A reply to James

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.

4 thoughts on “A reply to James

  1. Sven, why do you have to bring God into the issue? As a Christian you are an atheist in regards to all concepts of god other than your own. So you don’t actually mean God as such, but only your own parochial God. What is actually achieved in the way of clarity, then, by introducing him into the discussion?

  2. This might be the longest comment ever posted here, but I didn’t want to try to summarize a complex argument from my last book. This is my response to the kind of view you articulate, Sven. You can find this excerpt from the book at the following URL:


    What do religious traditionalists think about when they think about sex? To judge from the flurry of emails and blast faxes launched daily by the interdenominational coalition of religious groups that claim to speak for traditionalists, they think mostly about America—about what it was, is, and might be again. The narrative goes something like this. Until the 1960s, the United States was an overwhelmingly traditionalist Christian nation in practice, belief, and aspiration—and these traditionalist Christian practices, beliefs, and aspirations were in many cases backed up by law. Abortion was strictly regulated, and often banned outright, for example, as was “sodomy”—a term that was used to describe, regulate, and prohibit all forms of non-procreative sex, from masturbation to oral and anal sex, whether practiced by members of the same or different genders, both inside or outside of marriage.

    Beginning nearly five decades ago, the story continues, the default sexual traditionalism of the United States began to collapse—not because (as some have argued) large numbers of Americans were persuaded by moral arguments in favor sexual liberation, and not because (as others have claimed) broader socio-economic trends encouraged the growth of democratic individualism. According to most social conservatives, the sexual liberalization of the past several decades has instead been brought about through the organized effort of decadent liberal elites in the nation’s education and media establishments to impose a hedonistic ethic on the country through antidemocratic means (especially through the courts, which have repeatedly overturned laws that previously regulated sexual behavior). The proper response to the spread of sexual decadence is thus to allow the country’s religious traditionalism to reassert itself democratically—primarily by citizens voting for conservative Christian politicians who seek to turn back the changes of recent decades through public policy, court appointments, constitutional amendments, and referenda that frustrate the tyrannical ambitions of the hedonists.

    The traditionalist outlook on sex gets a lot of things wrong. Yet its champions are right about one crucially important matter: For much of its history, the United States did indeed conform in its practices, beliefs, and aspirations to the sexually traditionalist view of the world. Where social conservatives err is in asserting, often in conspiratorial tones, that this sexual traditionalism was a reflection of the nation’s Christian essence—an essence that has been suppressed by the forces of secular hedonism but that will reassert itself at some point in the not-too-distant future. It is far more accurate to say, instead, that America’s pre-’60s sexual traditionalism was the political and legal expression of a historically contingent cultural consensus—a consensus that over the past several decades has (for various complicated reasons) broken down, leaving rancor and dissention in its wake. Whereas the overwhelming majority of Americans once considered it appropriate for laws and mores to regulate private sexual conduct, somewhat less than half of the country supports such regulations today.

    When a consensus is lacking in other areas of public policy—from environmental regulation to foreign affairs, from tax policy to health-care reform—politicians often seek to reach a compromise, to settle on a position that responds to concerns voiced by those on both sides (or even on multiple sides) of a given issue. The polarizing sexual issues that form the explosive core of the culture war cry out for such civic conciliation. And yet these same issues frequently prove to be especially resistant to compromise. Pondered in the abstract, the cultural clash over same-sex marriage, for instance, seems like a conflict for which federalism would be the perfect solution: allow the handful of states (or even cities or regions) with the highest density of homosexuals to experiment with gay marriage while leaving traditional marriage untouched in the rest of the country.

    In practice, however, such a political compromise would be unworkable. The Full Faith and Credit clause of the U.S. Constitution quite sensibly insists that each state must recognize the “public acts, records, and judicial rulings” of other states, and that might very well include (and up to this point in history, it usually has included) marriages performed under differing state laws. Mississippi, for example, permits girls to marry beginning at age 15, which is earlier than many other states. Yet a fifteen-year-old girl who has been married in Mississippi remains married when she travels to or establishes residence in any other state, even one in which she is too young to have gotten married in the first place. It is likely that the same universalizing logic will eventually apply to same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Iowa, Connecticut, or any other state that has legalized such marriages: judges will eventually conclude that the U.S. Constitution demands their portability to other states, even those with laws explicitly banning same-sex marriage. Just as, legally speaking, the United States in the nineteenth century was destined to become “all one thing, or all the other” with regard to slavery, so it may very well be today with regard to gay marriage and the other polarizing sexual issues tied up with the culture war.

    At the moment, the possibility of achieving something close to total victory through a combination of evolving majority opinion and sympathetic court rulings is inspiring some same-sex marriage proponents and their allies in the culture war to gloat. A more appropriate response would be for less fervently religious Americans to adopt an attitude of magnanimity and respect toward sexual traditionalists—and not only because a ruthlessly defeated minority can still create an awful lot of political trouble, as we know all too well from the role that the strident Roe v. Wade abortion decision played in conjuring the religious right into existence during the 1970s and to an astonishing extent keeps it alive to this day. The more fundamental reason why civic-minded combatants on the liberal side of the cultural divide should respectfully engage their opponents is that such engagement is the approach most likely to persuade conservatives that the traditionalist consensus that once prevailed in the United States is thoroughly unrecoverable—and thus that the liberal position on the political deregulation of sex is our nation’s only hope for conciliation.

