Universal legal acceptance of same-sex marriage may be, as its advocates triumphantly insist, inevitable in the United States. Several states now recognize such marriages, the trend seems to be sweeping Western Europe, and surveys consistently show high and rising support for gay marriage among younger people.
Such survey results aren’t altogether surprising. “Show me a young Conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart,” Winston Churchill once remarked. The campaign for same-sex marriage has successfully framed itself as a quest for compassion, justice and equality in the face of unreasonable prejudice — which makes it difficult (and rather dangerous) to resist.
But Churchill went on to say, “Show me an old Liberal and I'll show you someone with no brains.”
This may suggest that the battle over same-sex marriage isn’t quite over yet. Audiences for classical music tend to be gray-haired, and some have concluded, therefore, that classical music is doomed. When the current audience moves on to the celestial concert hall on high, they lament, no audience will remain. But such fears are at least a century old now. New audiences have, in fact, replaced departing ones, and classical music survives despite the prophecies. With age, attitudes and tastes change.
More fundamentally, though, polls and trends demonstrate only that a view is popular, not that it’s correct. The question remains: Should society legally recognize gay marriage?
Many who oppose doing so have struggled to justify their opposition — not only to others, but to themselves. Religious reservations, for instance, don’t translate well into discussions with non-believers. (“The prophet said so” works for most believing Latter-day Saints, but carries no weight with non-Mormons.) Inarticulate opposition can easily be caricatured — even demonized — as irrational prejudice.
And the cultural and academic elites arguing for “marriage equality” have argued eloquently, using the popular media with great skill. Accordingly, tongue-tied resistance to same-sex marriage has tended to crumble — even among some otherwise believing Latter-day Saints, and particularly among Mormon youths.
The 2012 book “What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense” and its accompanying website at whatismarriagebook.com, deserve wide readership, therefore, and will, I believe, help beleaguered defenders of traditional marriage. The book methodically presents a concise, calm, lucid case for the proposition that legal recognition should be limited to marriage as marriage has been universally defined for millennia.
Its authors aren’t frontier rubes, driven by hatred. "What is Marriage?" grows out of an article published in the “Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.” Sherif Girgis is a former Rhodes Scholar studying for a law degree at Yale and a Ph.D. in philosophy at Princeton. Ryan Anderson, a graduate of Princeton, is a doctoral candidate in political philosophy at Notre Dame and a fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. Robert George (J.D., Harvard; D. Phil., Oxford) is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School.
They appeal to neither religion nor revelation, though they worry about the future of religious freedom if same-sex marriage becomes the legal norm, and they express no hostility to homosexuals. In fact, their case is fundamentally a philosophical argument, informed by social science, for a particular view of marriage — the “conjugal view,” as they call it — rather than against gay unions.
Revised versions simply aren’t properly marriage at all, they argue, but dangerous redefinitions. (“How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg?” Abraham Lincoln once asked in quite a different context. He then answered his own question: “Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg.”)
Robert George has been defending this understanding of marriage — and opposing what he sees as marriage-weakening measures such as “no fault” divorce — for many years now, since long before same-sex marriage even became a prominent issue.
For those wondering how to defend their instinctive discomfort with same-sex marriage in the public sphere, “What is Marriage?” will, I think, be very useful. It’s not light reading, but it’s clear, and it merits slow, reflective and careful study. Those troubled by conflict between their natural commitment to charity, equality and justice, on the one hand, and, on the other, the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage will find it helpful in clarifying their thinking, and perhaps in resolving their unease.
And, finally, supporters of same-sex marriage will plainly see that dissent from their position can be based on something other than irrational bigotry. Perhaps they’ll even change their minds.
Daniel Peterson, professor of Islamic studies and Arabic, edits BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture," blogs daily at Patheos, and speaks (at most) for himself.