3rd Place: "Joined Together: Traditional Marriage
as the Source of Morality and Political Freedom"

Brandon Dabling of Centerville, Utah

SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 3 (Fall 2009)






            It’s a troubling reality that our political rhetoric rarely rises above the level of high school conversation, replete with slogans, strangling cultural pressure and words and ideas that we cannot quite pin down. I was reminded of this uneasy state a few months ago when I unintentionally overheard a conversation between some students at my high school alma mater. One girl — tall and imposing, you could tell she was a leader in her circle — dominated the conversation while others in the room soon turned in to listen. She proudly told her friends about how she had humiliated a boy in a debate about same-sex marriage earlier that day.

             Now she had me. I was not so much surprised by the argument — I’d heard it before — but by the person who was making it. I had never met this girl before, but I had seen her carry scriptures and heard her talk about her church. In the least, I knew she had some sort of a religious upbringing that flatly rejected the stance she was now taking. The question in my mind was, “How is she so cleanly separating her obvious personal faith from this issue?”

            “Who am I to shove my beliefs down someone else’s throat?” she continued, almost immediately answering my question. “If two people love each other, they should be able to do what they want.”

            Many in the crowd — who most likely shared her religious background — were obviously impressed with her enlightened modern thinking. They encouraged her by reassuring that she was right to fight against such an intolerant peer. Other students were less comfortable. Scanning their faces, I could tell they did not quite buy the argument, but were unsure how to respond. They knew the message did not mesh with what they believed, but did not know how to combat it on the plane of reason in a way that would not meet the boy’s same embarrassing fate. I can imagine, because the sentiment is prevalent in today’s culture, they felt archaic and shut out from the debate — like their belief in traditional marriage had no stronger rooting than an unexplainable gut feeling.

            I wanted to step in and win the argument for the likely silent majority of students or at least take the conversation beyond this superficial level. I wanted to ask the girl why the government was even involved in marriage in the first place. I wanted to ask if she agreed that the family was the most fundamental unit of society, and if that was the case, why she would expect to tamper with it without expecting some negative “unintended consequences.” Perhaps we could start by defining what she meant by these notions of equality and freedom. Maybe then we could deliberate on a course of what liberties were to be preserved and sacrificed under this new order, and then whether such liberty could maintain itself into the long-term. They seemed like good questions at the time. They still do today.

            The problem is that teenagers are not all that different from their parents when it comes to making a reasonable case against same-sex marriage. People from various backgrounds often stumble in making strong arguments for traditional marriage, because they fail to fully realize the history, and even the very conception of reason, that is working against them. Convincing someone of the irreducible goodness of the one-flesh union provided in marriage can never be done by finding one new fact or running one more regression. It consists of confronting 400 years of philosophy’s shifting ground, which has slowly moved to limit reason and make it more scientific and less human.

           Let me make what may seem to some to be a rather odd proposition: atheists are just as disadvantaged by this truncation of reason as believers. Modern reason (more accurately, modern liberalism) shuns the wisdom of the poet and the priest because their wisdom is rooted in transcendent claims of beauty and truth. It does not matter that one claims inspiration from the peaceful reflection of the soul and the other from divine revelation. Both are non-replicable, subjective and fundamentally unscientific. The poet and the priest may experience these truths with all their soul, but in the end, “What’s your soul got to do with it?” the modern replies.

            Of course, these are bold statements that certainly need the clarification of the pages to come, along with the constructive aid of others. Until then, I ask the reader to accept it as my modest project to show that modern reason has been slowly modified to leave it unable to explain life’s most meaningful purposes. Reason tells us we should love each other, but it cannot tell us why it would not be more profitable to steal without being caught or lie without doing real harm. It does not explain why we should even bother to love, and it cannot approach offering a complete comprehension of the wonder with which this love fills man’s heart. Reason is blind to the higher questions of the soul, including the fundamental morality of marriage.

            I have divided my argument for the uniquely state-sanctioned one-flesh union between man and woman into four parts. The first section focuses on the larger question of the premises of modern reason and challenges its ability to answer the most essential moral questions. The second analyzes modern liberalism’s effect in the recent past through the women’s rights movement and the subsequent changes in attitudes and public policies that have harmed the family. The third part is an argument, grounded in natural law and human experience, which holds up the supremacy of traditional marriage. The final section centers on the reality that any truly free society will not long enjoy the fruits of that liberty while allowing the deconstruction of the family and other social mores. I have done my best to set up what I see to be the crucial framework to understanding this issue in the first two portions of this article. While this approach necessarily delays direct bearing on the same-sex marriage debate, this background prepares a necessary holding point for my final arguments — without which the case for heterosexual, monogamous marriage would fail to reach its full resonance.

