On June 26, 2015 the Supreme Court of the US handed down its landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision recognizing same-sex marriage nationwide. In the weeks preceding that ruling, some of our country’s most erudite lawyers strenuously argued the case, both for and against. It is widely acknowledged today that most of the arguments, and even the method of argumentation, employed by those defending traditional marriage (i.e., heterosexual, monogamous marriage) found their origin in What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. And just as SCOTUS did not find the secular case for traditional marriage persuasive, I did not find the argument of What is Marriage? very convincing either.
Now lest there be any misunderstanding, I am an evangelical Christian fully committed to the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. I heartily believe, teach, and confess the view of marriage espoused by our Lord Jesus (e.g., Mark 10:6-9) and articulated in something like the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, Article XVIII: The Family. However, despite my presuppositions, I found the argument of What is Marriage? surprisingly weak, sometimes difficult to follow, and ultimately a disturbing disappointment. And frankly, I’d be shocked if the book actually changed any minds.
What Is This Book?
We should first clarify what sort of book What is Marriage? is. This brief monograph, which was originally birthed as an article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (xi), is a self-professed secular case for traditional marriage. The authors define marriage as “a union of will (by consent) and body (by sexual union); inherently ordered to procreation and thus the broad sharing of family life; and calling for permanent and exclusive commitment, whatever the spouses’ preferences.” They claim that such a definition may be arrived at while eschewing any and all references to God, inspired Scriptures, or religion. They state: “Our argument makes no appeal to divine revelation…There is simple and decisive evidence that the conjugal view [i.e., traditional marriage] is not peculiar to religion, or to any religious tradition…no one religion invented marriage. It is rather marriage—the demands of a natural institution—that has helped to shape our religious and philosophical traditions” (10-11).
How then do the authors argue their case? It is built entirely from logic, philosophy, and sociological and psychological data. Its seven generally well-written and concise chapters compare and contrast the two currently-prominent definitions of marriage, argue that the burden of proof lies with the revisionists (which does seem reasonable), predict the cultural and political consequences of a redefinition (remember, this book is pre-Obergefell), and along the way attempt to argue a cumulative case that only traditional marriage is good for society and “makes sense” (the vast majority of which rests on the inability of homosexual intercourse to biologically reproduce). The book concludes with an appendix responding to objections to the claim that same-sex couples’ inability to procreate points reasonable people toward the traditional definition.
Doomed From the Beginning?
It is difficult for me to criticize this book while generally agreeing with its overall thesis. But as an evangelical believer it’s hard not to see What is Marriage? as tantamount to bringing a knife to a gunfight. I read the book over a few weeks of time and nearly every time I put it down I thought, “This is interesting but I’m sure I wouldn’t agree with it if I wasn’t already convinced of my position.” In particular, the authors make at least two suicidal flaws which, I believe, doom the book’s argument from the beginning.
The authors’ first fatal flaw is to attempt to separate a massive moral question from any and all references to humanity’s Creator. This is precisely opposite to the Apostle Paul’s approach in Romans 1. Whereas Paul says humans are darkened in their understanding due to their rejection of God (e.g., Romans 1:19ff.) and therefore unable to properly perceive matters of human morality (1:24ff.), Girgis, Anderson, and George argue as virtual atheists and essentially say, “Go ahead and feel free to suppress the knowledge of God; that has no impact on this issue. We’ll make you wise in this matter anyhow.” Instead of being “a secular case for traditional marriage,” the book is more precisely “a functionally-atheistic case for traditional marriage.” By severing all connection to a Divine Creator, the authors sever the knowledge of God from moral rationality, effectively sawing away at the branch they’re sitting on. By severing all connection to a Divine Creator, the authors sever the knowledge of God from moral rationality, effectively sawing away at the branch they’re sitting on. Click To Tweet
The other deadly mistake which, for me, made the argument of What is Marriage? entirely impossible is their attempt to disassociate their definition of marriage from the morality of homosexual behavior. They state, “In the end [our case] is not about homosexuality…We do not address the morality of homosexual acts…We will show that one can defend the conjugal view of marriage while bracketing this moral question and that the conjugal view can be wholeheartedly embraced without denigrating same-sex attracted people, or ignoring their needs, or assuming that their desires could change” (10). To me, and I suspect to the vast majority of Americans, this position of theoretical neutrality seems hopelessly nonsensical. If homosexual behavior could conceivably be morally virtuous (a stance which their argument claims to permit), how on earth could we prohibit same-sex marriage? In the end, one is left thinking that the What is Marriage?’s entire case falls on homosexuals’ inability to procreate. And that’s simply a foundation far too weak to support a matter of such enormous moral weight. (For those seeking more helpful considerations of this facet of the discussion, see Is God Anti-Gay? by Sam Allberry, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? by Kevin DeYoung, and, for a comprehensive study, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics by Robert A. J. Gagnon.)
How Might It Be Useful?
Having criticized What is Marriage? rather sharply, I do believe the book can be useful, especially to pastors and Bible teachers. Much of the sociological and psychological data can serve to corroborate and illustrate the wisdom of the Bible’s teaching on marriage. For instance, one might argue, “Jesus teaches that marriage is one man for one woman in Mark 10. And we see the wisdom of this view in that sociology has demonstrated that children of two heterosexual parents are far less likely to be depressed/incarcerated/experiment with illegal drugs, etc.” My favorite part of the book examined the political and cultural impact of marriage’s definition and how a change in definition would pose problems for religious freedom, friendships, and the size of government. Post-Obergefell, these predictions seem almost prophetic. These too could serve as helpful illustrative material in sermons or Bible studies. Though again, I’m fairly confident that a functionally-atheistic case for traditional marriage (which is how I view this book) cannot and should not be made, this book is not entirely lacking in edifying food for thought.
The failure of secular arguments
Although containing a good deal of interesting and helpful information, What is Marriage? is ultimately unconvincing. Its purely secular arguments failed to win the day at the Supreme Court and I highly doubt it has changed any minds since. While I must believe that a natural law case can be made for traditional marriage (e.g., Romans 2:15ff.), I don’t believe What is Marriage? is that by a long shot.