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February 15, 2005

Being the Marrying Kind

What does it mean to say that marriage "should precede governmental authority"? From opponents of same-sex marriage, it usually means that the government should adhere to the definition of marriage that filtered to it over the ages. In John Coleman's hands, writing in Reason, it's closer to an argument for same-sex marriage on the sly:

As we approach the anniversary of Valentine's own rebellion and denial, shouldn't the nation that pioneered a popular government of the people, by the people, and for the people" be the one that finally stands to assert the pre-governmental primacy of matrimonial privacy?

It is time to privatize marriage. If the institution is really so sacred, it should lie beyond the withering hands of politicians and policy makers in Washington D.C. There should be no federal or state license that grants validity to love. There should be no state-run office that peers into our bedrooms and honeymoon suites. If the church thinks divorce and homosexuality are problematic, it should initiate the real dialogue to address these problems in-house rather than relying on state-sponsored coercion to affirm doctrinal beliefs. And if tax-codes and guardianships need some classification for couples, let's revise civil union standards to reflect those needs.

I wonder by what calculus tax-codes could need "classification for couples." More importantly, I can't help but notice that Coleman doesn't make a distinction that's very popular among people advocating positions similar to his: that between civil marriage and religious marriage. Granted, he alludes to the different roles of church and state, but separating the two types of marriages, I don't see — as Ramesh Ponnuru does — how Coleman's "separationist conclusion certainly follows" from his premise that "matters of personal character [should] precede governmental authority."

Consider his telling of a St. Valentine's story:

Around 270 A.D.—according to one tradition, at least—St. Valentine, a Roman cleric, was imprisoned for his opposition to Emperor Claudius' decree that young men (his potential crop of soldiers) could no longer marry. Valentine performed their ceremonies anyway and was thrown in jail for his obstinacy.

The truth of the matter is that nobody stops anybody from calling any ceremony a "marriage" and calling themselves "married"; it's already out of the hands of the state. In his time, St. Valentine's ceremonies also granted such "validity to love," but Claudius (i.e., the government) apparently felt compelled to recognize the marriages, otherwise there would have been no crime. They were, in essence, civil marriages.

For his part, Coleman wishes to outdo Claudius and forbid all civil marriages and insist on not recognizing any religious marriages. One could point to the difference that priests would remain free to perform marriage ceremonies outside of government acknowledgment, but that's already the case.

Coleman may lump all religion under "the church," but the reality is that some churches do perform same-sex marriage ceremonies; some have very little concern for previous divorces. However, when particular religious marriages follow the pattern of valid civil marriages — two people of opposite sex who are not currently married or closely related — the government merely saves couples the trouble of marrying twice, so to speak.

The question then becomes which relationships to recognize for non-religious reasons, and here is where same-sex marriage opponents apply the "marriage precedes governmental authority" rule. The right to marry and the definition of marriage are not the government's to change. While civil marriage may be a government creation, it is rooted in the lessons of marriage throughout history, and the government should therefore move very slowly, and with social consensus, before issuing a Claudius-like decree abolishing the institution as it has been known.

It should also steer clear of semantic games, such as Coleman's, recasting civil marriages as civil unions so as to neatly discard all considerations — intuited more than understood — that make traditional marriage doctrine more a matter of reason than of faith.

Posted by Justin Katz at February 15, 2005 11:38 PM
Marriage & Family

Coleman: "There should be no federal or state license that grants validity to love. There should be no state-run office that peers into our bedrooms and honeymoon suites."

Coleman stumbles here onto the question he doesn't want to answer: Why shouldn't the state take an interest in what we do in our bedrooms? If the state wants to perpetuate itself, then it will need a fresh supply of citizens to serve as soldiers and taxpayers.

The response to this, when there is a response is a dismissive: "We already have too many people on the planet. We don't need any more." That's a factual question. We don't yet have a serious population crisis in this country, though we may be on the edge of one. The birth rate of our citizenry is right at the replacement rate. Without immigration, our population wouldn't be growing.