    Up until the past few decades, Americans, and indeed most men and women in the Western world, considered homosexual desires to be gravely evil and acting on them even worse. This judgment was accepted by nearly everyone, including most homosexuals themselves—many of whom lived lives shot through with shame, denial, and self-loathing. Which is to say that on matters of sexuality Americans assumed a morality of ends: they assumed that certain ways of living and acting are right or wrong in themselves, intrinsically, with their rightness or wrongness determined by the extent to which they conform to an ideal vision of humanity. One version of a morality of ends is taught today by the Roman Catholic Church in an idiom derived from the natural-law writings of Thomas Aquinas. Human sexuality, the Church claims, is ordered by God toward the end of procreation, and sexual desires and activities that aim primarily toward other ends (such as pleasure or intimacy) are essentially disordered and offensive to God—in a word, evil. Traditionalists from other churches, now and in the past, may describe their beliefs in less philosophically rigorous ways, but when they denounce homosexuality or any other form of extra-marital and/or non-procreative sex, they inevitably do so in terms of some stated or implied morality of ends.

    A traditionalist morality of ends with regard to sex was once assumed by nearly all Americans. But that is no longer the case. Does that leave us, as some on the religious right have argued, fighting an ideological civil war, with factions combating one another over incompatible ends with no possible hope for finding common ground? While it might sometimes feel that way, the liberal political tradition has actually bequeathed to us another way of conceiving morality—one explicitly designed to enable people who disagree about fundamental ends to live together in relative peace, harmony, and mutual respect.

    The first liberal political theorists—men like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Montesquieu—wrote during or shortly following a time of real civil wars, many of which pitted Protestants against Catholics as well as various Protestant factions against each other in a series of bloody conflicts throughout Europe. It was in response to this carnage that these writers proposed a new form of morality—a morality of rights—that could be superimposed onto the divergent moralities of ends that were driving Europeans to kill one another. The morality of rights treats disagreement about ultimate ends as the normal condition of social life and then seeks to find common ground shared by every faction within society, regardless of the ends they affirm or pursue. That common ground turns out to be a belief in individual dignity, and on its basis liberalism makes certain minimal but inviolable moral claims, among them the claim that individuals have rights to life and liberty. Most liberals have also added, whether explicitly or implicitly, certain rights that flow from the right to liberty, like rights to private property and the pursuit of whatever ends (including happiness, however defined) the individual affirms, provided that the pursuit of these ends does not infringe the equal rights of anyone else to do the same. In the liberal tradition, the morality of rights determines the relative size and scope of government. If the liberal state is too strong, it threatens to violate the individual rights of citizens; when it is too limited, it fails to defend the individual rights of citizens against violations by other individuals and groups within civil society.

    A society based on the morality of rights looks very much like modern America, with the state protecting individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of ultimate ends (happiness) but leaving it up to each individual to choose his or her ends in the expansive private lives opened up by limited government. Americans can be devout Protestants or atheists, orthodox Catholics or Unitarians, secular Jews or committed Mormons. They can choose to live in a racially homogeneous gated community or to protest with Martin Luther King, Jr. They can march for civil rights—or oppose those who march for civil rights—because they believe it is God’s will that they do so, or they can make their decision based on purely secular considerations. They can live lives devoted to making money. Or they can join the peace corps. They can believe the United States is providentially blessed by Jesus Christ. Or that it is an abomination in the eyes of God. Or that it has unique humanitarian responsibilities in the world because of its power and ideals. Or that it has no special responsibilities at all beyond policing its own borders. And so on, through nearly every alternative open to the roughly 300 million citizens of our metaphysically centerless society.

    That’s liberalism in action: Politics without metaphysics. Not politics against metaphysics, as some illiberal atheists would apparently prefer. But politics conducted, as much as possible, in an idiom of metaphysical neutrality, taking no position for or against God—or for or against any particular views about God and what He might or might not want from human beings. Individuals are free to believe just about anything about their ultimate ends, provided that they give up the ambition to political rule in the name of those beliefs—that is, the ambition to use political power to bring the highly differentiated whole of social life into conformity with the ends affirmed by one part of that whole.