The Modern Project: The Tyranny of Reason

            The current debate over the legalization of same-sex marriage does not exist in a vacuum. It is embedded in a framework of reason of which Brigham Young University Professor of Political Science Ralph C. Hancock recently said even (or more accurately, especially) the most intellectually astute “often appear to be no more aware than a fish knows it swims in the sea,” (Hancock 2008). This framework is the fruit of a modern project that has been building upon itself for 400 years and is now so pervasive that traditional marriage advocates will fail politically unless they fully understand the effects of this philosophical history.

            Before I give my critique of modern reason, let me briefly, and certainly inadequately, laud liberalism for its role in bringing about some of the great political advances and enlightenment of the last four centuries. Modern reason has made extraordinary strides in recognizing the equality of all human beings, the protection of natural rights and providing a structure in which people are free to carve out a future of their own choosing. Liberalism’s respect for the autonomy of the individual and the expansion of freedom shed light on important truths about the individual, and this is truly something to celebrate. I contend, however, that liberalism planted within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Following the project’s natural course, modern reason has now emancipated itself from its own foundational principles to become what can only be described as a liberationism free from any guiding virtues or moderating practices (Hancock 2008). Its goal is to equalize and liberate – from tradition, virtue or any other imposed authority. Reason is lopped off. It ignores the higher questions of truth and instead turns to its scientific counterpart to settle on that which is proven in data and verifiable experiments. Reason cannot tell man what is good, only how to get it and that having more of it is probably better than having less. In the marriage debate specifically, it tells society that man cannot be free if he has to ultimately answer to a moral standard. Freedom is having all choices available and their meaning revisable.

            Reason has not always been reduced to the mere efficiency of acquiring one’s desires. The central tradition of ancient political thought devoted itself “to the end of encouraging goodness,” (George 1993). Reason delved into the transcendent issues of justice, morality and virtue in an effort to orient man’s soul toward the good life. Nature provided the starting point and the initial signposts from which man could take his bearings. Man’s soul gave him the ability to think and act independently. It gave him his dignity and the ability to resist all negative external forces (Mansfield 1981). It was the soul that gave man his freedom and its perfection that gave him something for which he could live. Without the concepts of the good and the soul, Aristotle argued that the polis itself ceases to exist. Political life is inconceivable without them, at least in its true form. The real dialogue and growth of the community is thwarted before it begins.

            Plato’s Socrates gives perhaps the most memorable and illustrative oration on the transcendent role of reason in approaching truth. In the famous allegory of the cave, Socrates asks his interlocutor, Glaucon, to imagine a group of prisoners chained in a cave so they can only look directly at the wall in front of them to see the shadows of passer-bys being projected from the light of a fire in back of them. For these prisoners, these shadows are their reality and “there were no realities except those shadows of handmade things,” (Plato 1999). In their limited world of sight, the truth is only a shadow of reality. If the prisoners were released, they would see that the world they had constructed was foolishness, and they would be astonished to learn of the truth behind the shadows. Even then, the former prisoners’ knowledge would not be shaped by the pure forms of light; they would still be in the cave and would only see a small amount of dissipated sunlight. Their reality would still be based upon a human construction (the man-made fire) rather than cosmic truths. Yes, they would have knowledge of the practical world around them, but they would remain blind to the transcendent concepts they would see if they could make the rough ascent into the sunlight of the good (Plato 1999).

            The American philosopher Leo Strauss was the most effective in taking Socrates’ allegory and applying it to modern reason. He argued that reason had become a cave within a cave that man had consciously created. The prisoners in Socrates’ dialogue still enjoy limited sunlight, from which they can take their bearings. Modernity, however, has taken this away and cut off any reference to higher light. Man is abandoned in the world without any firm footing. Without the vertical reference of the good, it is impossible to distinguish between noble and base, moral and immoral. Truth becomes man-made and revisable to meet his ends (Strauss 1953).

