This started out as a comment on James’ post but ended up long enough to stand on its own….
James, I appreciate your sentiments here. However, I think your conception of marriage is too atomistic (or perhaps I should say “dyastic”). I think marriage is best understood as a multilateral compact with the married couple at its core. The marriage compact also includes the connection between families, principally through extended families, but also through neighborhoods and a variety of social associations, such as schools and churches. Married couples expect things from the community (such as assistance in safeguarding children), and the community expects things from the couple (such as responsible parenting).
A radical redefinition of marriage will alter what marriage means in society and how it functions. Thus gay marriage may, indeed, threaten marriage (though it may strengthen it, too). Some argue that internalizing gay couples into the social fabric through marriage makes that fabric stronger. Perhaps. But stripping gender from our concept of marriage is a fundamental change in what marriage is. Indeed, I think it is creating something that (though it may be valuable or rewarding in some ways) is definitely not marriage. It is not just intimacy or commitment that makes a marriage a marriage, though those are essential traits; marriage is a man and a woman, very different creatures, coming together in a permanent union where a new family can be created and flourish. The man and woman bring to this union their very different backgrounds and cultures, which are profoundly shaped by gender, and they produce and raise children in an environment that is profoundly influenced by gender.
In short, two men may love a child, but neither of them will ever be a mother. There have always been motherless and fatherless children, but that is something to be mourned, not celebrated.
Libertarians often argue that the state should get out of the marriage business. I’m not going to try to articulate a political theory of marriage, but I think that the state has an important role to play in recognizing and sanctioning marriages. I think that in the “state of nature” marriages are a social fact that pre-exist the state and that the state must respect, encourage, and protect marriages from forces that threaten them. In a pluralistic society, state-sanctioned marriage creates bonds between different cultural and religious traditions by identifying a common thread that runs through these different traditions. Marriage is so embedded in our common and statutory law that extracting the state from marriage is likely to have all sorts of unintended consequences. The state also provides a common commitment mechanism in a pluralistic society that is weaker than the “sacred compact” you refer to, yet which still functions to tie a couple to each other and to the community.
Marriage is the primary institutional force through which society conditions men to behave themselves (through fidelity to wives and children). Marriage is already threatened by a variety of social forces not having anything to do with homosexuality, nor is gay marriage the greatest threat to the marriage institution. I think an atomostic, secular view of a marriage as a bilateral contract between consenting sexual partners strips marriage of much of its value.
Taking God out of the social compact also weakens marriage bonds. In my view, couples who do not draw on the power and love of God in making their marriage work leave a valuable source of marital strength untapped. Religious communities are also an extremely valuable source of strength in creating successful marriages. Certainly, couples should be under no religious obligations with respect to their marriage, but the decline of marriage as a sacred covenant couples make with their God is something to be mourned as well.
The past half century of social change has unleashed a set of pernicious forces that have undermined marriage and, thereby, social norms (though some of that change, such as greater social equality of the sexes, has been positive). In some countries, marriage is disappearing and marital childbearing is no longer the norm. When we fundamentally change what marriage means and its importance in society, we undoubtedly shake the foundations of the world that my children and grandchildren must live in.
So, James, that is what I fear.