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Until death do us part

| Friday, December 4, 2015

The Center for Ethics and Culture hosted its 16th annual Fall Conference in McKenna Hall the weekend before Thanksgiving. This year’s conference theme was freedom: a perennially pertinent theme. But perhaps it is more important now than ever to understand the meaning of authentic freedom. Consider just one arena in which freedom has recently been given a “progressive” — and dubious — meaning: marriage.

This summer the Supreme Court held that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right because it is an imperative of “freedom.” Justice Kennedy wrote in the Court’s majority opinion that “the right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person,” and later that the “nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation.”

But how does the legal right to enter a “marriage” contribute to the freedom of same-sex attracted persons? Especially in light of the fact that, no matter what the law calls things, no two men or two women can in truth get married.

The vision of marriage now enshrined in law sees marriage essentially as a deep and loving emotional bond, not necessarily connected with the rearing and upbringing of children, and valuable only so long as the participants are emotionally fulfilled. This revisionist view of marriage has taken hold of just one aspect of the truth about marriage — that it is chiefly an emotional union of persons — and exalted this aspect of marriage at the expense of all other aspects. And so the Court and those who cheer its decision have enlarged, so to speak, the freedom to marry by shrinking what marriage is.

How exactly does doing that contribute to freedom?

Most people still agree marriage should be permanent, exclusive and monogamous. But the new vision of marriage enshrined by the Supreme Court this summer cannot provide a principled basis for these norms.

If marriage is simply an emotional bond differing from other forms of companionship in degree of intensity and not in kind, why should marriage be limited to two people? Similarly, on this view, why should marriage be permanent? Why not get up and go when the spark fades? What about marriage calls for a permanent commitment “until death do we part?” Again, why, on this view, does marriage call for sexual exclusivity? There is no principled reason — some will choose to live by these norms based on their preferences, but there is nothing about marriage in this understanding that inherently calls for fidelity to them.

It seems that by redefining marriage — and thus making it harder for anyone to live out the norms of marriage most of us still think are important — the institution of same-sex marriage has eroded our freedom, making it more difficult than ever to live out a true marriage. Here, though, it is important to mention there is nothing particularly “homosexual” about the revisionist view of marriage. Long before anyone was contemplating same-sex “marriage,” many heterosexual couples were buying into the revisionist view, adhering to an ideology about sex and the family that has harmed marriage to this day. The institution of no-fault divorce harmed the marriage culture, as did increasing cultural approval of cohabitation, extramarital sex, pornography, the hookup culture and nonmarital childbearing. Same-sex “marriage” did not cause these problems, but is rather the logical conclusion of the understanding of marriage that these practices embody, foster and encourage.

How does this revisionist view of marriage serve the freedom of persons experiencing same-sex attraction? It seems that by erasing the difference between marriage and other forms of companionship, such that your non-marital relationships are seen as simply less, this view has harmed friendship. How much more difficult will it be for persons of the same sex (especially those who seek to live chastely) to find fulfillment in friendships with persons of the same sex now that marriage has been redefined?

Or consider children. How are children made more free by an institution that, with the blessing of the law, actively deprives them of their right to a mother and a father? How does this contribute to children’s freedom, especially when they are not given a choice — or a voice?

The thing about marriage is it is not about freedom, at least, not freedom as we often understand it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a letter written from his prison cell to a young married couple, wrote, “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.” Similarly, G.K. Chesterton writes, “In everything on this earth that is worth doing, there is a stage when no one would do it, except for necessity or honor. It is then that the Institution upholds a man and helps him on to the firmer ground ahead.”

The reason people have always desired marriage and sought to live by its norms is that living out a true marriage is a good thing for human beings to do. The norms of marriage — the rules of the game — make marriage possible and valuable. The institution upholds us — but can it uphold us any longer? By redefining the institution and making nonsense of the norms that structure it, have we, under the guise of expanding freedom, undermined our freedom to live out the real thing?

Goethe wrote, “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” Has the revisionist view enshrined a false view of marriage — and the freedom it requires and entails? Has Justice Kennedy extended a false promise of fulfillment and a false freedom to same-sex persons? I fear he has, and I fear we all will suffer the consequences of this false freedom.

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