It is important to situate the same-sex marriage issue in the context of dramatic changes in our society over the last forty years that bear upon the very nature of marriage. These changes have paved the way for the even more dramatic changes implicit in the adoption of homosexual marriage.
We should not hope to return to some mythical golden age of marriage in the past. Marriage has always had its problems, many of them significant. There have been some profound changes since 1970, and some of them (e.g., greater opportunities for women in education and employment) have been good. But others have been, in my opinion, catastrophic.
The widespread adoption of different versions of no-fault divorce by most states after 1970 transformed marriage and family. The traditional presumption in favor of the permanence of marriage (with certain well-defined exceptions) gave way to a situation in which one of the partners, for whatever reason, could unilaterally end the marriage. This marked a cultural shift from regarding marriage as a truly fundamental social institution to regarding it as primarily a personal union in which there is a very limited social interest.
This shift occurred in conjunction with other changes, and especially the widespread availability of contraception. With contraception, sex could be, and was, separated from marriage. This severing resulted in sexual activity beginning at younger ages, more sexual activity outside of marriage, widespread cohabitation, as well as lower birth rates and higher rates of out-of-wedlock births. For reasons that were not accidental, they were also accompanied by a growth in pornography and abortion.
With these developments, homosexuality emerged as a new theme of sexual liberation. If heterosexuals could engage in sexual activity for pleasure and personal intimacy, apart from children and marriage, why not homosexuals as well? This sort of logic was implicit in judicial opinions such as the Bowers v. Hardwick dissents, especially Justice Stevens’s dissent, which pointed out that the majority’s treatment of the case as one of homosexual sodomy did not square with the actual law in the case—a law that prohibited sodomy (oral or anal sex) whether it was heterosexual (by married or unmarried persons) or homosexual. The assumption behind this observation seemed to be that, since the statute would probably not survive a challenge by heterosexuals (certainly married ones, and probably unmarried ones), its application to homosexuals was dubious as well.
Public opinion as well as law has generally moved in the direction of supporting the elimination of legal prohibitions on homosexual activity, but that movement has stopped short of legitimizing gay marriage. When the issue of marriage is on the ballot, state after state has reaffirmed marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The question is whether that attachment to monogamous, heterosexual marriage is simply the retention of an ancient prejudice, or a position grounded in reasonable principles.
The case for traditional marriage is grounded in a conviction that marriage is not simply a socially devised and revisable institution. While it is true that there are many ancillary features of marriage that are quite variable (e.g., the diversity of property arrangements associated with marriage at different times and places), there is a true core of marriage that exists by nature.
Marriage is fundamentally a pre-political institution—not simply a creature of law—rooted in a natural union of a man and a woman that is ordered to family life and childbearing and childrearing. The political community has very important interests affected by this institution—it is a deeply integral element of the common good—and therefore has a legitimate right and duty to regulate it in certain ways, but it should always act with respect for its essential features. The most fundamental duty of the political community in this regard is to help ensure the availability of marriage as a stable institution that promotes the wellbeing of couples and children by providing a supportive social ecology.
Children ordinarily need a mother and a father. Whether this is viewed as God’s design or as the product of evolutionary development, it is the way human beings are. A mother and a father each provide something distinctive to children—the complementarity of the spouses is an essential element of both their personal relationship and their relationship with their children. Among other things, young boys and young girls look to their parents to learn what it means to be a man, to be a woman.
That the ideal locus for raising children is a low-conflict marriage between a biological mother and father has powerful support from social sciences—it has become virtually the consensus (and not because of any great eagerness among academics to champion traditional family structures). Necessity may impose some other arrangement, as when parents die or abuse requires that parental rights be terminated, but that is always an unfortunate necessity.
The fact that marriage is natural is in no way contradicted by the fact that it is also fragile and in need of social support. For example, it is “natural” that human children grow up, become adults, and develop the capacities associated with fully developed human beings. Yet this whole process very much requires various forms of social support, the absence of which will lead to a frustration of their proper development and flourishing. Human beings are naturally ordered to certain ends—that is, certain ends are “natural” in the sense that they constitute the full development and flourishing of a human being. At the same time, human beings are also subject to tendencies that are somewhat at war with their natural ends. For example, one natural end of a person is to cultivate a body that is healthy, yet human beings are also subject to desires that lead them to eat too much and harm their health.
What are the core natural elements of marriage, which a political community ought to respect and promote? Marriage is the permanent and exclusive union of one man and one woman, the mutually intertwined ends of which are the good of the spouses and the bearing and raising of children. The political community has a particularly intense interest in children, because they are an essential prerequisite for its preservation and perpetuation. Since children benefit most from having a biological mother and father married to each other and raising their children together, society has strong reasons to promote marriage as a way of ensuring the best interests of children.
Insofar as marriage is an ordinary means to the happiness of adults, and both depends on social support and is part of the common good, the political community also has an interest in marriage being available for the sake of the partners. Nor are these two interests (children and mutual love) separate and independent—they are, rather, deeply intertwined. The commitment of the spouses to love each other—their exclusive, permanent, and reciprocal self-giving—contributes powerfully to their education of their children, and, at the same time, the joint project of raising their children contributes powerfully to deepening ties between the parents.
It has been said that marriage has survived many social events, including the sexual revolution, and it will survive gay marriage too. I don’t think marriage survived the sexual revolution. Every war has winners and losers, and, as others have argued, the boys [or rather, the bad boys] won the sexual revolution (since it legitimized non-marital and recreational sex, gave them the option of deserting their wives for younger and better offerings, and even induced many women to adopt more male attitudes toward sex or accede to male demands in the sexual marketplace). The most prominent victims of the sexual revolution were the children who have been deprived of the enduring husband-and-wife family that should ordinarily be their birthright.
The most profound damage to marriage as an institution has been wrought, not by homosexuals, but by heterosexuals, through a) adoption of no-fault divorce, and b) the growth of “non-marital” (casual, pre-marital, and even extra-marital) sex, which breaks the tie between sex and marriage and children.
But if it is true that heterosexuals have already damaged marriage as a social institution deeply, that still leaves the question of whether these wounds already inflicted on marriage justify the further infliction of additional wounds, in the form of legitimizing homosexual marriage, with its much more radical separation of marriage and children. The more sensible path, I think, would be to resist further erosion of the institution, and to undertake substantial efforts to re-constitute marriage as a stable institution in our society.