            Strauss credited Niccolo Machiavelli as being the conscious founder of modern reason (Zuckert 2006). Machiavelli was the first to break from the classical ideas of vertical transcendence and natural right in favor of “new modes and orders” (Strauss 1957) focused on the realization of human appetites. Machiavelli keeps man in the cave for practical reasons, and man is content settling for the mastery of the shadows right in front of him. The essence of Machiavelli’s project, and indeed the essence of modern reason, can be summarized in stating that it lowers the sights of the good “in order to increase the probability of attainment,” (Strauss 1953). Reason’s aim is redefined, and so is the truth it seeks. Truth is no longer transcendent, but effectual. For Machiavelli, the question is not about what’s outside the cave. Instead, he tells his readers to forget about the sunlight with the reassurance that they’ll make their own. Without the vertical reference, truth is subsumed into the preservation of the self and its power.

            Since Machiavelli, reason has been divorced from any higher notion of the good. Reason became about manipulating the world around it for a purpose to which it is ignorant. A string of philosophers continued this modern project, but it never strayed from its Machiavellian foundation. Thomas Hobbes aimed at producing agreement between dueling parties by reducing the good to peace and security (Strauss 1953). What is there to fight about if there is nothing higher than peace and security? Hobbes could never, for example, understand why Achilles would die for honor or Socrates for truth. These ideas do not affect man’s principle concern for security. Hobbes is willfully blind to anything higher than man’s most basic needs. In the end, he has not made sense of what makes life good and meaningful. He has only come up with a useful compromise made from forcing the transcendent argument to bow out to the practical. This move is not Socratic, in the sense of vigorous questioning in pursuit of truth, but it is efficient in settling arguments.

            Modern liberalism achieves peace by keeping man trapped in Strauss’ cave within a cave. Arguments are tidy, but they do not focus on approaching the truth, because the transcendent has been cut off. They focus on the practical and reaching agreement. In the marriage debate, for example, the would-be advocates for traditional marriage sooner or later realize that in order to hold up heterosexual marriage as the moral good, they cannot help but imply that homosexuality is immoral, harmful or at least not worthy of the state’s sanction. Such a judgment emotionally hurts those not living the standard, along with their loved ones who watch them deal with the pain of being rejected and condemned by society. Without reference to something outside the cave, the all-too-common solution to this very real pain is to stop raising the moral truth altogether in hopes that the emotional harm and divisions will go away. We do it out of “love” and “equality,” but ultimately it is a Hobbesian ruse to brush over a thorny issue. It is natural and even good to want to be inclusive, accepting, to love and fight for equality. At the same time, however, any serious respecter of truth cannot think that by pretending the higher does not exist, it will renege its claim on the issue at hand. If transcendent truth is real, one cannot simply throw it aside and expect it to kindly mind its own business. Truth is — and it always finds its way back into prime focus.

            The current marriage debate is tightly gripped by the idea that the good is malleable and nature disposable. As mentioned in the introduction, modern reason refuses the idea of transcendence — informed by religion or philosophy — and throws man’s nature and practical experience aside. All of this has been the expansion of the project Machiavelli commenced — a project aimed at liberating man from the tyranny of virtue — and has limited man’s comprehension of the fundamental role of marriage and the family. In the more recent past, this truncated version of reason has sought to redefine the very nature of men, women and the marital vows they take upon themselves, and it is still pushing new alterations today. With each change and its subsequent repercussions, we are left with nature’s stubborn reminders that we cannot remake the world to fit our will without facing the enduring tremors of the earth’s resettling.

Modern Threats to Marriage

            Just as modern reason slowly separated itself from the classical approach, the modern argument for same-sex marriage has gradually developed from a society that has patiently knocked off essential elements of a healthy understanding of marriage. The current argument for state-sanctioned same-sex marriage would have been impossible at any other time; its advocates are now standing on the shoulders of a project that has been long in the making — a movement that hit a liberationist time bomb in the 1960s (Beneton 2004).

            Modern liberalism began taking hold of marriage during the early Progressive era and then again (this time in a more radical, liberated form) in the 1960s and 1970s. The early feminists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mary Wollstonecraft, had the clear moral purpose of creating gender equality by raising men to women’s level of morality. These women wanted more independence from men, but knew there was something important about sex roles that could not be dismissed (Mansfield 2006). For the early feminists, equality called for a moral realignment rather than the wholesale overhaul that would later grip the movement.           

            Modern feminism took a sharp turn from its moderate founders to accept the nihilism of thinkers such as Marx and Friedrich Neitzsche (Ibid). On the outside, feminism continued to be about equal treatment and individual rights. Every movement, however, is driven by an underlying philosophy, and modern feminism was driven by nihilism. The feminists were attracted to this absence of natural meaning, because it allowed them to throw out the old sexist world and remake a new one in its stead. Where the early feminists tried to change the world by increasing morality, the modern feminists said, “Forget about morality; equality is enough.” Where the old guard was open to gender roles, the new one diminished the sex difference all together (Ibid).

