One might grant, as I argued in my last two articles, that philosophy matters in general and on marriage—and that, with the right help, it can influence culture—but still wonder whether the marriage fight is worth waging. Isn’t it lost, given political and legal trends? Isn’t it peripheral to the Christian mission anyway?
A Live Battle
The pro-life cause was doing worse in the 1970s than the marriage cause is now. We are winning the first because an earlier generation refused to give up. Why, then, give up on marriage?
Around the time of Roe v. Wade, public opinion was moving swiftly for abortion on demand. Pro-life politicians (like Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton) were “evolving,” and pro-lifers were aging. They were accused of being anti-woman, warned of being caught on history’s bad side. And of course, the Court’s decision in Roe made substantive protections impossible for the foreseeable future.
But a few pro-life leaders were undaunted, and their intellectual and cultural work has paid off. My generation is more pro-life than my parents’, and my children’s will likely be still more.
While the spirit of the Supreme Court’s recent decision striking down DOMA’s federal definition of marriage gives liberalizing judges all the premises they need to remake state marriage laws, it doesn’t require this, as Roe required abortion on demand.
Maybe it was meant to trigger a cascade of successful challenges to state laws so that when the Supreme Court later returned to impose genderless marriage nationwide, it would be riding faster cultural currents. But this would mean that Justice Scalia’s dissent was right: the Court will do on marriage just whatever it thinks it can get away with. Might it flinch from imposing redefinition if it fears the fury of a vibrant marriage movement? The answer depends not on impersonal currents of history but on what we do. That is why continued argument and advocacy on the whole range of marriage and family issues—including this one—remain crucial.
A Battle Worth Fighting
Not only does social action make long-term legal defeat less likely; it also serves the broader value for which legal victory is just a component and condition: the shaping of hearts and minds—and lives—in line with the truth.
After all, our freedom to live out and pass on our views of marriage is also more threatened after the DOMA decision. By deeming conjugal marriage supporters bigots, the Court makes it easier for lawmakers and courts to use anti-discrimination laws and public education to drive us to the margins of public life. And then it will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than, say, for my own (future) children to pass through college with a sound marital ethic—even as an earlier generation’s efforts made it easier for me to be pro-life.
So the DOMA decision heightens the value of winning, while lowering the odds of a near-term win. What to do then? Christians can’t pick and choose what to defend; the Great Commission is not selective, nor subject to judicial veto. Moreover, this isn’t just about theological witness, but about duties we owe to the least of our brothers and sisters, Christian or otherwise—especially to see to it, by our cultural norms, that children know the care of the man and woman whose love gave them life.
Indeed, though some try to draw a razor-sharp line between them, the fight for marriage serves the fight for life. The redefinition of marriage and the abortion license flow from the same cultural lie: That the individual, but not the family, is of basic social and moral value. That personal adult fulfillment trumps the needs of children—who can be deliberately deprived of their own parents, or extinguished, if only our sense of fulfillment demands it. That sex has no inherent procreative significance and no value besides its power to please.
Redefining marriage would more formally and finally elevate those untruths into law, giving them greater cultural currency. It would also make it harder to rebuild the broken marriage culture that increases the demand for abortion. Just as family life fulfills marriage, so robustly protecting life calls for protecting marriage. That is another reason we can’t give up on the latter.
Nor, to tie this discussion to the first essay in this series, does any Christian principle diminish the importance of a good philosophy and policy of marriage. Yes, Christians have the broader mission of bringing all into God’s household, His endless feast of life and love for the marriage of Christ and the blessed. But as I have argued, even that mission is served by good moral philosophy—and by the freedom to preach, and the healthy culture on which grace can build, that just laws promote.
Yes, for the Christian, truth is prior to action. But it’s quite another thing, hardly Christian, to posit a divorce of truth from action. Christ did not show us the Father so that we might have better seminars. The early Christians didn’t wage battle and shed blood over solemn dogmas and definitions just to preserve an “enchanted” metaphysic. As with any invitation to love, every bit of God’s self-revelation is meant to shape our lived response. That response includes claiming what we can of this culture for the moral as well as spiritual truths revealed in Christ.
Yes, for the Christian, too much focus on public affairs has risks. The allure of Caesar’s courts, the love of money or applause can choke spiritual life. Our modern bureaucratic bent can promote an idolatry of the national and contempt for the local that undermine the very love of family and neighbor we would champion. The lecture circuit can enable the peculiar hypocrisy of preaching the values of family at the expense of one’s own. These are arguments for encouraging prayer and ascesis by and for cultural advocates—not against the advocacy.
In short, my disagreement is not with those who want the Church to tend more to her own, or with those who want it to be more aggressively evangelical, but with their shared assumption that we can best do just one or the other. We must do both.
But if we cannot forfeit the cultural fight on marriage, and recent developments block any immediate victory, we must take the long view. We must do on marriage, even before we get a full-on “Roe on marriage,” what we’ve been doing for years on life issues, even after the actual Roe: investing the long-term political, legal, cultural, and spiritual capital to win down the line. And if redefined marriage is built upon a lie—about the human good and the common good—then it will eventually take its place on the ash-heap of history alongside so many other “inevitabilities” (like Marxism, or settled support for abortion access) built on lies. But to play our own part in dismantling the lie, we can never flag in bearing witness to the truth.
Even before we achieve visible success—broad impact in this world—we know that the fight, the witness, even the peaceful endurance of defeats will make its own lasting contribution, through character and other spiritual fruits, to the longest-term project of all, for that greatest of common goods called the Kingdom. This greater battle is not one that our temporal opponents can make us lose; it is won if we stay on the field, and lost if we flee.
One critique of natural-law argumentation, by theologian David Bentley Hart, ends with this:
For what it is worth, I am in the end quite happy for believers in natural law theory to continue plying their oars, rowing against the current (so long as they do so in keeping with classical metaphysics), but I do not think they are going to get where they are heading; so I shall just watch from the bank for a while and then wander off to the hills (to look for saints and angels).
He doubts the “rowing” philosophers will get where they’re heading but declines to jump in. He boasts of “wander[ing] off” in search of “saints and angels,” as if his freedom to search weren’t secured by those going “against the current” in the courts and the public square.
No doubt we are all called to contemplation amid the saints and angels. But for most of us, desire for their everlasting hills bids fidelity, here and now, to a call in the world: to stay in the boat, and put out into the deep, at the demand of the Lord who commands the wind and the seas of history.
Sherif Girgis is a Yale Law School student and doctoral student in philosophy at Princeton University. He is co-author, with Ryan T. Anderson and Robert P. George, of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense.