In Defence of Marriage

In Defence of Marriage

Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for


As gay marriage enters into force in France and possibly in the UK in the next few weeks, the debate in Western Europe shifts focus from the legislative theatre of parliaments to the popular mobilisation of grassroots movements such as ManifPourTous or various coalitions in favour of matrimony. Secular law is abandoning the idea that marriage is a social institution with a biological foundation and embracing a purely legalistic conception based on individual rights alone. In this light, Christianity and other religious traditions have an unprecedented opportunity to uphold the principle of marriage between a man and woman with view to having children – a millennia-old practice that precedes both the state and the church.

In my previous essay I argued against the proposed legislation on gay marriage in a number of Western countries, saying that new laws neither provide more genuine equality nor extend the virtues of marriage to same-sex couples. The overarching reason is that the meaning of marriage has been changed beyond recognition: a purely contractual arrangement between two consenting adults who agree to engage in cohabitation, which has got little to do with the principle and practice of a heterosexual union and the commitment to procreation. In the present essay, I wish to make the case for greater public support of heterosexual marriage.

1. On the crisis of marriage

Marriage and the family are both in crisis and under attack. In some sense, getting married has got far too easy, with many people viewing it exclusively as a temporary contract between two adults that can be undone at a moment’s notice. Likewise, the family is seen as a mere natural necessity that loses its relevance once adolescents can look after themselves.

In both cases, these (and other) traditional arrangements are considered nostalgic and outmoded at best, and reactionary and repressive at best. What underpins such and similar attitudes is an obsession with ‘negative liberty’, reduced to the tyranny of personal choice that holds supreme sway over mutuality and reciprocity.

But marriage and the family are also under attack from various forces that view them as an obstinate obstacle to their advancement – in particular libertarianism and capitalism. The former seeks to roll back the frontiers of the state in order to eliminate public constraints on the exercise of private desire. The latter promotes the extension of the market in all areas of society as a universal medium for contractual relations governed by pure exchange value.

As such, both are variants of a materialism that denies any transcendent shared ends and invests the economic-social sphere with quasi-sacred significance.

Here one can also suggest that the liberal thinking that underpins both libertarianism and capitalism produces a paradox: it not only privatises the public square but also opens up the private sphere to the forces of state collectivisation and market commodification. As a result, both bureaucratic control and commercial contracts contribute to the homogenisation of social relations under the guise of diversity, difference and individual self-determination.

Gay marriage may well be intended to create equality where there has been discrimination, but it unwittingly perpetuates this tendency – as a sense of sameness replaces the idea of equality as an ordering of relations among distinct, unique persons. Unintentionally perhaps, marriage is henceforth redefined as a capitalist contract that governs an affectionate relationship between adults regardless of gender.

This marks the twin triumph of social and economic liberalism (as I argued in one of my earlier essays) that has prevailed among the governing elites of the West for the past fifty years or so. As the US commentator Christopher Caldwell has recently written in The Financial Times,

French thinkers do not divide liberalism into "good" and "bad" kinds as readily as Americans. The French tend to see free markets and free love as part of the same  liberalism. Proponents of gay marriage are thus in a tough position. They must make many of the same kinds of arguments that France’s elites have been making for decades – that certain traditions are superannuated, that certain moral codes are illogical and unfair, that certain institutions built up to protect the poor are actually retarding them, that borders are a barrier to freedom. [1]

In short, those on the political left and the political right who support gay marriage tend to espouse a libertarian logic that is compatible with capitalism and technocratic rule – two forces that undermine the rights-based culture of freedom and equality on which the argument for same-sex marriage ultimately rests.

2. Bracketing biology out of the picture

Gay marriage is not simply an amendment of existing legislation on matrimony but a wholesale redefinition of the norms that characterise social relations. To define homosexual relationships as marriage brackets biology out of the picture – neither sex nor procreation are seen as central any longer. Indeed, consummation and children are impossible for homosexual couples.

In response, the new law now stipulates that non-consummation is not a valid reason for divorce anymore – a provision that will have to apply to homosexual couples on grounds of equality. On the same basis, the state has already extended to homosexual couples the right to adopt (as in France) or it will most probably have to liberalise the recourse to reproductive technologies.

In this manner, the new law on same-sex marriage ignores perennial principles and long-standing practices that transcend the specificities of different cultures. After all, even the legal institution of marriage – as the anthropologist Claude Lévy-Strauss remarked, is “a social institution with a biological foundation”.

Nor does this rest on a narrowly religious ideology. The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell made the point that “it is through children alone that sexual relations become of importance to society and worthy to be taken cognisance of by a legal institution”.

Thus appeals to biology, anthropology and humanist thinking do not seem to carry sufficient weight and authority in order to make legislators think about the wisdom or otherwise of gay marriage. Culture and religion are the last bulwarks against the sort of mindless modernisation that appears to drive the equality movement. To quote Caldwell again:

The French distrust surrogate motherhood, especially if money is involved. They believe it subordinates sexuality to a capitalist ethic. Non-traditional child-bearing and rearing often seem one step away from prostitution or slavery. The philosophy Jean-Claude Michéa has described the surrogate mother as "a mere proletarian whose 'labour power' must be put at the disposal of those couples who have the capital necessary to rent it for temporary use". The feminist philosopher Sylvie Agacinski [the wife of the former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin] wrote in 2009 that France’s reluctance to embrace in vitro fertilisation was a sign of its resistance to join the "market in bodies". Because gay couples cannot produce children themselves, gay marriage will favour recourse to reproductive technologies, which France tightly regulates.