            The movement centered on the buzzwords of choice, equality and independence — all sounding reasonable and unmistakably American. The problem was not that women wanted to be equal to men, but that they reduced equality to being similar to men. They did not want an equality that comes from being superior at home and inferior at work. The modern verdict was in. True equality and value was in the workplace (Ibid). This understanding of equality is not unique to feminism; it is fundamentally Marxist. It rejects the notion that all humans are equal before the law and God because of their inherent value (Beneton 2004). Instead, it collapses the constitutional space between the public and private (Mansfield 1991) and says that if men and women are equal, they must be equal (or at least more equal) in work-related matters. In this mindset, it is an outrage if the number of women in a certain position does not meet the given quota, and their wages are not the same as men’s. Regardless of the factors that may provide additional explanation to these discrepancies, these inequalities are unacceptable and require the force of government to remedy them (Sowell 1998, Sowell 2008).

            While elevating the importance of women’s equality in the workplace, feminists could not help but denigrate the role of women in the home. Feminist leader Betty Friedan was famous for referring to suburban women’s boredom as “the problem that has no name,” and writing that wives were “prisoners in comfortable concentration camps,” (Gallagher 1989). Women who delighted in the virtues of motherhood were no longer persons to be honored, but victims of what prominent traditional marriage advocate Maggie Gallagher characterizes as a “psychological disorder, an emotional handicap, a set of impulses that society must attempt to recondition, like worn-out sofas, rather than accommodate” (Ibid). Motherhood became a base impulse that leads women to serve as lowly “instinctive creatures, servants of the species,” (Ibid) and it was the feminists’ duty to raise consciousness and fix what nature clearly ruined.

            Beyond the broad appeal of the movement’s lexicon, the current feminist vocabulary has a deeply troubling message to motherhood and marriage. Harvard Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield is clear in pointing out, in his rebuttal to modern feminism Manliness, that the true meaning of this language is that equality is achieved when women can and do choose independence from men and children. For the modern feminist, motherhood is not a choice, but a trap that women must be forced into by coercion or ignorance (Mansfield 2006). The independence that would allow women to choose their own path became a quest for independence from morality and nature. It is no coincidence that feminist organizations are among the foremost supporters of reproductive rights. Sex and babies are reminders of morality and nature’s enslavement, and abortion is a clean way to allow women to live like men and still be liberated from children and the men whom they would need to help raise the children (Gallagher 1989). This liberation from the family is why abortion is considered the women’s right.

            Motherhood cannot be disparaged without it adversely affecting the family and the society that builds upon it. Friedrich von Hayek’s wisdom that, “If in the long run we are the masters of our own fate, in the short run we are captive to the ideas we have created,” (Hayek 2007) applies all too harshly in this scenario. When motherhood is devalued (the denigration of fatherhood is the other side of this) women are more likely to postpone marriage, have fewer children and to reduce any other role that hinders their ability to choose. Inherent in this thinking is that marriage is a contract in which each partner comes together to have its needs met by the other. In this extreme version, it is an extension of the quest for consumer satisfaction, and marriage is lowered to a series of business-like handshakes (Scruton 2006), with either party walking away from the deal when its needs are no longer met.

            The French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville spoke of the modern man as owing nothing to anyone, nor expecting anything from anyone. The modern man is alone, and it offends him to think that he could ever truly be inseparably unified with another. This mindset has sadly played out in creating harmful policies such as no-fault divorce laws that make it easier to divorce a spouse than it is for employers to fire someone they hired last month (Hafen 2005). Unilateral divorce laws, coupled with the increase in social benefits — we seem to think the negative effects of broken marriages can be offset by the state — decrease the incentive for spouses to work through difficult marriage (Lott 2007). Marriage is reduced to another commodity that is acquired and then let go like an unprofitable company’s stock. Marriage is no longer a welding or a one-flesh union. It is arrangement of easy come, easy go, and could not be further from the classical formulation which knew that a vow cannot be broken, but only dishonored (Scruton 2006).