But we needn't analyze the factual question so long as it's put on a constitutional footing. If it's a constitutional question, then we should ask: Could we ever be in a situation where the government might need to take an interest in our bedrooms in the national interest?

I don't see how anyone could deny that governments can have legitimate interests in procreation, or that it could be a suicide pact to establish a constitutional doctrine forbidding our government from distinguishing between procreative couples and non-procreative ones.

It's very simple: Governments need babies, just as they need armies and tax revenues. They look to rich people for the taxes, they look to young men for the armies, and they look to opposite-sex couples for the babies.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at February 16, 2005 1:36 PM

Justin, your conclusion about the role of the state is very strong.

>> It should also steer clear of semantic games, such as Coleman's, recasting civil marriages as civil unions so as to neatly discard all considerations — intuited more than understood — that make traditional marriage doctrine more a matter of reason than of faith.

Society has a tremendous interest in non-coercive means of channelling procreation within the social institution of marriage. Civil union is a policy option for unmarriagable couples as long as it is distinguishable from marriage both in form and in substance.

The attempt to equate marriage with civil union is yet another example of the tendency of SSM advocates (and those who espouse marriage as just a contract) to argue for what amounts to the replacement of marriage with something else.


I assume that an underlying premise in your comment is that liberty itself depends very much on the conservation and strengthening of the procreative model at the heart of marriage. A crisis in societal regeneration would threaten freedom.

As much as I deplore attempts to have the state undermine the procreative model of marriage, I am also very leary of aggressive pro-natalist policies. These can do much harm both to families and to sustainable levels of procreation and to the well-being of society. States in Eastern Europe and Asia have offerred the worst examples of both pro-natalist and population-control policies. Both sorts of state interventions arose when there was a crisis in procreation patterns. The distortions will play out for generations.

[And to be clear, I am not suggesting that Ben would favor pro-natalist policies like those of former Communist regimes, for example.]

Societal support for the social institution of marriage need not be entirely vested in governmental policies, but the state should not undermine the essential social institution that non-coercively channels procreation toward the bonding of men and women with their children.

When that institution fails, the state would be pushed to do so much more to over-compensate for the societal costs that are incurred. This eventually would erode not only our freedom, but also the capability of society to survive, let alone flourish.

For some this might sound like "the sky would fall", but the call for replacing marriage sounds a lot like "the sky is falling already".

Posted by: Chairm at February 16, 2005 3:02 PM

You make a good point, Chairm. Heavyhanded attempts to encourage procreation could certainly backfire. My point is only that they aren't constitutionally forbidden.

How to encourage reproduction is a very thorny problem for which no one seems to have any solutions. It seems to be primarily a problem in belief systems: Do people think of themselves as part of something larger than themselves that stretches back into history and hopes to stretch forward into the future? I don't see a big role for government there, aside from stopping it from getting in the way.

What particular communist policies on reproduction are you thinking of? Aside from China's one-child policy, I don't know much about what has happened there.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at February 16, 2005 6:22 PM

What few fail to realize is exactly what is at stake here: Constitutional authority for "We the People" to do anything at all to encourage procreation. And when that right is lost, all bets are off.

Posted by: Marty at February 16, 2005 10:08 PM

Heh, what few realize, or what many fail to... Take yer pick :P

Posted by: Marty at February 16, 2005 10:30 PM

There is a common trap that users of reason fall into. I’m sure there must be a latin term for it but my philosophy is not well read enough to know.

So let me illustrate with an example arguendo; men find shapely women attractive because a shapely figure indicates high levels of female hormones which indicates fertility.

Does this mean that men subconsciously find hormones and fertility attractive? No. Many therefore reject the arguendo hypothesis on this basis, but this is reasoning backwards.

A better interpretation is that male ancestors who did NOT find shapely figures attractive (or didn’t care) had fewer descendents to pass their preferences on to than male ancestors who did, because women with shapely figures were more successful having children.

