children, she became a grandmother. Marriage creates, connects, seals, and forges new bonds—realities that continue long past the begetting of children. Marriage thus is a trans-generational institution.
At no point in Margaret’s life is she disconnected from the roles that are realized within the context of marriage. The kinship model of marriage connects the social dots that map out the historical-political terrain of the political community. Marriage uniquely informs and shapes the world as we know it, creating other social roles in turn. Indeed, we might say marriage is centrifugal: the center axis of marriage results in the products of the marriage moving away from the center. The concept of kinship reinforces this communal and social understanding of marriage.
The needs and goods of the political community define the reciprocal nature of natural marriage. The political community needs marriage because it is, according to James Q. Wilson, “a socially arranged solution for the problem of getting people to stay together and care for children that the mere desire for children, and the sex that makes children possible, does not solve.” Marriage also gives order (goods) by fashioning bonds of community that foster connection to family, neighborhood, and society.
When speaking about the uniquely child-centered nature of marriage, we need to be equally adamant that marriage is a socially-centered institution. While marriage is a good in itself, marriage’s ontological nature is intimately linked to its social purpose.
If we grant kinship’s centrality to marriage, same-sex relationships not only fail as to what constitutes a marriage, but same-sex relationships also fail the kinship test. Redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships enacts a legal fiction that the organic contours of society neither intuitively recognize nor posit. Same-sex marriage does not contribute to the kinship model. If natural marriage bestows life in way that is socially-oriented and centrifugal, then we might say that same-sex marriage is centripetal. In same-sex marriage, the emotional, non-generative unions of adults become the center.
Such relationships are not the type on which society depends. Same-sex marriage not only elevates the desires of adults over the needs of children; it also elevates the desires of adults over the needs of civilization. Same-sex couples have any number of technological advances available that mimic the features of parenting, save one: the capability to create children. Whether through artificial reproductive technology or adoption, same-sex couples who wish to have children must look extra nos, outside themselves and apart from the “one-flesh union” that organically and comprehensively unites man and woman in the marital act.
None of this is to suggest that our neighbors with same-sex attractions are incapable of experiencing the bonds of kinship. All individuals—regardless of sexual desires—are sons or daughters, sisters or brothers, and aunts or uncles, with full rights and responsibilities to pursue the common good. Kinship is simply an extension of the biological good that ennobles marriage’s uniqueness.
Family is the foundation of society; marriage is the foundation of family. Embedded in this simple truth is the overwhelming chorus of families that form nations, a reality that no human ideology like same-sex marriage can overcome.
Chesterton once noted, “The greatest political storm flutters only a fringe of humanity. But an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children literally alter the destiny of nations.”
The kinship paradigm sees marriages of the past shaping the present and marriages in the present influencing the future. If we may reword the great Chestertonian adage about tradition, we could say that marriage is not only “the democracy of the dead,” but the democracy of the living as well.
Andrew T. Walker is the Director of Policy Studies at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.