            It is true that women today have more career choices than ever, but the question remains whether choice is a stable enough virtue to sustain a society. Ironically, a world that holds up choice as the central good subtly makes an enduring marriage a harder choice to sustain. The dirty secret of feminism’s message is that men are also listening. They are led to think that if marriage and parenting are just prisons then the sexist men of the past, who denigrated women’s work, were not as far off as their mothers taught. Feminism creates men directly opposite of the morally-aware man the early feminists tried to form. This shapes men, who just like modern women, are less likely to marry, have children and stay married. While not the target audience, the modern man captures the feminist message loud and clear: family life is for suckers. Unrestrained sex and career success is where we’ll find real happiness (Gallagher 1989). As Hayek said, “Any movement whose main promise is the relief from responsibility cannot but be antimoral in its effect, however lofty the ideas to which it owes its birth,” (Hayek 2007).

            National Organization for Marriage president Maggie Gallagher starkly states the modern women’s movement’s effect in saying,

"Let me tell you that choice is an overrated virtue. Sure, women today have more choices than ever before. Unfortunately, most of them stink. It comes down to this: we have the option to make sterile love, or to abort all surplus products of conception. We can do these things more or less freely; any other choice is damned expensive,” (Gallagher 1989).

            And yet, something within humanity still wants the enduring romance only marriage can offer. We want, dare I say, the romance of commitment. We are not yet to the point that a young man gets down on his knees, looks starry-eyed at his girlfriend, pulls out a pen and paper and says, “Will you enter into this non-binding agreement with me?” While the modern conception of marriage points in this direction, the nature of our humanity longs for much more in practice.

The Nature of Marriage

            The worst and most harmful effect of feminism is that it “deprives women of their self-awareness,” (Mansfield 2006). Feminism was not only detrimental because it took women out of the home, but because it fundamentally reordered the gender roles that make up marriage and the family. Feminism rips women from their natural instinct to enjoy a profound intimacy with their babies, turn a house into a home and care for their children. Feminism rejects these roles as an unjust imposition of an archaic societal structure (Ibid).

            Feminists are forced to reject the idea that women have any fixed nature (or orientation for that matter), because this nature would bar them from choosing their own destiny and thus re-enslave them. Women have traditionally been defined by men, they argue, and transcendence and freedom come in being radically other than the body would suggest. “So what if I have a womb,” the modern woman says. “My body does not define me.” These women capture the important truth that human biology does not ultimately determine a man or a woman’s course in life, but they take this position to that which is radically untenable and even inhuman (Ibid). Man’s nature, while not all-defining, does provide some useful starting points and guides as to what brings meaning and happiness in life.

            Those who have not completely thrown off common sense know that women and men are different, and that these differences are beautiful in the way they work together and complete each other. Men and women complement each other in every imaginable way — emotionally, spiritually, physically and in the raising of children. In parenting, it is the father who is usually quick to anger or excessive in punishment, which is moderated by the searing eyes of a wife letting him know he is going too far. Likewise, it is the mother who is typically too soft in reprimand or coddling in letting the child meet new challenges. Here, the husband provides firm enforceable standards and a steady reminder to allow the child adventure, even at the risk of being hurt (Ibid). These, of course, are stereotypes, but they are nevertheless useful to our understanding of the relationship between men and women, especially given the gender-neutral alternatives.

            While men are boastful and constantly sensing the need to prove themselves or even fight for no good reason, women are hesitant to ever lose their dignity. Aristotle theorized that women are naturally softer and more amenable to learning. They are more willing and skilled in nurturing (children and men) and more extreme in their emotions, if not direct in bringing about their desires. Men, on the other hand, are more spirited, if not often rash or stubborn. Traditionally, it is women who teach their children virtue at their knee, while men are the ones who fight to defend the virtue of women and children (Ibid). When Tocqueville wrote about his visit to early America, he credited the country’s greatness to the superiority of its women, (De Toqueville 2000). Morality is distinctly women’s morality, and any moral society depends on its women to instill this virtue in their children and for men to defend it (Mansfield 2006). Men need women to tame them and help guide their spiritedness. Women need men to assert and protect their virtue. Perhaps, as Mansfield said, “The trouble with feminists is that they don’t have wives to teach them sense,” (Mansfield 2006).

            As marriage unites the complementary spiritual, emotional and child-rearing elements of men and women, sex is the physical symbol that shows the full extent of their absolute one-flesh union — the complementarity of which is unique between one man and one woman. Any complete definition of marriage must not only include the spiritual and emotional aspects of this substantively equal unity, but the physical element as well. If marriage is to survive its modern threats, society must understand it as an end in itself in which men and women are unified in the manners discussed above. Primarily, we must understand marriage to be what Princeton McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence Robert P. George calls “a one-flesh communion that is consummated and actualized by acts that are reproductive in type,” (George 2006). The second purpose, closely related to the first, is procreation and the rearing of children, which is only possible in traditional marriage (Ibid).

