Why is marriage treated differently from all other relationships that people are free to enter into? That is a question that has to be answered if we are to understand what is at stake in the current debates over Same-Sex Marriage (SSM). Yet few seem to be asking it.
Marriage is in fact treated very differently from other relationships. You don’t need the government’s permission or a license or its recognition to become best friends or even roommates with anyone you like, and you can change those arrangements at will and it’s nobody else’s business. (What those roommates do in private is also, from a secular standpoint, nobody else’s business–and this is the basis from which we are arguing here. SSM makes no sense even on a secular basis!) So why do you need a license to get married? Why is your spouse’s name registered with yours in the county courthouse, but your BFF’s is not?
Historically, marriage has been treated differently from other relationships for one reason and one reason supremely: It naturally tends to the creation of children and is normally the best context in which they can be reared to become productive citizens. (While homosexual couples are now allowed to adopt children, their relationship has no natural tendency to produce children, while that of traditionally married couples does. Traditionally married couples must normally go out of their way if they want to avoid having children. Same-sex couples must go out of their way in order to have them.) Because of this natural and biological connection between traditional marriage and the next generation, the state has a legitimate and compelling interest in supporting and promoting marriage, so understood, as an institution. This is why it rightly defines parameters of eligibility and gives those who meet them and formally enter into that arrangement certain rights which people in other relationships do not have.
The fact that marriage serves other purposes too and the fact that all marriages are not fruitful in childbearing do nothing to change the state’s legitimate interest in marriage. Infertile couples or couples who marry after the years of childbearing are entering into the kind of relationship that would lead to children were the circumstances favorable, and that makes it a different kind of relationship from other types of friendship and partnership. Their infertility does nothing to diminish the legitimate state interest in supporting marriage as a uniquely family-creating institution. The facts that many marriages end in divorce and that many children are conceived out of wedlock are also irrelevant. The fact that some people do something badly is no reason for the state not to support and encourage that thing done well. Otherwise, the fact that some people with driver’s licenses drive while intoxicated or drive dangerously would mean that we should therefore give licenses to everyone whether they qualify or not, or just get rid of driver’s licenses altogether. The absurdity of that conclusion shows the absurdity of the arguments from abuses of traditional marriage.
Now, if we divorce (ahem) marriage from this historic family-oriented understanding, there no longer remains any reason to treat it differently from other relationships. Therefore, expanding it to include SSM does in fact change the definition of marriage and tends toward making marriage itself as an institution irrelevant. Once its biological rootedness in childrearing is severed completely, then it is hard to see why other forms of relationships might not also be called “marriages”—polygamy, incest, bestiality. Where will it end? Anyone who says, “Oh, that will never happen,” just has not been paying attention to recent history.
Traditional marriage is under lots of pressures in the modern world, and the reconceptualization it is now suffering is not its only problem. But the state has no business adding to those pressures by changing the basic nature of the institution in a way that goes against the state’s own compelling interests. Note that this argument has nothing to do with religion or with the morality of homosexual acts in themselves. The reason we have given is the reason why marriage is treated differently from other relationships in non-Christian countries as well as Christian ones. Faithful Christians agree with this case, as do Jews and Muslims, and they have additional reasons for opposing the change we saw in Obergefell and working to reverse it. But the case is not driven by their support alone. Even secular people need to ask themselves why we ever had such an institution as marriage in the first place, and whether the answer to that question is really something they can afford to ignore in their passion for “tolerance” and “equality.”
Dr. Donald T. Williams, R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College, is the author of ten books, three with Lantern Hollow Press: Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (2011), Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (2012), and Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters (2012). They can be ordered ($15.00 each, + shipping) at http://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/. And don’t miss his latest work, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2016). To order that one ($16.99 + shipping), go to www.squarehalobooks.com.