A Review of What Is Marriage? By Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson and Robert George.

Encounter Books, 2012.

Back in 2010 these three authors penned a 40 page article on the meaning of marriage with the same title. Published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 245-287, Winter 2010), it was an important article written in defence of traditional marriage, and a response to those who would seek to radically redefine the very nature of marriage.

That article was both very well-received, as well as vigorously attacked by the revisionists. This article has now been expanded into a small book of some 110 pages (with another 20 pages of endnotes). It expands their original essay and interacts with criticism of it.

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It is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the nature and function of marriage. The authors define two quite different ways of looking at marriage: the historical and traditional, which they call conjugal marriage, and the recent and radical view, which they call revisionist marriage. The former is defined as follows:

“It sees marriage as a comprehensive union: Joining spouses in body as well as mind, it is begun by consent and sealed by sexual intercourse. So completed in the acts of bodily union by which new life is made, it is especially apt for and deepened by procreation, and calls for that broad sharing of domestic life uniquely fit for family life.”

The latter is merely “in essence, a loving emotional bond”. It jettisons the fundamental core of marriage, the male-female relationship, and the openness to procreation, and renders it just a relationship based on feelings. Thus it completely misses the historical reason for marriage:

“Marriages have always been the main and most effective means of rearing healthy, happy, and well-integrated children. The health and order of society depend on the rearing of healthy, happy, and well-integrated children. That is why law, though it may take no notice of ordinary relationships, should recognize and support marriage. There can thus be no right for nonmarital relationships to be recognized as marriages.”

It is because human sexuality is always about the possibility of procreation, and thus the raising and rearing of the next generation, that governments have taken a keen interest in marriage, and granted it special benefits which other sorts of relationships do not receive.

“The revisionist view severs this important link. If marriage is centrally an emotional union, rather than one inherently ordered to family life, it becomes much harder to show why the state should concern itself with marriage any more than with friendship. Why involve the state in what amounts to the legal regulation of tenderness? The revisionist proposes a policy that she cannot give reasons for enacting.”

The authors examine various types of relationships, including ordinary friendships, and contrast them with the marriage relationship. Although the book is about marriage, not homosexuality, the authors do show how homosexual marriage is no marriage at all, and undermines what marriage is really all about.

They look more closely at the role of the state in all this. Marriage is a universal and historical institution which precedes the state, but it is also a fragile institution which needs legal protections. They cite James Q. Wilson: “Marriage is a socially arranged solution for the problem of getting people to stay together and care for children that the mere desire for children, and the sex that makes children possible, does not solve.”

Thus law and culture reinforce each other here, showing the importance of marriage and providing for its protection and promotion. This is because “the public functions of marriage – both to require and to empower parents (especially fathers) to care for their children and each other – require society-wide coordination.”

They also summarise the incredible amount of social science research highlighting the well-being of children raised in heterosexual married families, and the harm they experience in all other structures. “Conjugal marriage laws reinforce the idea that the union of husband and wife is, on the whole, the most appropriate environment for rearing children – an ideal supported by the best available social science.”

And they look at the studies purporting to show no difference to the outcomes of children raised in homosexual households. These have been very faulty indeed, and therefore prove nothing: “Not one study of same-sex parenting meets the standards of research to which top-quality social science aspires: large, random, and representative samples observed longitudinally.”

Often these “studies” are simply cases of “snowballing” wherein subjects recruit their like-minded friends and acquaintances to offer their stories, which simply skews the studies even further. Self-reporting is also a major method used – hardly objective research.

The authors also show that when states legalise things like homosexual marriage, then severe consequences will be felt by the rest of the community. They provide numerous examples of this already occurring, and demonstrate that religious freedoms, freedom of conscience, and parental rights are all under threat.

“We are not scaremongering: we are taking revisionists at their word. If support for conjugal marriage really is like racism, we need only ask how civil society treats racists. We marginalize and stigmatize them.” They quote many activists who have vowed such treatment on all those who dare to oppose them.

They also look at how homosexuals themselves have said that their understanding of marriage will be radically different, with much greater openness and flexibility (read: more open to sexual infidelity). And they examine the oft-heard objections, such as the comparison to interracial marriage bans.

Opponents of interracial marriage never denied the true meaning of marriage (the exclusive lifelong one man, one woman relationship); they just did not want blacks and whites to marry. Homosexual marriage of course does violate the very core of what marriage is all about.

For the benefit of children, couples, and the greater common good, states have always been right to delineate genuine marriage from other relationships, and to grant them special recognition which others need not receive. “The state is within its rights to recognize only true marriages. People who cannot enter marriages so understood (for whatever reasons) are not denied a right to marriage, even when they cannot control the factors that might keep them single.”

And traditional marriage law does not restrict or deny other companionate ideals. People are free to have all sorts of companion-based relationships. Conjugal marriage law “does not deny these companionate ideals to anyone. It does not discourage them or even prevent people from encouraging them. It makes many of these ideals easier to find outside marriage.”

The authors conclude by reminding us again that the conjugal marriage bond “really serves the good of children, the good of spouses, and the good of society”. For these reasons the tremendous importance of traditional marriage should be preserved and championed. It is up to the revisionists to make the case as to why undermining the good of children, spouses and society is in any sense something to be encouraged.

This philosophical and sociological defence of marriage is an important contribution to the marriage wars debates, and provides a solid case for resisting the siren call of the revisionists, and maintaining the overwhelmingly important social good of conjugal marriage.

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