            The point of sex is marriage. Sex is not a mere convention that can be reduced to base gratification, though this pleasure is rightly sought. Sex is the marital act in which a man and a woman come together and unite completely and organically. While forces beyond their own control will determine whether life is created, the act is oriented to procreation (Ibid). The fact that procreation can only come from this heterosexual union buttresses the traditional idea that marriage is deeply rooted not only in the laws of God, but also those of nature. When couples come together in this manner, nature shows its sanction for the act and holds up its morality in the creation of human life.

            Homosexuals, viewed as paired individuals or as a collective in a scientific category, cannot join in these unitive, reproductive-type acts that consummate the union. The unitive element of marital unions is missed by same-sex marriage advocates. Moreover, the organic and interpersonal aspects of heterosexual marriage prove to be the only principled difference between traditional unions and homosexual or voluntary polygamous marriages. Just as two men can never truly have a one-flesh union, neither can one man and two women (George 2008). If marriage unhinges from the nature-based moral difference provided for in one-flesh unions, marriage will become vulnerable to an endless line of redefinitions that, while they may seem inconceivable now, could not be argued against on any principled ground.

            Same-sex marriage advocates are quick to point out at least a couple potential weaknesses of this one-flesh union argument. The first challenge points out that men and women do not actually unite in sex, but rather their sperm and the eggs. I will not spend much time with this argument, but simply say that this concern is about as helpful to the debate as saying that the sperm and egg do not unite, but their nuclei and pronuclei (George 2006). The physical unification between man and woman is clear to anyone who is not doggedly trying to prove a point.

            The second argument has caused traditional marriage advocates slightly more trouble, but is not insurmountable. Conservative same-sex marriage supporter Andrew Sullivan argues that the natural-based reasons against same-sex marriage fall apart under heavy scrutiny. He writes that just as sterile couples are not considered immoral or precluded from marriage, homosexuals should not be kept from marriage based on their inability to conceive (Sullivan 2004). This rebuttal may initially seem like a serious blow to the case for traditional marriage, but we must remember that the purpose of marriage is to provide a one-flesh union between a man and a woman. Sterile couples are still able to engage in unitive, reproductive-type acts, even if reproduction does not occur. Even from a scientific standpoint, the sterile heterosexual couple remains moral because intercourse between men and women (with the end of procreation) is characteristic of the species (George 2006).

            Western law has never required couples to prove virility, because the law recognized that it was the type that mattered (Ibid). Conception depends on forces beyond the couples’ control, and as is in all cases of morality, it is what humans do that makes the difference — just as society is less likely to hold the unsuccessful laborer who follows all prescribed measures at the same level of the worker who abandons all instruction and fails as a result.

Conserving Liberalism: The Case for State-Sanctioned Heterosexual Marriage

            Americans have traditionally demanded little of their government. American history and the U.S. Constitution reveal a government meant to maintain a basic political and economic structure in which individual liberty can flourish and then to respect individual autonomy and let people choose their own life. Limited government is a deeply-rooted (I would argue, rightly) American principle, and its prevalence explains another facet of why small-government advocates and politicians often capitulate in the face of the common argument that is not the state’s job to legislate morality or tell people what they can and cannot do when it comes to the issue of marriage. This idea, no matter how much it strikes at our deepest political convictions, holds up a tenuous version of liberty (not to mention a a mischaracterization of the argument) that fails to realize that a society that un-pegs from the fundamental unit of society will not long remain a liberal society. Aristotle warned that unrestrained freedom cannot preserve libert, (Aristotle 2006). Whatever the progress society has made since Aristotle’s day, we are not so advanced as to allow for the destruction of the family in the name of liberty and then expect the government to not take away other liberties to fix the problems created by the so-called unintended consequences. When the family crumbles, the state will usually step in to fill the void (Morse 2006).

