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The Consequences of Redefining Marriage


There are good reasons why conjugal unions have been distinguished from all others since antiquity.

Why the State Cares about Marriage


I come at this as a matter of public policy and ask the question, why is the government in the marriage business in the first place?  Why does government recognize marriage, why does marriage matter for the political community, how ought we to define marriage, and why does it matter?

I structure my remarks around three basic things: What is marriage, why does marriage matter, and what will the consequences be of redefining marriage?

The simplest way to get at this is to say that from the government's perspective, it doesn't care about your love life.  Government is not in the marriage business because it cares about adult romance.  Government is in the marriage business because the union of a man and woman can produce a child, and children deserve a relationship with their mom and dad.  That's the reason we have government in the bedroom. 

From the state's perspective, marriage exists to unite a man and a woman as husband and wife, to then be equipped to be father and mother to any children that union might produce.  It's based on the anthropological truth that men and women are distinct and complementary.  It's based on the biological fact that reproduction requires a man and a woman.  It's based on the social reality that children deserve their mother and father.

Whenever a child is born, a mother will be close by.  That's a fact of biology; she's frequently in the same room.  The question, then, is: will the father be close by, and if so, for how long?  That's a question for culture, and so it's a question for law.  Marriage is an institution that diverse societies throughout history and across the globe have devised as a way of maximizing the likelihood that that man commits to that woman, and then the two of them take responsibility for raising that child.

Part of this is based in the reality that there is no such thing as parenting — there's no such thing as parenting in the abstract; there's mothering and there's fathering, and children do best with both.  While men and women are each capable of providing their children with a good upbringing, there are, on average, differences in the ways that mothers and fathers interact with their children and the functional roles that they play.

Dads play particularly important roles in the formation of both their sons and their daughters.  As Rutgers University sociologist David Popenoe explains, "The burden of social science evidence supports the idea that gender-differentiated parenting is important for human development and that the contribution of fathers to childrearing is unique and irreplaceable."  Popenoe concludes:

We should disavow the notion that "mommies can make good daddies," just as we should disavow the popular notion...that "daddies can make good mommies."... The two sexes are different to the core, and each is necessary — culturally and biologically — for the optimal development of a human being.

Whenever a child is born, a mother will be close by.  That's a fact of biology; she's frequently in the same room.  The question, then, is: will the father be close by, and if so, for how long?  That's a question for culture, and so it's a question for law.

You can illustrate this with a thought experiment.  It's Saturday morning, and a five-year-old boy is in the living room wrestling with one of his parents.  And the parent is teaching the five-year-old how to be masculine without being violent — how to put people in headlocks, but not to bite or pull hair or gouge eyes.  Which parent is most likely in the living room?  [laughter] And the laughter gives away the answer: it's the father.  And this isn't because we've engaged in gender stereotypes in which only fathers can wrestle on living room carpets, but this is the type of behaviour that on average and for the most part comes naturally to fathers; it's the kind of behaviour fathers enjoy engaging in with their sons.  It's for the same reason that the father is typically the one that's throwing the baby up in the air, while the mother is the one that says, "Honey, not so high."  That's the type of behaviour that typically comes naturally to mothers, not because we've engaged in some form of gender stereotyping in which mothers have to say, "Not so high," but mothers tend to be the more nurturing, the more protective, the more supportive parent.

What happens on that Saturday morning in the living room on the carpet actually matters, because we see that children who grow up without fathers are more likely to commit crime and more likely to end up in jail.  One of the things that takes place with the five-year-old on the carpet, with the ten-year-old out back playing ball with his father, and with the fourteen-year-old navigating high school with his father's guidance, is learning how to direct distinctively masculine aggression into a constructive rather than a destructive channel.  When this doesn't happen, this is when you get the problem with teenage crime.  And the fathers tend to be the ones that help their boys develop into mature men.

Fathers do something different but complementary for their daughters.  Fathers are the ones that typically scare away the bad boyfriends.  Partly this is because the father, on average, tends to be a little bit bigger and taller than the mother, and his voice tends to be a little bit deeper than the mother's, so he's better at scaring away boyfriends, but it's also because the father was once a young man himself, and he knows what the wrong type of boy might be looking for in his daughter.  So he's more sensitive to that.

The father who's married to his daughter's mother is also modeling for her what a good relationship looks like, and what she should be looking for in a boyfriend and in a future husband.  And that matters.  So we see when we look at the social science that girls who grow up without their fathers are more likely to have an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, because that father is the one who's more likely to be policing that relationship.