To label all opposition to gay marriage as bigotry and homophobia therefore misses the point. France where homosexuality itself has not been a divisive issue is a good illustration. The country’s so-called Pacs law, which was introduced in the late 1990s, permits civil unions regardless of sexual orientation. Popular mobilisation against the new law on gay marriage has focused on the issue of adoption, not homosexual couples themselves. Why not extend the rights of heterosexual couples in terms of inheritance tax or access to patients to same-sex couples – but make an exception in relation to children that are biologically not part of a homosexual relationship?

The argument that adoption by gay couples will be the exception – not the rule – is of no consequence precisely because it is uncommon to change the legal definition based on exceptional cases. Generally, the law upholds certain universal principles while at the same time protecting minorities from discrimination and persecution. By distinguishing same- and opposite-sex marriage (in terms of consummation, sexual fidelity and procreation), new legislation imposes uniformity without delivering true equality. Thus Gay marriage is little more than the extension of weddings to same gender couples.

3. Devaluing the meaning of marriage

Ultimately, gay marriage provides some form of equality for a minority at the expense of devaluing the meaning of marriage for a majority (or at the very least for a very large minority). Indeed, the idea of marriage as a normative place for procreation enshrined in law is abolished. The conception of marriage as a covenant between the generations is replaced with the notion of a contract of cohabitation. The family in its universal sense of a present union that links the past to the future and constitutes the foundation of both community and society is diminished. It is not clear why this long-standing tradition needs to be redefined for the sake of a minority which deserves equality, protection and a recognition of its distinct identity.

As Roger Scruton has argued, marriage is inextricably intertwined with sexual fidelity and procreation. At its best, marriage marks the commitment of one generation to the well-being and flourishing of the next. The bonds of marriage combine the nurture and culture of children with protection against sexual jealousy and predatory behaviour. Linked to these ‘functions’ is “a unique form of social and economic co-operation, with a mutually supportive division of roles that more than doubles the effectiveness of each partner in their shared bid for a future”.

The transcendent union of matrimony is reflected in the distinct social aura that marriage tends to enjoy in very different cultures over time and across space. Whether in more religious or more secular ways, matrimony is a ritual that marks a rite of passage for a couple from one social condition to another with the consent of the community. The vows are a public pledge of fidelity and a commitment to children who will be born into a community and contribute to future of mankind.

As such, marriage concerns not just the living but also the dead and the as yet unborn – to paraphrase Edmund Burke. It is coextensive with human life in society and thus ontological. The union of the two sexes and a general commitment to procreation are essential features that cannot simply be subordinated to a generically loving relationship without fundamentally altering the meaning of marriage.

The ontological transformation involved in marriage is mirrored in the changed social status of the couple, which involves a form of gift exchange beyond individual rights and quasi-commercial contracts. Indeed, the communal gift of public recognition and social aura involves the counter-gift of sexual fidelity and a commitment to be responsible parents who socialise and educate their children – for the good of the children, the parents and society as a whole.

Gay marriage is by no means the root cause of devaluing the meaning of marriage and the move away from a covenant and to a contract. Arguably this change has many causes, and marriage has never evolved in a linear or cyclical fashion. However, gay marriage – insofar as it is based on rights claims and a conception of equality in terms of uniformity – is part of a fundamental shift towards individual freedom for the living at the expense of the well-being of the as yet unborn.

Likewise, the growing focus on the short term and the temporary tastes of the presently living to the detriment of future generations underscores the de-sacralisation of marriage and the rise of secular states which arrogated to the themselves the monopoly power to redefine social institutions. Roger Scruton puts this well:

Having assumed the right to solemnise marriages and to endow them with legal status, the State must then follow the desires and inclinations of its current citizens, and redefine the institution accordingly. […] The State is always and inevitably the instrument of its current members; it will respond to their pressures and try to satisfy their demands. It has therefore found it expedient to undo the sacrament, to permit easy divorce, to reduce marriage from a vow to a contract and – in the latest projected act of liberalisation – to permit marriage between people of the same sex. None of this has been done with evil motives, and always there has been, in the back of people’s minds, a memory of the sacred and existential ties that distinguish people from animals and enduring societies from madding crowds […]. I would not call this a gain in freedom – for those choices have not in recent years been denied to us, and by dignifying them with the name of marriage we merely place another obstacle before the option to which humanity has devoted so much of its idealising fervour. Of course, we are still free to dedicate our lives to each other, to our home and to our children. But this act is rendered the more difficult, the less society recognises the uniqueness, the value and the sacrificial character of what we do. Just as people are less disposed to assume the burdens of high office when society withholds the dignities and privileges that those offices have previously signified, so are they less disposed to enter real marriages, when society acknowledges no distinction between marriages that deserve the name, and relationships that merely borrow the title.

It follows that state support for marriage is crucial to strengthen and extend the public, social recognition of matrimony as a good for the couple concerned and for society as a whole. Thus, governments and parliaments would do well to support marriage and children by providing much more help with maternity (and paternity) leave, childcare, education, family tax breaks and inheritance tax.

Indeed, the institution of marriage precedes both the state and the church. In turn, neither the state nor the church have a monopoly over its meaning. Both have a key role in upholding the matrimonial ideal because marriage and motherhood have intrinsic worth and are social (and economic) goods.

In one of my future essays, I will reflect more on the importance of the family in society, the economy and the polity.

[1] Christopher Caldwell, ‘France is marching against markets, not homosexuality’, The Financial Times 1 June 2013.