Defense of Marriage: Not Bigoted But Pedantic

It goes without saying that a word can have multiple definitions, and that the definition of a term can change based on common usage. There are currently two definitions of marriage in common use, and the recent Supreme Court decision regarding the Defense of Marriage Act seems to be based on one definition rather than the other.

The definition of marriage behind the Supreme Court decision on DOMA reads something like this: marriage is the public affirmation of an exclusive and loving commitment between two individuals. This is how our culture has come to treat the institution, and it is this common social understanding of marriage that has motivated recent attempts to change the legal institution. Indeed, under this definition, there is no compelling reason to limit the institution to opposite-sex couples. If we say that marriage is about recognizing the value of human relationality, then we cannot discriminate based on sex. As Justice Kennedy’s opinion suggests, asserting that genuinely human and fulfilling relationships can only occur between one man and one woman wrongly demeans every other kind of fulfilling interpersonal relationship.

Anyone who, having accepted this definition of marriage, refuses to expand the legal institution beyond the limitations of one man and one woman can rightly be called arbitrary or even bigoted. However, neither I nor other defenders of traditional marriage oppose expanding the legal definition of marriage on these untenable grounds. Rather, it is clear to me that, as valuable as human relationships are, the particular kind of relationship traditionally referred to as marriage serves a particular and necessary social function that we cannot afford to put aside.

Marriage, under a more traditional usage, is a loving and exclusive sexual relationship between a man and a woman that is both open to the creation of new life and ready to take responsibility for that new life. This definition of marriage involves the public acknowledgement of an exclusive and loving relationship between individuals, but its limitation to opposite-sex couples is justified in that marriage is understood as a way of harnessing both sexuality and emotional attachment as a means for creating families: through marriage, children can not only be created, but brought up with their biological parents as their primary caregivers. Defenders of traditional marriage are not arguing that loving relationships between adults have no value, but rather, that the difference between a generic publicly-affirmed loving relationship and one that exists between a man and the woman for the purpose of creating a family is significant enough for the latter idea to have its own exclusive term.

It is not that words cannot have more than one meaning or that the primary meaning we assign to a word cannot change, but that there are certain concepts -such as traditional marriage- that demand a term of their own if for no other reason than conceptual clarity. The actual choice of word might be arbitrary, but the recognition that this choice must be made can hardly be called bigoted.

One thought on “Defense of Marriage: Not Bigoted But Pedantic

  1. Chad told me about your LFN essay (I assume this is based on that one) after you sent it to him, and I was very struck by your insight that marriage has two definitions. So then I thought, maybe that isn’t so bad – we can just recognize these things as two definitions of marriage, and talk about “sacramental marriage” and “legal marriage” separately. In effect, we have already been resigned to doing that since the introduction of no-fault divorce. The church and the state really mean two totally different things – marriage is until death, or, until either party no longer desires the marriage.

    I have often wondered if there is any purpose at all in legal marriage – does a contract mean anything if you can break it without penalty? But really, I think the only purpose today is monetary. Taxes, insurance, equal division after divorce. The Windsor case was also about money. That is why sentimental slogans like “One Love” are misleading, unrelated propaganda. This woman wasn’t suing for permission to love her deceased partner. She was suing for a federal tax break she thought she should qualify for. And why shouldn’t she?

    Except, if you take marriage by the legal definition, is there any reason that there should be any monetary benefits associated with it? Why should an employer have to pay for the health care of whomever his employee wants to sleep with? Why should two people be able to file taxes together at a reduced rate because they love each other? And if two people want to make an agreement that if they ever separate, they will divide their resources equally, that sounds like a private contract.

    The reason a sacramental marriage deserves monetary support is for the good of children. An employer wants to pay for his his employee’s wife to have health care so that she can stay at home with the children. Health insurance for spouses makes no sense apart from that reason. The government lets a husband and wife pay less taxes so that they have more money for their children. The state ought to make sure that they don’t separate without good reason because it puts the interest of the children before those of the parents, who agreed to this arrangement when they filed for a marriage license.

    Here’s a suggestion: Why don’t we let the title of “marriage” go to same-sex couples, and polygamous couples, and whatever other sexual arrangements become acceptable? But, as that “marriage” has no benefit to anyone outside of it, there should be no monetary benefits conferred. I don’t want to pay for anyone else to have sex. Then, we can create a contract called Coparenting. You sign a legal agreement that you are open to having children and that you cannot get away from each other without a serious reason, like abuse, because that would hurt the children. Then, your employer can choose to insure your coparent and your children so that one parent can work and one can raise children. The federal government might think that coparents deserve a tax break, since they are investing their money in raising future citizens who will be healthier (less medical cost), more educated (better workforce = better economy), more ethical (less legal cost), and more self-reliant (less welfare).

    Sorry, that’s really longer than a comment, but I thought of all of this because of your “two definition” essay, and I thought you would be interested.


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