Have you ever felt like you were having one conversation while the person you were talking to is having a different one? If you’re married, the answer is probably yes. So it is with the debate in America over the meaning and purpose of marriage. Conservatives think they are in a boxing match; liberals understand that marriage policy is a beauty pageant.
In their new book What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson and Robert P. George expand on the argument that first appeared in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy in 2011. The book is a smart move, signaling an important recognition: most of us don’t read the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. The argument is too important to merely pinball around the Ivy League, and the book expands the argument while making it easier to understand and more accessible to average readers. What is Marriage is required reading for serious thinkers in public policy, philosophy, ethics, ministry and the law.
What is Marriage is what’s called a “natural law” argument. It makes no claim about the morality of homosexuality. It doesn’t have to. The authors explain that marriage is something and that something simply can’t be changed without fundamentally altering the nature of things. It’s like this: We all remember the atomic structure of water (H2O). If ones adds a third hydrogen atom, it ceases to be water. That reality requires no judgment about the morality of Hydronium (H3O). It’s the way things are. Marriage too has an innate, natural essence; hence, the relevance of “natural law.”
George is one of America’s most formidable conservative thinkers. You may not know it, but if you’re a conservative in America today you have been influenced by and benefitted from his work, which ranges from legal theory to bioethics and foreign policy. George holds a prestigious chair at Princeton University, with academic posts at Stanford and Harvard along with innumerable positions on boards and commissions, including the American Enterprise Institute. Not convinced? How about this: Ted Cruz, the newest senator from Texas, studied under Robby George.
His co-authors are two of his students, and they aren’t exactly slouches either, unless you consider winning a Rhodes Scholarship and then simultaneously pursuing a Ph.D from Princeton and J.D. from Yale lazy. That’s Girgis. Ryan Anderson is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Free Society at the Heritage Foundation, the editor of the online journal Public Discourse, and a Ph.D candidate at Notre Dame. If his name sounds familiar, it's because he has written for everyone, including First Things, National Review, the Weekly Standard and Christianity Today.
It is difficult to estimate the importance of a book like What is Marriage. It takes time for ideas to take root and flower. Someday, it is my hope that we will look back at the history of marriage in America and see that What is Marriage provided the intellectual foundation for a generation of policymakers, pastors and parents who kept America’s family policy on course when it was in deep danger of running into the ditch. Girgis, Anderson, and George filed an amicus brief based on the book in the upcoming Supreme Court cases on Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. If just five members of the Court are persuaded, that’s a mighty contribution.
One thing does seem clear at this point: What is Marriage has had little influence in the populist movement for gay marriage. While their natural law argument has been taken on by a handful of academic elites and been debated on the college circuit, a survey of gay rights blogs shows little engagement with the ideas. Girgis, Anderson, and George are ignored by the gay rights movement – not because the arguments deserve to be ignored – but because the gay marriage movement will brook no real discussion of this issue. These authors challenge the narrative of traditional marriage supporters as bigots and idiots. Why should the activists enter a debate with three formidable intellectuals when they seem to be winning by simply invoking words like “justice” and “equality?”
Proponents of traditional marriage must realize that we are not engaged in an honest intellectual debate aimed at the discovery of truth. Politics has always been downstream from culture, but long gone are the days of Lincoln v. Douglas, Keynes v. Hayek, and Buckley v. Everybody. We are no longer a nation engaged in a rigorous debate about ideas; we are a country of cast members whose leaders vie for top billing. It’s not an intellectual boxing match, it’s a beauty contest. What is Marriage is essential for those engaged in the earnest pursuit of truth and the common good, but much more is needed in a culture in which Lady Gaga is a cultural icon.
Jesus was a smart man. He once commanded his followers to be “innocent as doves, and shrewd as serpents.” In the marriage debate, this means being more attractive than the other contestant.
Recently, I heard a pastor say, “argumentation is not persuasion.” Making your case does not mean you win over the judges. Politicians, pastors, and other culture leaders who expect to win solely on the basis of data, philosophy, and fidelity to scripture are shadowboxing. We will defeat gay rights activists on paper every time, but lose the issue. Philosophers need to do good philosophy, and theologians good theology, but you and I need to perform well at our tasks: as artists, and musicians, and public speakers, and all the rest. The answer isn’t less academics, it’s more of everything.
We must condescend to our place on stage in the national beauty contest. The opinion of the majority is fickle, their understanding no deeper than an average episode of Glee. Trying to explain the intellectual architecture of the natural law case for marriage doesn’t work in line at the grocery store or in a Facebook comment. The few of us who read What is Marriage must take on the task of translation and presentation in compelling, accessible bits. Read the book to learn the arguments and then do your part to pass them along to friends and neighbors. Why does marriage matter? Because whatever your opinion of homosexuality, kids deserve both a mom and a dad. That’s What is Marriage distilled. It’s a point that resonates with human instinct. Heck, even President Obama acknowledges it.
Winning the pageant should involve many more such talking points, with a renewed commitment to storytelling through web films, infographics, and music. Scholars like Girgis, Anderson and George have given us some terrific tools. Now we must contribute, with a smile on our faces and love in our hearts, readily willing to move on when the other person is unwilling to engage. There are 300 million judges in this beauty contest, and we each have a part to play in reaching them.