In late March the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in two cases – Hollingsworth v. Perry and United States v. Windsor – with big implications for the future of marriage.  Perry involves California’s Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment.  Prop 8 restored to California law the principle that marriage is the conjugal union of husband and wife.  Windsor involves DOMA, the federal Defense of Marriage Act.  DOMA defines marriage in the same way for the purposes of federal law.  It also authorizes states to decline to recognize same-sex “marriages” entered into in other states.

Proposition 8 passed by a clear majority in a 2008 statewide popular vote.  DOMA passed by large bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress.  It was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996.  In the years since, same-sex lobbyists have relentlessly attacked both laws.  To one degree or another, many of the nation’s mainstream media have joined in the effort to reshape public opinion and to argue for what partisans describe as “marriage equality.”

The latter slogan – marriage equality – has essentially shut down serious thought.  Persons with same-sex attraction have the same basic dignity as other people and the same right to be free from fear and intimidation.  But a right to redefine the nature of marriage does not follow.  In fact, the marriage debate has now morphed into emotionally streamlined theater, with same-sex couples cast as victims unjustly denied their rights, and supporters of traditional marriage cast as misguided fear-mongers and bigots.

The high court itself may be unwilling to deal with the moral and physical realities key to the marriage debate.  Marriage is a gendered institution.  It’s ordered, in principle, toward the procreation and rearing of children.  Subverting its nature has deep organizational consequences for society and subtly increases the power of the state.  But in his March 28 thoughts on the court’s opening arguments, constitutional scholar Gerard Bradley noted that the justices seemed eager to find anything but moral criteria for deciding the two cases.  As if on cue, a headline in the Wall Street Journal the next day (March 29) read, “Marriage Cases May Hinge on Procedure.”

As Bradley wrote for SCOTUSblog:

“The Justices’ striking moral reticence is confirmed, in a way, by the matter which dared not speak its name over these two days: religious liberty. Nothing whatsoever was said about it, perhaps because dealing with the certain and certainly grave damage to religious freedom which same-sex marriage portends would only have added to the list of challenging moral questions.

“Sometimes getting the meaning of the Constitution right depends upon the getting the answer to some difficult moral question right . . . This is one of those occasions. The correct answer to the central constitutional question posed in these cases — does equal protection require same-sex marriage? — depends upon the moral truth about marriage.

“The oral arguments in Perry and (to a much lesser extent) in Windsor reveal a Court which is indeed standing over a ‘cliff,’ looking into ‘uncharted waters.’ The missing ingredient is not, however, a body of social science data. It is a strategically central moral judgment which the Court is obviously not going to undertake.”

Where does this leave the rest of us?  Our first task is to recover clarity in our own thinking about marriage.  Then we need to share it with others.  A great place to begin is by reading What is Marriage?  Man and Woman: A Defense (Encounter Books).  Brief, tightly reasoned and elegantly argued, What is Marriage? does two things exceptionally well.  First, it describes what marriage is, what it isn’t, and why.  Second, it methodically dismantles the case for redefining marriage – and it does so without appeals to revelation.  Religious faith ennobles the dignity of marriage and explains its purpose in divine terms.  But marriage as a natural human institution is needed with or without a belief in God.   Quite apart from any religious beliefs, society has an urgent practical interest in human thriving.

As the authors show, this thriving requires the existence of civil marriage and the family as we traditionally understand them: one man and one woman in a permanent union open to bearing and rearing children.  This union is comprehensive, exclusive and embodied.  It’s more than an emotional bond.  It can’t be replicated by same-sex couples adopting children.  Trying to do so simply opens the door to blessing other kinds of sexually intimate relationships, including polyamorous ones, that may seem emotionally rewarding on the surface, but inevitably undermine marriage, isolate individuals, hurt the common good and feed the intrusive authority of the state.  The logic of same-sex “marriage” leads well beyond its immediate goal to much wider results.

Midway through this small but extraordinary book – based on an essay first published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy – the authors confirm that their argument depends on three simple ideas: Law tends to shape beliefs; beliefs shape behavior; and beliefs and behavior affect human interests and well-being.  Throughout their pages, they convincingly show that “an unsound law of marriage will breed mistaken views – not just of marriage, but of parenting, common moral and religious beliefs, even friendship – that will harm the human interests affected by each of these.”  That’s a blast radius that no one concerned about marriage and the family can afford to ignore.

Buy and read this book.  Then buy another copy and give it to a friend.  The renewal of cultures begins with the renewal of flesh and blood individuals who give their cultures life.  Marriage and the family are worth fighting for.  What is Marriage? is a wonderful tool for the task.

What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson and Robert P. George, Encounter Books, New York, 2012.  Available from