    But there’s a problem with this vision of politics conducted according to the morality of rights—one that religious traditionalists frequently highlight in their efforts to use state power to bring the country into conformity with their views on sexuality. If liberal government adopts a stance of neutrality with regard to ultimate ends, the objection runs, how is it that the liberal United States so clearly sided with sexual traditionalism for so much of its history, permitting laws against sodomy throughout the country as well as countless laws regulating various aspects of sexual conduct, from the use of contraception to intercourse outside of heterosexual marriage? It’s a crucially important question with far-reaching implications. In posing it, religious traditionalists wish to discredit political liberalism by proving that the ideal of metaphysical neutrality is a sham concealing liberalism’s own metaphysical commitment to hedonistic self-expression, which it actively seeks to impose, using government power, on citizens with differing metaphysical views. That, according to the most intellectually formidable members of the religious right, is the primary reason why the country has fallen away from its former traditionalism—because nihilistic liberals have deposed the old order of traditionalistic metaphysical commitments and replaced it with a new order founded on contrary metaphysical commitments—and all in the name of metaphysical neutrality.

    The truth of the matter is much less conspiratorial than traditionalist critics would have us believe, and in fact provides compelling evidence of liberalism’s remarkable flexibility and openness as a political and moral system. Liberalism makes use of numerous political institutions to limit its own power and ensure the protection of individual rights, one of which is the institution of democratic elections, which reflect and respond to public opinion. Of course there will be (and have been) times when public opinion (along with the laws legislatures write in response to public opinion) directly conflicts with the individual rights the liberal state is empowered to protect. In such cases, laws will often be overturned upon review by the independent judiciary (another liberal institution). But what will happen when the social and cultural consensus on a given matter is so strong that no one (or very few), either in the nation at large or in the judicial branch of government, objects to a law, even though it is grounded exclusively in a morality of ultimate ends? In such a situation, the law will stand, despite its illiberalism.

    This was obviously the situation in the United States until quite recently with regard to laws enforcing sexual traditionalism. The tacit consensus in favor of such laws was so universal that next to no one challenged them in either the political or judicial branches of government. As long as this consensus held, illiberal traditionalist laws were safe. But as soon as that consensus began to break down—as soon as significant numbers of citizens began to make the case for sexual freedom—the liberal state was ready to step into the gap separating the parties, just as the first liberal theorists said it should do hundreds of years ago in early modern Europe, offering to resolve a dispute by depoliticizing it. Traditionalists would henceforth be perfectly free to continue adhering to their beliefs, but those beliefs could no longer have the force of law because they now merely expressed the will of a part of society rather than the whole of society. Thus began the liberal state’s inexorable retreat from enforcing a morality of ultimate ends in sexual matters—a retreat still very much underway.

    Today’s sexual traditionalists are thus wrong to view themselves as victims of a liberal state hell-bent on spreading hedonism throughout the land. On the contrary, the very same liberal state was perfectly willing to enforce traditionalism’s morality of ultimate ends so long as there was an overwhelming consensus among the American people in favor of that morality. It is the breakdown of that consensus in American society, and not the imperialistic ambitions of the liberal state, that has led to the depoliticization (and thus privatization) of sexual morality in the United States. The liberal state is not predisposed to defend and enforce sexual liberation; it is predisposed to stymie the efforts of a part of society to use state power to impose its vision on the whole of society.

    1. Hey, Damon. I’ll take it as progress that my religion is viewed as “traditional,” since a lot of people wouldn’t want to give me even that distinction!

      Maybe more later, but I would just say at this point that if I were to remove the one paragraph about taking God out of marriage, the rest of my argument isn’t particularly religious; indeed, one of the things I say is that state-sponsored marriage helps unite a religiously pluralistic society around social norms that are nearly universal across cultures.

      My view is, of course, more communitarian than classically liberal, though I think one (not me) could reconcile it with natural law arguments. Apologies to all if that makes me a bad libertarian.

      I guess I would accept the label of “sexual traditionalist.” As I get older, I just hope I don’t end up a non-sexual traditionalist!

  3. It is distressing that supporters of ssm continue to paint opponents as religious traditionalists. There are those of us who merely think that redefining marriage to accommodate homosexuals is disastrous social policy.

    Limiting marriage to heterosexual couples makes biological and social sense. The missing “consensus” held for thousands of years, across many religions and widely divergent cultures, albeit some male-female relationships in some societies were polygamous. Sodomy was suppressed because it distracted from the main event – the creation of children. Many children were required in the ancient past because so many died at birth or in the early years.

    I would argue, based on the writings of Marx and others, that the left sees traditional marriage and the web of extended family it creates, as an impediment to the establishment of a powerful state. Consequently, it, the left, has intentionally undermined traditional marriage and family relationships for decades in the US (that is where we live) in order to achieve that goal: separating sex from procreation by making artificial birth control methods, including abortion, widely available, making divorce easy, providing support for childbearing out of wedlock through various state welfare schemes, using its allies in the media to invent and promote “alternative” lifestyles, and now same sex marriage. Websites like beyondmarriage.org promote legal recognition for any relationship of any age, gender, and number in order to acquire the economic benefits. Leading leftist academics and social scientists at leading universities have signed their manifesto. No secret what they want.

    That’s where we are now. When everything is a “marriage” nothing is a marriage, and the institution will disappear. Since a mother and father working together is how children are acculturated – particularly how they learn self control – eliminating traditional marriage will result in disaster. It’s already obvious in the inner cities and among the rural working class.

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