The Data

You could say those are good thought experiments, good anecdotes, but what about the actual data.  Consider this quote:

We know the statistics: that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime, nine times more likely to drop out of schools, and twenty times more likely to end up in prison.  They are more likely to have behavioural problems, or run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves, and the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.

Who's the author of that quote?  President Obama, before he evolved on the marriage issue. 

Obama understands why fathers are so essential for children.  He grew up without his father, and knows firsthand that it's a much steeper hill to climb when you're growing up without your father involved in your life.  When he addressed the all-male graduating class of Morehouse College, he emphasized the importance of fathers, saying: "I have tried to be for Michelle and my girls what my father was not for my mother and me.  I want to break that cycle."

If you redefine marriage to make it more about adult romance, more about the desires of the consenting adults, than about the needs of children, it'll send a message that men and women are essentially interchangeable and therefore mothers and fathers are interchangeable, and that two moms or two dads is the same thing as a married mom and dad.

None of this is in any way to say that children who grow up outside of marriage are somehow destined to failure.  President Obama seems to be doing pretty well for himself.  So he shows that children can turn out just fine.  But he would be the first to admit that it was a tougher hill to climb, and that no child would want to be lacking a relationship with their mother and father.  What the child most desires is a relationship with the two people who brought them into existence, with their mother and their father.  And people who don't have this great gift, through no fault of their own, have a tougher row to hoe.

And this is also not to say anything critical about single mothers.  If anything, they are frequently the most heroic people in our society, who, when the boyfriend or the husband abandoned them and abandoned the children, they were the ones that were there to help raise that child.  And they'll frequently also be among the first people to say how they wish that guy had manned up and committed to them, and committed to those children.

What we've seen over the past forty years with the breakdown of the American family is that for those children born and raised outside of the married mother-father family, this is when you're more likely to see child poverty.  This is when you're likely to see an increase in crime, a decrease in social mobility.  This is when government welfare spending took off.

So everything you could care about if you care about social justice, about limited government, about the poor, and about freedom, is better served by a healthy marriage culture than it is by a big-government solution that tries to pick up the pieces of a broken marriage culture, a big government solution in the form of a welfare state or a police state.

Marriage rightly understood is something that limits the state.  It's a civil-society institution that limits what government will be doing, by limiting government's need to meddle in the lives of citizens and their families.

But what we've seen over the past forty years is that at one point single motherhood was an unheard-of phenomenon.  Virtually every child was born inside a marriage and raised by their married mother and father.  Today the statistics are that forty percent of all Americans are born outside of marriage, fifty percent of Hispanics, and seventy percent of African-Americans, through no fault of these children, but they will have a much tougher challenge in life achieving social mobility, achieving prosperity, and achieving a flourishing life.

Three Consequences of Redefining Marriage

I conclude by mentioning three ways in which redefining marriage will have negative consequences.  Because you could agree with me and say yes, marriage is about uniting a man and a woman, a husband and a wife, a father and a mother.  You could agree with me that marriage matters because it's the best protector against child poverty, it's the best guarantee of social mobility, and it's the best limiting institution on the leviathan of the state. 

But you might ask: how will allowing Adam and Steve to get married impact any of this?  How does redefining marriage in any way hurt you or your marriage? 

Let me mention three ways in which it will do this, under the general rubric of "Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have bad consequences."  The law shapes culture, culture shapes beliefs, and our beliefs shape our actions.  Redefining marriage replaces one vision of what marriage is with another, thus weakening the understanding of marriage that justifies marital norms in the first place.

The first consequence is that if you redefine marriage to make it a genderless institution, there will be no institution left in civil society that upholds, even as an ideal, that every child deserves both a mother and a father.  If you redefine marriage to make it more about adult romance, more about the desires of the consenting adults, than about the needs of children, it'll send a message that men and women are essentially interchangeable and therefore mothers and fathers are interchangeable, and that two moms or two dads is the same thing as a married mom and dad.

If you doubt that the law teaches, think back to when we redefined marriage the first time, in the seventies and the eighties, with no-fault divorce.  Previously, divorce rates in America were relatively low.  Then they peaked at roughly fifty percent.  They've dropped back down into the forties.

One reason we saw the divorce rate skyrocket like this is that at one point American law said that when you filed for divorce you had to cite fault, and the three A's in the common law were abuse, abandonment and adultery.  You would cite a reason for ending your marriage — my spouse abuses me, my spouse has abandoned me, my spouse has committed adultery — serious reasons for ending a relationship that otherwise was expected to be permanent, that was to last until death do us part.  But with no-fault divorce, a spouse could now abandon his or her partner for any reason or for no reason at all.  The law now taught that marriage need not even aspire to be permanent.  The law shapes culture, the culture shapes our beliefs, and our beliefs shape our actions.