            Aristotle famously articulated the integral role the polis has in shaping the individual. As important as the community was for Aristotle in forming moral and law-abiding citizens, he knew the family was prior to it. The very notion of what constituted a family could not help but make its way into the community and its laws (Arkes 2006). The family is and always has been the fundamental unit of society. In a healthy and free political system, the family is the source of the kinds of people who are worthy of being entrusted with the maintenance of a free republic.  The American Founders placed the family as a key partner in sustaining the ideal of limited government, because they knew that only the family could raise moral and independent individuals, from whom the country as a whole would reap benefits (Forte 2006). Now, the country seems to have this backwards, with more broken families depending on the government for sustenance. John Adams recognized the crucial nature of the family in saying, “The foundation of national morality must be laid in private families,” (Ibid). The private always flows into the public, whether the implications are good or bad. The reverse is likewise true.

            Responsible social scientists have long noted that political engineers cannot impose dramatic social change without causing a string of negative consequences (Elshtain 2006). Politicians sent a shockwave through the American family when they implemented the no-fault divorce policies of the 1960s and 1970s. Divorces sky-rocketed in the following years, pushing an increased number of single mothers and children into poverty. Despite government’s best efforts to fill the family’s void in welfare and educational programs, society has born the cost of the family’s breakdown in several areas. For example:

  • From 1960 to 1992, juvenile violent crime increased 600 percent.
  • Reports on child neglect and abuse have increased 500 percent since 1976.
  • Child depression increased 1,000 percent since 1950.
  • Teenager suicide increased 300 percent since the 1960s.
  • The number of unmarried couples living together increased by 1,000 percent between 1960 and 1998 (Hafen 2006).

           These indicators are results of the change in societal perceptions of marriage and the related public policies they formed. If no-fault divorce and the paradigm shift that took place during the 1960s and 1970s took such tolls on the family, it would be hard to underestimate the radical impact the very redefinition of marriage would have. Here, we cannot rely on science to prove this point. The limited scientific research available is radically contradictory depending on the sponsor and is generally riddled with fatal methodological flaws or interpretations (Rekers 2004; Patterson 2004; Belcastro 2004). While same-sex marriage proponents point to research indicating little difference between children raised by homosexual and heterosexual parents, cautious critics demonstrate that this research is limited by potentially fatal missteps such as disproportionate sampling, length of study and even disregarding findings to reach their conclusion (Belcastro 2004). Likewise, opponents of same-sex marriage argue that research shows Canadian foster children living with homosexually-behaving parents were more likely to be sexually molested and less likely to have a stable home environment due to the shorter span of the average homosexual relationship (Rekers 2004). If I am to be an honest steward of science, however, I must admit that the same flaws that make me reluctant to accept research arguing against my position also give me pause in embracing that which supports my own. My reasons for holding up traditional marriage are not rooted in science but a deeply-seated moral and political intuition that knows you cannot re-engineer the family without continuing down this path of unintended consequences.           

            The unprecedented government growth that took place in the 1960s came in part because of the liberationist ideas and policies on marriage and the family. The libertarian preference for non-governmental intervention is based on the truth that individuals take better care of the people and the things they know and love than complete strangers or bureaucracies ever could (Morse 2006). However, when the family fails to take care of its own as it did during the 1960s and 1970s, the state takes it upon itself to do what the family refuses, and the libertarian ideal is destroyed. This means more taxes, more social programs, and, ironically, more incentives to leave unhappy marriages. Beyond being a cold substitute for the family, the growth of the welfare state in correlation to the family’s decay represents a looming threat to individual liberty and autonomy. The gain in marital freedom for this generation will most certainly mean a loss of freedom for the next (Scruton 2006). Whether it is in the form increasing the amount of involuntarily seized property or the tightening regulations on families giving and receiving aid, burgeoning government always comes in congress with the loss of choice for society as a whole. While we may wish the opposite of what Aristotle saw as the nature of liberty, we cannot create a world in which unrestrained liberty does not have earth-shattering consequences.

            There are four broad categories into which societal behavior falls: activities that are prohibited, activities that are tolerated, activities that are protected and even endorsed, and things that are endorsed to the point of being incentivized (Hafen 2005). Marriage has traditionally fallen into the latter category because society understood that it desperately required the family to do that which it could not — raise upright, law abiding citizens. Society sanctioned it as not only a private good, but a public good upon which the state deeply relied. The marriage debate is not about punishing homosexuality. It is about holding up and endorsing the conjugal union between man and woman because of essential goods it produces. Those who advocate same-sex marriage on the grounds they want the government out of peoples’ lives should consider the following question: Would you rather the state encroach upon everyone’s freedom to clean up the mess left from the family’s demise, or that it play an initial subsidiary role to preserve the freedom and well-being of society as a whole? Legalizing same-sex marriage, in the least, requires that society downgrade marriage from being an endorsed, incentivized institution to one that is merely tolerated on the basis of individual “rights.” Some of the force of this argument has been lost as the marriage culture has slowly eroded. Without healthy marriages, same-sex advocates are quick to challenge the effectual difference between children being raised without any male influence and children being raised by lesbians. The question is troubling, but it seems to me that the correct approach would be to rebuild the marriage culture rather than continue down the slippery slope of its destruction.

