During the ongoing debate over same-sex marriage, it’s common to hear conservatives speak of the “definition of marriage,” but what exactly do we mean by the “definition” of marriage.  Are we talking about the purpose of marriage, its form, or both?  Most Americans (including conservatives) seem to be referring to marriage’s form: one man and one woman (for life).  I submit to you that this is the wrong place to begin the debate.  If we allow the discussion to center on marriage’s form, we are sure to lose.

I am persuaded that one of the main reasons we are facing the social and moral predicament we are is because we have reduced the “definition of marriage” to its form, losing sight of its purpose.  Without understanding the particular purpose of civil marriage in society, its traditional form is not necessary.  When we understand the purpose of civil marriage, however, the traditional form logically follows.

What is the purpose of marriage?  In his dissenting comments to the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s majority ruling in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health (2003), Justice Cordy made some valuable remarks in this regard:

Paramount among its many important functions, the institution of marriage has systematically provided for the regulation of heterosexual behavior, brought order to the resulting procreation, and ensured a stable family structure in which children will be reared, educated, and socialized. … The institution of marriage provides the important legal and normative link between heterosexual intercourse and procreation on the one hand and family responsibilities on the other. The partners in a marriage are expected to engage in exclusive sexual relations, with children the probable result and paternity presumed. … The marital family is also the foremost setting for the education and socialization of children. Children learn about the world and their place in it primarily from those who raise them, and those children eventually grow up to exert some influence, great or small, positive or negative, on society. The institution of marriage encourages parents to remain committed to each other and to their children as they grow, thereby encouraging a stable venue for the education and socialization of children.

Civil marriage is the product of society’s critical need to manage procreation as the inevitable consequence of intercourse between members of the opposite sex. Procreation has always been at the root of marriage and the reasons for its existence as a social institution. Its structure, one man and one woman committed for life, reflects society’s judgment as how optimally to manage procreation and the resultant child rearing. … Attempting to divorce procreation from marriage, transforms the form of the structure into its purpose. In doing so, … history [is turned ]on its head.[1]

Why should the State get involved in people’s private relationships?  There is only one reason, and Justice Cordy made it clear: they have a vested interest in the creation and nurturing of the next generation.  Apart from their concern to perpetuate society (procreation) there is no reason for the government to sanction and regulate any private relationship.  As valuable as other non-marital relationships may be (e.g. friendships), the State does not offer them the same social and financial support because they do not function in the same way.  All of this is beginning to change, however.  Now the State wants to offer homosexual relationships the same support they have traditionally offered heterosexual relationships.

The push to redefine the form of marriage is due to a shift in our culture’s understanding of the purpose of marriage.  Over the last 40 years, marriage has progressively come to be viewed as the public commitment of two individuals in love, rather than about children (while love and commitment may be a valid motivating factor for marriage, it is not the purpose of marriage).  Once children are no longer the central purpose of marriage, on what basis could we exclude same-sex partners from participating in it?  After all, they love each other too!

As we have seen in Scandinavia, and are beginning to see in Europe at large, the social/legal recognition of same-sex partnerships occurs only in societies in which marriage has undergone a cultural redefinition to divorce it from parenthood (recognized by the decline of marriage and the rise of cohabiters, producing high rates of children born out-of-wedlock).  Once marriage and parenthood are no longer tied at the hip, there is no logical reason to prohibit same-sex couples from entering into the institution of marriage.  If marriage is about love and commitment rather than children, then same-sex couples qualify.  If marriage is about parenthood, however, they need not apply.  As Stanley Kurtz observed in his monumental article “The End of Marriage in Scandinavia:”

If marriage is only about a relationship between two people, and is not intrinsically connected to parenthood, why shouldn’t same-sex couples be allowed to marry? It follows that once marriage is redefined to accommodate same-sex couples, that change cannot help but lock in and reinforce the very cultural separation between marriage and parenthood that makes gay marriage conceivable to begin with.

If we hope to save the traditional form of marriage, we must do so by bringing cultural awareness back to the purpose of marriage.  Our argument for traditional marriage and against same-sex marriage must begin with marriage’s purpose, not its participants.  Once we re-establish its purpose, its participants will be clearly evident.  If we fail to do so, I am persuaded that the legalization of same-sex marriage will be inevitable throughout this country.

[1]Available from http://news.findlaw.com/hdocs/docs/conlaw/goodridge111803opn.pdf.