In the same way, if right now the biggest social problem we face in America is absentee fathers, how will we insist that fathers are essential when the law has redefined marriage to make fathers optional?  That's the question for President Obama after his evolution on marriage.

So that's the first consequence: it will redefine the purpose of marriage, the understanding of marriage.  It will center marriage not on ensuring the best stable environment for children, but on consenting adult romance.  It makes men and women, mothers and fathers, interchangeable.

The point of the government being in marriage is to encourage a man and a woman to commit permanently and exclusively so that any children they create are conceived inside of a stable relationship with a mother and a father. 

The second consequence is that there's no reason to think the redefinition of marriage would stop here.  And we've already seen advocates on the left coin three new words to describe how they would like to see marriage further redefined.  And so I'll briefly mention these three words.

The first is the term throuple.  A throuple is a three-person couple.  The term throuple was introduced to us in New York Magazine.  The idea here was that this is a polyamorous relationship — it's a group marriage.  In a polyamorous relationship, the entire ensemble is married to each other.  So the throuple, they're all married to one another.

If you go before a court of law and demand marriage equality for the same-sex couple, and you say the union of a man and a woman is irrational and arbitrary, what principle is left for you to deny marriage equality to the same-sex throuple or the opposite-sex quartet?  Because remember, the slogan the left has used here is marriage equality.  They never answer the question of what is marriage.  They never tell us what marriage is, but they tell us they want equality.

And then they have another slogan: "Love equals love."  If you redefine marriage by "Love equals love" — as being about adult romance, about adult caregiving, about adult intimacy — why is that something only two people can form?  Why not marriage equality for the throuple?  Because the way we got to twosomes in American law is that it's one man and one woman who can unite in an act that produces new life, and every new life has one mother and one father.  And marriage is about uniting those people in a stable relationship. 

And once you say the union of a man and a woman, a mother and a father, is irrational and arbitrary, what's the principled basis for monogamy?  What's magical about the number two, once you've denied that there's something about one man and one woman?  So that's the throuple.

The next term is monogamish.  Monogamish was introduced to us in the New York Times in the Sunday magazine, one of the most prominent publications, standard-bearer for liberal thought.  And this was a profile of gay activist Dan Savage.  Dan Savage, in the part of his profile in which he was saying that here's something that straight couples can learn from gay couples, said they could learn the virtue of the monogamish relationship.  This is a relationship of two people, but not sexually exclusive.  He was saying that what straight couples could learn from gay couples is that you don't have to seek all of your sexual fulfillment inside of marriage, that in fact your emotional union with your spouse might be enhanced if you were free to seek out sexual gratification outside of the marital institution.  And so he called this the monogamish relationship.

The last term is wedlease.  This was introduced to us in the pages of the Washington Post one month after the Supreme Court ruled on the Defense of Marriage Act case.  The idea here is that just as you can lease a car or you can lease a house, you should be able to lease a spouse.  The author was a lawyer.  He was arguing that the problem with marriage in America is that we have an unrealistic expectation that we can pledge to love another person until death do us part — that fifty percent of marriage are ending in divorce because we have this unrealistic expectation and we can't live up to it.  Better if we just didn't have the expectation in the first place.  So we should have temporary marriage licenses — a five or a ten year wedlease, instead of wedlock.  Wedlock denotes something strong, sturdy and permanent, wedlease the exact opposite.

Now, whatever you think about the morality or the theology of throuples and monogamish relationships and wedleases, think about the public policy consequences.  The point of the government being in marriage is to encourage a man and a woman to commit permanently and exclusively so that any children they create are conceived inside of a stable relationship with a mother and a father.  But the throuple, the monogamish relationship and the wedlease increase the odds that men have multiple sexual partners in short-lived relationships, thus creating children with multiple women, among whom their love, their care, their attention, their emotion, and their money, are subsequently divided.  This is a recipe for creating fragmented families and fatherless children.

And yet all three of these new words, all three of these forms of redefining marriage, follow as logical conclusions of eliminating the male-female procreative aspect of marriage.  Once you deny that a marriage has anything to do with a man and a woman, a husband and a wife, a mother and a father, why should it be a permanent, exclusive, monogamous relationship, because those three norms are downhill from the male-female part.

So the second consequence is that redefining marriage to eliminate male-female sexual complementarity is that it eliminates any principled basis for marriage policy — it dissolves marriage into nothing more than consenting adult love of whatever size or shape.