            Even if society somehow accords same-sex couples the right to marry without the right to adopt or raise children (this seems to me to be an unlikely and untenable position), friends of liberty and the Constitution should be worried by what same-sex marriage would mean to the religious liberty of all Americans. We have already seen previews of what such laws would mean to the country as anti-discrimination laws have kicked into effect in states affected by such changes in policies. A New Jersey Methodist organization was forced to give up its tax-exempt status when it refused to let a same-sex couple use its property for its marriage. The Catholic Church in Massachusetts was forced out of arranging adoptions when it would not allow homosexuals to use its services (George 2008). Connecticut law makers retaliated against the Catholic Church for its opposition to same-sex marriage by drafting a bill that required the church to open its financial records to the state. Fortunately, the bill was defeated (Reuters 2009).

            The political sphere is never neutral. It leans one way or another (Hancock 2009). The same-sex movement is not merely a push for rights, but a movement driven by a powerful ideology that broadly paints opponents as bigots and will not tolerate any form of discrimination (say, for example, a school’s teaching against same-sex marriage or a church’s refusal to perform a homosexual marriage) in regards to gays. No matter how much society may want to believe that two people’s marriage does not affect them — it always has with heterosexual marriages — giving full marital rights to same-sex couples cannot help but jeopardize the brilliance of the United States’ balance between independent religion and individual rights.

“Who Am I to Impose my Beliefs?”

            The high school girl’s question from the beginning must be revisited. All this talk about transcendence, nature and conserving liberalism means nothing if traditional marriage advocates cannot respond to this teenager’s basic question of whether the state should enforce morality. After all, who are any of us to impose our beliefs on society? As much as we might wish it otherwise, natural laws and the humans laws that recognize them are never completely neutral. People will always fall on one side or another of any standard necessary for individual or public good. The issue is not whether we should impose a belief system but which one we choose. The question is whether government should play a subsidiary role in encouraging non-governmental institutions, like the family, that help shape upright citizens in a way no state-sponsored program ever could. While the state does not, nor any of the traditional marriage defenders I know, want to control what people do “in their bedrooms,” it must concern itself with how this expansion of privileges would affect religious and political rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

            Marriage as a one-flesh union between a man and a woman is a pre-political institution that the world's governments have historically endorsed, incentivized and held up as the moral standard because they knew they desperately needed what only it can give. The state endorses other activities such as education, charitable giving, and now even fuel-efficient vehicles, because these things relieve the government’s responsibilities and reap great societal benefits. Taken from this perspective, it is hard to see why the state should sanction same-sex marriage in the same way it sanctions traditional marriage. While the state’s endorsing one thing and not its alternative is discrimination, it is not unlawful or a breach of formal equality. It is the natural effect of any time society recognizes a larger good.

            In the least, we must realize that the modern liberal dream — that we can have unbridled freedom without any reference to something higher — is dangerous and unsustainable. If the family is the most basic and fundamental unit of society, we cannot expect to redefine its nature (with our limited, already truncated reason), and, at the same time, expect to not suffer a fundamental societal breakdown.  Where government and society have failed to create a strong marriage culture — take American inner cities for example — this has already happened. Crime, poverty, fatherless families and children who are increasingly less likely to receive a high school education lie in the wake of good intentions only meant to expand liberty and equality (Sowell 2008).

            Marriage, and all that depends on it, is at a crucial point. If the United States, and the world as a whole, is to rebuild marriage as an institution, government and its citizens must reclaim, with all their intellectual and political might, the state’s subsidiary role of holding traditional marriage up as the moral standard, the basis of society and the foundation of political freedom. The ever-present morality of marriage and family, with all its implications and effects, is not something we can myopically sweep under the rug, hoping it will not have any larger societal bearing. From the high school classroom to the senate chamber, it is clearly everyone’s business.


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Full Citation for This Article: Dabling, Brandon (2009) "Joined Together: Traditional Marriage as the Source of Morality and Political Freedom," SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 3 (Fall), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleDablingMarriage.html, accessed [give access date].

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