Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A Way Forward for Traditional Marriage

Social conservatives such as Ryan Anderson argue for bolstering religious liberty and putting children first.
marriage child

Ryan T. Anderson has written what will become the standard argument for traditional marriage. Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom is his rational explanation of what marriage is, why it is essential to society, and why it is necessary to enshrine the traditional position in law.

His most important contribution is to identify the two fundamentally competing views of marriage that uncomfortably co-exist in America today. The first is the traditional view of the permanent, exclusive union of one man and one woman inherently aimed at the rearing of children. The competing “consent” version of marriage, in contrast, does not require monogamy, exclusivity, or permanence—only deep consensual romantic attachment.

The foundation of Anderson’s argument for traditional marriage is that it is natural, based in human nature, and required for the procreation and development of children within a protective environment. The second type of union puts the “emotional commitment” of the partners before all else and could characterize a heterosexual, homosexual, or other relationship.

Of course, not all traditional marriages produce children, but it remains possible in a male-female relationship through changes in desires for children, natural recovery from periods of sterility, or new technologies. Until “about the year 2000” the idea of marriage as only between one man and one woman “has been nearly a human universal.” The basic fact is that it “takes two to make a baby.” Here the “lovemaking act is also the life-giving act.” It requires exclusivity and permanence to keep the “comprehensive community” of union together, including the wider community of the extended family, all for the protection and development of children.

When a child is born a mother is naturally there. Having a husband “increases the odds the father of the child will be committed” to the mother and child. Anderson argues there is no such thing as “parenting” but merely mothering and fathering, with different but complementary “gifts to the parenting enterprise.” Citing social science research he argues mothers bring feeding, understanding of infants, and comfort. Fathers bring discipline, play, and social challenge. Research finds the importance of marriage clearest when it breaks down: “Being raised in a married family reduces a child’s probability of living in poverty by about 82 percent.”

The rival, emotional type of union is open to any set of individuals who desire to be in union, gay or straight, monogamous or multiple, or otherwise. While children may be produced, they are secondary. The only criterion of union is love and desire. The difference between the traditional and consent relationships is most clear when it comes to gay unions and conflicts over the right to the term “marriage” and its meaning in law. Anderson quotes activists such as Masha Gessen arguing that the whole point of legalizing gay marriage is to supersede the idea of traditional marriage, which she does not believe should even exist. Andrew Sullivan predicts the lower rate of sexual exclusivity in same-sex unions will lead to the same “openness” in traditional marriages. E.J. Graff acknowledges same-sex marriage changes the meaning of marriage from “sex and diapers” to “sexual choice.”

The traditional or “comprehensive” view of marriage is not anti-gay but is conceived as the natural means of most effectively raising children from ancient times until today. Anderson argues that limiting marriage to one man and one woman does not violate anyone’s rights. Same-sex relationships have been legal for a decade everywhere in the U.S., may even be consecrated by a religion, and most employers will grant them equal benefits.

The government, of course, settled the debate by imposing the consensual definition of marriage from above, indeed through the courts with little public involvement. Anderson recognizes that the breakdown of the traditional marriage culture and the adoption even by many straight marriages of the consent ethic long preceded the court decision. Permanence, exclusivity, and monogamy had all broken down with the rise of no-fault divorce, cohabitation, non-marital childbearing, recreational sex, and pornography—promoted by a counter-cultural media, Hollywood, and intellectual elite. Reversing this “judicial tyranny” and culture requires a powerful opposition movement, one that creates and funds numerous traditional institutions to confront and challenge consensual marriage in both culture and law.

Anderson sets a fourfold mission for his most important institutions in this battle, the churches: they must frame an appealing case for traditional sexuality; create ministries and meaningful non-marital relationships for those with same-sex attractions; defend their own and others’ religious liberties; and provide guidance for those forced to choose between following their faith and the law. Church members must find ways to “live out the truth about marriage and human sexuality” in mutual faithfulness for themselves, their children and their religion.

Such a counter-movement would need dedicated individuals. “So the first thing we need to do is live the truth about marriage ourselves.” He asks each individual to become a “countercultural witness” using reasoned debate and Christian-like “discipleship” to change the moral climate of America. His model for such an ambitious goal is the success of Christianity worldwide with all its faults, changing the world for the better.

Anderson views religion as an inherent natural right to act on individual “judgments of what truth demands.” Thus he objects to activists who would use nondiscrimination laws to penalize those not wishing to participate in gay weddings, to force Catholic Charities out of foster care and adoption services, and to threaten private religious colleges and schools if they do not accept gay organizations. This differs from government anti-discrimination laws against racism, since anti-black bias was deeply entrenched by years of slavery and segregation law that required significant limits on private actions. He supports the proposed First Amendment Defense Act, which would forbid discrimination against supporters of traditional marriage in government grant-making.

But beyond political organizing, how will the government adopt such laws when they are the source of the threats he wants it to correct? Although Anderson sets religious freedom as a right to act on its truths, he is forced to add “within the limits of justice and the common good,” which will be defined by the government. While he correctly recognizes the danger government presents to traditional marriage, his program is caught in its web. In any event, it is clear that organizing a counter movement will take time, perhaps a very long time when the opposition controls the culture (even, he concedes, Fox News). That means gay marriage will become institutionalized. He might have explored what might be done at more local levels.

First, the states will all have to rewrite their laws. Much can be accomplished by understanding how children are to be treated under different parental relationships. Actually, government has done little to regulate marriage itself and that will continue. But the fact of children cannot be ignored. Court cases at the state level already have had to deal with the children of gay couples differently, especially in custody cases after divorce. There is a natural equality in two biological parents seeking custody that does not exist in gay relationships since in the latter both did not participate equally in the creation. So two streams of law will naturally evolve for each type of union and this development will help elaborate natural differences.

Second, as gay unions become institutionalized in law, some distinction can be kept between the two versions socially. While civil and religious marriage have been interwoven over the years of common definition, it is no longer possible when the basic conceptions diverge. Most evangelical churches; the Catholic, Orthodox, and even some mainline Protestant churches; and Jewish and Islamic orthodoxies actually require a distinction. These faith communities can separate civil marriage from their religious rites and resign from being state agents certifying civil marriages. Requiring a separate certificate would probably reduce religious marriages but would preserve their definition and keep their ministers from participating in a practice proscribed by their faiths. Such religious marriages might even change their terminology to use the word “matrimony” to affirm the distinction. For Catholics the term is already in their catechism.

For Anderson, the urgent need is re-focusing marriage on children. If marriage is not about “sex and diapers,” what happens to the kids? Today, “we have seen the unfettered desire of the strong—adults, the affluent—pursued at the expense of the vulnerable—children, the poor.” Two thousand years of Western history gives him hope that a richer sense of human life, including traditional marriage—which has been history’s least restrictive means of ensuring the well-being of children—can be recovered if those who agree have the courage of their convictions.

Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution, and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term and one of his campaign strategists.



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