The ‘Common Sense’ Argument Against Marriage Equality

Heritage Foundation fellow Ryan T. Anderson’s defense of one-man-one-woman marriage in the Washington Post argues that Americans should affirm the “traditional” model of marriage for the good of the country. “Marriage is based on the biological fact that reproduction depends on a man and a woman,” he writes, “and on the social reality that children need a mother and a father.”

In other words, nature teaches that marriage is about complementarity between genitals, hormones, and gonads. To redefine marriage as something other than responsible parenthood would be to override nature’s law and give in to those selfish desires that undermine the common good.

But then the author himself offers what might be taken as a possible justification for same-sex marriage in a pluralist country: “Marriage is society’s least restrictive means to ensure the well-being of future citizens. State recognition of marriage protects children by incentivizing adults to commit permanently and exclusively to each other and their children.” (The infertile, asexual, post-menopausal, and child-free by choice need not apply.)

Anderson echoes precisely what same-sex proponents have been saying all along with regard to children: that the desire to marry is in fact a desire to be more traditional. As Frank Bruni put it, gays and lesbians are no longer cultural rebels; “We’re aspirants to tradition, communicating shared values and asserting a fundamentally conservative desire… for families, stability, commitment.”

But Anderson then claims that there’s simply no commitment without coitus: “No principled reason could be offered for why an emotional union should be permanent.” Apparently nature, which until now offered self-evident messages about the definition of marriage, suddenly falls silent. Apparently nature cannot be trusted to teach humans monogamy; nor can it be trusted to teach marrying persons to think not about themselves and their own happiness, but first and foremost of their hypothetical children. Indeed, nature apparently needs a long tradition of “marriage culture” and “historical understanding” (mostly provided by Western men) to interpret it for us so as to turn it into common sense.

Which brings us to the real issue here: common sense. Anderson wants make a common sense (and ostensibly religion-free) argument for one-man-one-woman marriage. But common sense has always been a matter of definition and redefinition. In some times and places, it is or has been common sense for men to own women as property; for men to marry multiple women; for men to marry pre-pubescent girls; for men to cast off their wives at whim. All of these understandings of marriage have been revised, and each revision positions itself, of course, as the common sense understanding. But in reality, common sense has always been a matter of argument, and people do change their minds about what’s obvious.

Anderson says himself, “true equality forbids arbitrary line-drawing.” If making genitalia the defining center of human identity is not an arbitrary line, I don’t know what is. “Nature” is a slippery thing. To paraphrase a certain apostle, it is “a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks.” Is it any surprise when we each read the signs in ways that are favorable to ourselves?

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