Genuine cultural and moral revolutions are exceedingly rare in human history, but that's precisely what all of us are living through right now on the issue of marriage. Thanks to the ruling of a U.S. District Court last Friday, Wisconsin became the 20th state (plus the District of Columbia) with legalized same-sex marriage. (The Wisconsin ruling won't be enforced until later this month.)
The speed and accelerating pace of change has been breathtaking. Ten years ago, same-sex marriage was legal in just one state (Massachusetts). By the end of 2012, seven more states had permitted homosexuals to marry. Then the flood gates opened, with eight more states flipping by the end of 2013. Wisconsin was the fourth to flip this year, with court rulings pending in seven more states. At this rate, Nate Silver's 2013 prediction — that by 2020 voters in 44 states would be willing to vote in support of same-sex marriage — may prove to be too conservative.
But that doesn't mean opponents of same-sex marriage have given up the fight. While many champions of traditional marriage have conceded their loss and fallen back to a position of defending their religious freedom to dissent from the growing social and legal consensus in favor of gay marriage, others are less conciliatory.
That's where a mysterious new website comes in.
Listing no sponsoring person or group, and claiming not to "represent the official beliefs or positions of any organization, religious or otherwise," "Discussing Marriage" compiles the most powerful arguments in favor of traditional marriage and presents them in a thoughtful, measured, visually appealing way (including ample use of slightly cheesy stock photos). On the whole, it's an impressive website. (Editor's note: Since this story was published, the site seems to have gone off-line, at least temporarily.)
But also an utterly unconvincing one. If this is where those who hope to defend traditional marriage plan to make their last stand against the surging forces of same-sex marriage, the battle is going to be a rout.
Perhaps the most notable thing about the website is how far it goes in making the case for treating opponents — including gay couples — with respect. Whereas the mainstream of the anti-gay-marriage movement has recently gathered under the banner of religious freedom, arguing that they should continue to be permitted to argue and preach that homosexual relationships are intrinsically immoral, "Discussing Marriage" takes a very different tack, asserting that the marriage debate should not "center on issues of sexual morality or the moral status of homosexual persons."
The website's authors even express regret for the "pain that they have caused" as a result of having "engaged in hurtful dialogue in the past." Of course, many gay men and women will see the very act of marshaling arguments meant to deny them the right to marry as an affront to their dignity. Still, the expression of contrition and effort to uphold a high standard of civility is admirable.
Less commendable are the actual arguments the website deploys against gay marriage. Though the name of Princeton University's Robert P. George appears only in citations on the website (which includes no masthead, staff box, governing board, or list of donors), his influence can be detected on every page. "Discussing Marriage" is very much an expression of the "natural law" approach to moral reasoning that George has championed for years.
The distinctive strength of natural law arguments (at least as George and the "Discussing Marriage" website deploy them) is that they typically make no reference to religious faith, scriptural authority, or the dogmas, doctrines, or traditions of any church. Natural law is supposedly founded, instead, on moral intuitions accessible to and presumed by all human beings regardless of their religious background or beliefs. Start with these incontestable intuitions, add in a little reasoning (which is also available to all), and the next thing you know you've ascended up a ladder of syllogisms to universally valid Moral Truth.
As one might expect, the distinctive vulnerability of natural law arguments lies in the intuitions that serve as the premises of those syllogisms. If the intuitions are genuinely incontestable, then the moral "law" that gets spit out at the end of the argument may well be "natural." But if the intuitions aren't universally accepted, then the conclusion of the argument will appear arbitrary and unjustified.
That is precisely how the arguments collected at "Discussing Marriage" will appear to anyone who isn't already convinced of their eminently contestable assumptions.
Take the most fundamental argument found there — the "Argument from Crucial Distinction," which is meant to show that the concept of "marriage" can't apply to same-sex couples. Claiming to ground their argument "in our moral intuitions about what the critical features and norms of marriage are," the authors make a series of assertions: first, a marriage must be "meaningfully different" from other kinds of relationships (like friendships, tennis partners, business partners, and so forth); second, the crucial difference lies in the relationship's orientation to raising children and its devotion to norms of "exclusivity, permanence, and monogamy." The authors call this the "conjugal" view of marriage and claim it can only apply to "a comprehensive union between a man and a woman (with the unifying good of the relationship being procreation)…"
The authors are well aware that another view of marriage — which they dub the "revisionist" view — prevails among many people today. According to the revisionist view, marriage is a relationship based on romantic love and oriented toward the emotional and sexual fulfillment of both partners. Children may be a part of this union, but they need not be. Same-sex marriage has come to be widely accepted because this revisionist view has widely supplanted the conjugal view in our culture.
I urge readers to spend time at the website for themselves, reading and watching the slick YouTube videos (here's one) that purport to show that what "we" really mean by a marriage is the conjugal view that excludes same-sex couples. I predict that not a single person will persuaded by the question-begging, circular argument.
To highlight just a few of the argument's arbitrary or unsubstantiated assumptions:
1. Why must marriage be "meaningfully different" from other kinds of relationships — as opposed to just significantly different, as in "a romantic relationship involving a publicly declared lifetime commitment between two people that remains binding unless and until one or both people decide to dissolve it"?
2. Why must that difference involve children, especially since these days many same-sex couples have kids, many married men and women choose not to have them, and some in both camps suffer from infertility?
3. Why must a valid marriage be "permanent"? In an age of no-fault divorce, how many people can even be said to make such an assumption? (This sounds like a premise smuggled in from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which treats marriages as indissoluble.)
The website's authors deserve praise for responding directly to some of these criticisms, including the charge of circularity and the objection about infertility, though the responses are far from convincing. The main thing that skeptical readers will learn from the website is that it's possible to reach anti–gay marriage conclusions if you begin from anti–gay marriage assumptions.
But we already knew that.
Partisans on every side of our political and cultural divides regularly produce and consume arguments intended only to buck up their own troops. For all of its civility and high-minded ambitions, "Discussing Marriage" is just another voice in the social-conservative echo chamber, talking to itself about all the myriad ways that it is indisputably right.
Those already inclined to agree may find their faith temporarily strengthened by the exercise. As for everyone else, we'll continue to think of our marriages in "revisionist" terms and continue to welcome same-sex couples to join us in the institution — all the while wondering just how long it will take for the rest of the country to come around to our view.
Based on the strength of the "Discussing Marriage" website, I bet it won't be very long at all.