A Marriage Made in History?
By Don Browning and Elizabeth Marquardt
New York Times, March 9, 2004
CHICAGO — Both supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage make their case with hypothetical arguments about its social effects and claims about the history of marriage. Unfortunately, we know next to nothing about the first
subject, and proponents of same-sex marriage have mischaracterized the second.
The body of sociological knowledge about same-sex parenting is scant at best. The numbers of gays and lesbians raising children are so small
relative to the population, and their visibility so recent, that there are no rigorous, large-scale studies on the effect of same-sex marriage on the couples' children.
Steven Nock, a leading scholar of marriage at the
University of Virginia, wrote in March 2001 after a thorough review that every study on this question "contained at least one fatal flaw" and "not a single one was conducted according to generally accepted
standards of scientific research." Is it wise, then, to develop social policies that go to the heart of family life without better knowledge?
In addition to the lack of sociological data, there is also a lack of
historical knowledge. Marriage is frequently characterized as a religious institution laden with old prejudices. It is true that Judaism and Christianity have contributed much to the Western understanding of marriage. But it is
also true that they absorbed parts of the secular marital codes of Greek law, Aristotelian philosophy, Roman law and German law. Even in ancient secular systems, legal marriage was seen as a way to help society regulate and
achieve a complex set of desires and goals: sexual activity, procreation, mutual help and affection, and parental care and accountability.
Integrating these classic goods into the institution of marriage was a task for
law, religion and other socializing elements of society. And although the religious language of sacrament and covenant adds weight to the law of marriage, each of the goods of marriage can be identified independently of the
religious symbols that give them depth. It is hard to argue that keeping these benefits together is an act of religious discrimination.
Legalizing same-sex marriage does not simply extend an old institution to a new
group of people. It changes the definition of marriage, reducing it primarily to an affectionate sexual relationship accompanied by a declaration of commitment. It then gives this more narrow view of marriage all of the
cultural, legal and public support that marriage gained when its purpose was to encourage and temper a more complex set of goals and motivations.
Same-sex marriage changes the purpose of marriage law. It no longer will
serve, in concert with other aspects of society, to direct sexual and parental behavior to achieve a complex synthesis of goods. It will function instead to extend marriage privileges to a particular group of sexual partners.
Rather than expanding the status and privileges of marriage to same-sex couples and then gradually to other kinds of caring relationships, as logic would soon require, society should find alternative ways of meeting the
needs not only of same-sex couples but also interdependent friends, and dependent but unmarried kin. Tax benefits, legal adoption, welfare transfers, and more refined and accessible legal contracts should all be used to meet
these needs — but not the institution of marriage itself.
Don Browning is an emeritus professor of ethics and social sciences at the University of Chicago. Elizabeth Marquardt is an affiliate scholar at the
Institute for American Values.