The third consequence of redefining marriage is burdens on religious liberty.  We've already seen that in Massachusetts, in Illinois, and in the District of Columbia the government has forced Catholic Charities and evangelical foster care and adoption agencies out of the adoption and foster care space, because they wanted to find homes for children in their care with married moms and dads.  The government said, that's discrimination.  You have to treat the same-sex couple on an equal basis as you do the married mom and dad.

These agencies said, we have social science that suggest that children do best with a mom and a dad and we have this thing called the First Amendment.  We want to find married moms and dads for the children who are entrusted to our care.  We're not trying to prevent gay or lesbian couples from adopting from other agencies — from the government agencies, from secular agencies.  We just want to run our agencies in accordance with our beliefs.

And the government said no, we won't give you the adoption agency license.  And it's illegal to run an adoption agency without a license.  This does absolutely nothing to help children.  It does nothing to help children find homes.  Shutting down adoption agencies and foster care programs just scores a point for political correctness.  It scores a point in the wars about adult sexuality.  But it does nothing to help children.

And then we've seen cases of photographers and florists and bakers and innkeepers, more or less any professional who intersects with the wedding industry, being asked by a same-sex couple to perform services to help celebrate their same-sex marriage, declining to do so, and then being sued by that same-sex couple.

They didn't refuse to serve gays or lesbians.  That's how it's reported in the media, but that's not accurate.  These professionals have no problem baking birthday cakes for gay and lesbian customers, no problem taking portraits, no problem making get-well-soon bouquets of flowers.  What they had a concern about was using their God-given talents to celebrate a same-sex wedding.  They didn't want to use those God-given gifts to tell a lie about what they believe to be the truth about a God-instituted society like marriage.

So the second consequence is that redefining marriage to eliminate male-female sexual complementarity is that it eliminates any principled basis for marriage policy — it dissolves marriage into nothing more than consenting adult love of whatever size or shape.

Evangelical and Catholic photographers and florists don't have a monopoly on those industries; there were plenty of other photographers and florists and bakers more than willing to provide their services to the same-sex wedding and to make that money.  So there's no example we can point to of a same-sex couple going without wedding flowers, a wedding cake, or a wedding photographer.  And yet these professionals were sued nonetheless.  And frequently they have lost these lawsuits.

The most famous example is the case of Elane Photography.  It's a case out of New Mexico.  In 2006, Elaine Huguenin, an evangelical Christian, politely declined to take the wedding photos of a same-sex wedding ceremony.  In 2008, the New Mexico Commission on Human Rights ruled that she had violated the human rights of that couple.  This past summer, the New Mexico Supreme Court, hearing an appeal of that case, concluded, in agreement with the New Mexico Commission on Human Rights, that Elaine had violated their human rights.

In a concurring opinion, one of the judges said the price of citizenship was that Elaine had to take these pictures.  He didn't say the same-sex couple should have just gone to a different photographer — live and let live.  No, he said she had to violate her beliefs and to serve them.

So that's the third consequence: the question of whether or not private citizens, the associations they form, the communities they form, and the businesses they form, will be left free to operate according to their beliefs, or will government coerce everyone to treat and to recognize a same-sex relationship as if it's a marriage, even when doing so would violate their consciences.

But whatever happens, it is essential to take the long view and to be ready to bear witness to the truth, even if law and culture grow increasingly hostile.  There are lessons to be learned from the pro-life movement here.

Consider February 1973, just weeks after Roe.  Public opinion ran against it, by a margin of two to one.  With each passing day, another pro-life public figure — Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, Bill Clinton — "evolved" to embrace abortion on demand.  The media kept insisting that all the young people were for abortion rights.  Elites ridiculed pro-lifers as being on the wrong side of history.  The pro-lifers were aging; their children increasingly against them.

But courageous pro-lifers put their hand to the plow, and today we reap the fruits — a majority of Americans are pro-life.  Everything the pro-life movement did needs to happen again, but on this new frontier of marriage.



anderson Ryan T. Anderson. "The Consequences of Redefining Marriage." an address at the Salt Lake Community College (March 31, 2014).

This address was delivered at Salt Lake Community College's Larry H. Miller Campus in Sandy, Utah and is reprinted with permission of the author.

The Author

what-is-marriagesmandersonRyan T. Anderson is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Public Discourse and the William E. Simon Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.  He is the author of When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious FreedomDebating Religious Liberty and Discrimination and co-author, along with Robert P. George and Sherif Girgis, of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. Ryan Anderson is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2014 Ryan T. Anderson
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