Ryan T. Anderson is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute.
According to the foundation's website, Anderson has expertise in bioethics and natural law theory and researches and writes about marriage and religious liberty. His current focus is on constitutional questions surrounding same-sex marriage, the foundation said, and he co-authored the book “What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense” with Princeton’s Robert P. George and Sherif Girgis.
In March, Anderson spoke at a Marriage Summit hosted by Brigham Young University's J. Rueben Clark Law School and also sat down with the Deseret News National edition to discuss marriage and ongoing efforts to redefine it.
Deseret News: What is the difference between the conjugal view and revisionist view of marriage?
Ryan T. Anderson: The conjugal view is really the view that has informed most of Western history and culture up until just yesterday, it seems. This is the view in which marriage is about uniting a man and woman comprehensively in hearts, minds and souls and bodies and that the act that unites a man and woman as husband and wife is the same act that can create new life. And marriage is about uniting that man (and) that woman as husband and wife to then be mother and father to any children that that act might create.
The revisionist view is really one in which marriage is mainly about adult romance. It’s about an intense emotional union that any two adults can form regardless of their sexual complementarity, and children are seen as an optional add-on if the couple chooses to have children. And if they don’t, that’s fine because the idea is that it’s more about adult romance than about the needs of the children.
DN: So, in a country that’s based on the separation of church and state, isn’t the conjugal view actually based on religious beliefs?
RA: It’s based on religious beliefs; it’s also based on human anthropology; it’s based on sound philosophy; it’s based on good social science. I see no conflict here between faith and reason. So it’s true that the Judeo-Christian tradition views marriage in this way, but so too did the ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans; so too did enlightenment philosophers like John Locke and Emmanuel Kant; so too did Eastern thinkers like Gandhi. What this suggests to me and my co-authors is that there’s something about this understanding of marriage that is a near human universal. And so it doesn’t violate religious liberty or the (First Amendment) establishment clause at all to say that the government needs to be in the marriage business, not because it cares about the romance of consenting adults, but because it wants to make sure that children have (a) mom and a dad — and marriage is the way that you achieve that.
KSL: What about couples that are infertile? What does marriage mean to them?
RA: Not every marriage will produce a child, but every child has a mother and a father, and marriage is the institution that’s going to most maximize the likelihood that every child is born into a relationship with a committed mother and father. That’s why the state cares about marriage.
DN: There are plenty of examples of heterosexual parents who have failed in the parenting department. So really what’s the harm in a same-sex couple having children?
RA: What redefining marriage does is it sends the signal that a child need not even have as an ideal a mother and a father. It really eliminates from public policy any institution that exists to say that mothering and fathering are distinct and complementary and that children deserve both a mom and a dad. Redefining marriage to make it a genderless institution says that men and women are interchangeable; moms and dads are interchangeable as well.
DN: So as society, do we need to set an ideal for parenting?
RA: Yes, this is more or less why this state is in the marriage business in the first place. You could have children in lots of different relationships. The state tries to encourage marriage as the ideal relationship, the ideal institution, both for adult committed love but also for child rearing. It really wants to hold up marriage as the place in which children are conceived and then reared to adulthood.
DN: Many people believe sexual orientation is an innate quality — you don’t choose your own sexual orientation — and that discriminating based on sex is akin to discriminating based on race. What is your rebuttal to that?
RA: No great thinker in human history has ever argued that race has anything to do with marriage. You can search Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, Locke and Kant, and they will never discuss race, because race has nothing to do with what marriage is. All of them will discuss the sexual complementarity of male and female because that goes to the heart of what marriage is. Marriage laws that kept the races apart were wrong. But marriage is about bringing together the two halves of humanity, male and female. So marriage law has to be color blind, but it can’t be gender blind.
DN: So much of the discussion over same-sex marriage has come down to a debate over religious freedom. Can’t the two co-exist? Why is it a threat to religious freedom?
RA: They could exist in theory, but in practice we see that those who are arguing in favor of redefining marriage are then trying to stamp out any residual resistance, any private individual, any charity and business that continues to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. They want to see those beliefs eradicated. And so we’ve seen Catholic charities and evangelical adoption agencies in Massachusetts and Illinois and the District of Columbia forced out of the adoption care space because they wouldn’t place their children in homes with same-sex couples. They wanted to find homes with married moms and dads. The government said, “That’s discrimination and we won't give you an adoption agency license.”
We’ve seen photographers and florists and bakers and innkeepers who have no problem serving gay and lesbian customers, but who don’t want to be forced into celebrating a same-sex wedding, politely decline to use their artistic talents to celebrate that same-sex wedding and then get sued by the same-sex couple. This is not live and let live, this is not “let me be free to do what I want to do,” this is “I am going to use the force of law to coerce you into celebrating my same-sex relationship,” and that’s the concern for religious liberty.
DN: As you lay out your arguments, many people may be unmoved because it seems like you aren’t giving homosexuals the opportunity for true fulfillment, that society is justifying sacrificing some people’s fulfillment at the sake of others. What is your response to that?
RA: Marriage laws take nothing away from anyone. In all 50 states, two people of the same sex can live with each other and love each other. If their house of worship recognizes same-sex marriage, they can have a wedding there. If their business wants to give them marriage benefits, the business can. That’s very much a live and let live society. What’s at stake with the redefinition of marriage is: will the law redefine what marriage is and then force every community, every religious community, except for the four walls of a church, every business community, into treating the same-sex relationship as if it’s a marriage, even when it violates their beliefs about marriage? But defining marriage as between a man and a woman so that as many children as possible have a mother and a father in no way infringes upon the liberty of any American to live and to love how they choose to.
DN: Your book came out 2012. What kind of response have you gotten from it?
RA:It quickly became one of the best-selling books on this topic. The article that it came out of (was) published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (and) the most downloaded article at the SSR Insight for that year. And then Justice Samuel Alito has cited our book twice in his opinion on the Defense of Marriage Act case. So we’re pretty happy with it. We wish Justice Alito’s opinion would have been a majority opinion, not a dissenting opinion, but we think it’s being read by the right people, and it’s having an impact.
DN: Is it hard to take the emotion out of this debate?
RA: I don’t think it’s hard. I think that to a certain extent, too many people on both sides of this issue have engaged in empty sloganeering, and they’ll call people names and they’ll bring more heat than light to this issue. So I just think it’s important to actually think critically about what marriage is, why marriage matters, why redefining marriage is a bad idea, and then engage on that level.
DN: Do you think we’ve taken out the historical context in this debate — what has marriage meant from the beginning?
RA: I think what we’ve really done is that we haven’t looked at what the social purpose of marriage is — what function does marriage perform? It’s true that it’s about love, but it’s not just about love; it’s true that it’s about romance, but it’s not just about romance. It’s about uniting a man and woman as husband and wife in a permanent and an exclusive relationship, precisely to give children the best chance at a future, by having a relationship with the man and the woman who gave them life — their mother and their father. It’s true that for the past 40 or 50 years heterosexuals have bought into a bad liberal ideology about marriage and have made a mess of it, but that’s not a reason for putting another nail into the coffin. That’s a reason for making reforms and for reclaiming a sounder understanding of human sexuality and of marriage.