The state / marriage thing seems to generate the same kind of bass ackward reasoning. Marriage is like language in that humans are innately predisposed to incorporate them into whatever culture they create. It’s not because the state wants a standard language and marriage laws, RATHER it is the people who want state PROVIDED institutional support for their language and their marriages.

Marriage is not something invented by a particular human culture. It would be more accurate to say that one reason humans create culture and state is to enforce their innate disposition for common language and marriage customs.

That’s why the resistance to gay marriage is so strong. The arguments are about as influential as telling men that their reasons for preferring shapely women are outdated and discriminatory. The preference is not based on the logic of hormones and fertility, it descends from the fecundity of their ancestors.

The definition of marriage does not come from the state, it is innate and can not be changed.

Posted by: boris at February 19, 2005 12:12 PM

That's an interesting perspective, Boris, and it's one I tend to agree with. The trouble politically is that those with libertarian tendencies will flip it around by promoting reason over tradition: Our circumstances have changed, and we don't want to wait for natural selection to figure out which societal customs should prevail. So we should use reason to radically re-engineer our social rules as reason dictates.

The trouble there is epistemological. Our logic isn't as sharp as we imagine; it's mostly driven by our premises. And our historical perspective is practically non-existent.

SSM proponents start with the premise that children aren't particularly important. They're a hobby, a lifestyle choice, or a fashion accessory. Many people unconsciously hold the idea that overpopulation is a looming problem. There are too many people anyway, so why crimp peoples' fun about making more?

One of the deeper answers to SSM is simply that we don't know enough about how our society works, the significance of our time in history, or what the future holds. We're better off not tampering with things we don't understand. At the moment, the importance of producing and raising children is definitely one of the things we as a society do not seem to understand.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at February 22, 2005 1:58 AM

While the goals of SSM opponents are worthy (such as to strengthen traditional families and create healthy environments for raising children) are worthy, the prohibition against SSM and the proposed "Protection" of Marriage Constitional Amendment do absolutely nothing to further those goals.

SSM opponents claim that "traditional marriage will be destroyed," yet I can't imaging why any heterosexual couple who loves each other would get divorced because "Adam and Steve" were allowed to marry. I also can't imagine any heterosexual couple who wants to start a family would decide not to due so because of what "Madam and Eve" did. The fact that two people of the same sex can't conceive doesn't wash either. Heterosexual couples who cannot conceive to due medial reasons or have no intention of having children are perfectly welcome at the alter. The only reason for opposing same sex marriage is that many people (including many democrats) have feelings of revulsion at the idea of people of the same sex having sex, and because "the Bible says so."

Posted by: Dan Carvin at February 23, 2005 4:19 PM

I can't imaging why any heterosexual couple who loves each other would get divorced because of SSM.

I'm not ready to toss that monkey wrench in the works just based on someone's lack of imagination.

How SSM affects marriage RIGHT NOW is of far less concern than what it does to society over time. I can easily imagine unintended consequences that have nothing to do with the bible (eeek!).

For example, just suppose that the institution set up to provide institutional support and enforcement of marriage for heterosexual breeders is not a perfect fit for SSM? There might need to be some cultural adaptations. What influences are likely to dominate, the archaic homophobic breeders or the enlightened proponents of SSM? It certainly is not hard to imagine that community property law set up to provide security for children would be less of a concern for SSM.

Posted by: boris at February 24, 2005 12:01 PM

Simply allowing SSM would do nothing to interfer with married hetersexual couples raising children, and I would oppose any change to marriage laws that would demonstratably harm children.

As for community property laws, they would apply to SS divorces they same way they would apply to divorces of childless hetersexual couples.

Posted by: Dan Carvin at February 25, 2005 12:57 PM

and I would oppose any change to marriage laws that would demonstratably harm children.

How comforting (not).

Unintended consequences have a way of showing up unexpectedly (duh).

You may not see why the institution would adapt to it's new and very different client base, but I can't believe it wouldn't.

Your assurances are not convincing, your attitude towards christians is telling, and your assertions are unsupported by even so much as an attempt to muster evidence or logic.

Posted by: boris at February 25, 2005 4:54 PM