Anthony Kennedy was almost right. While his inventive reading of the Constitution in Obergefell vs. Hodges has been widely and panned by both liberals and conservatives, his transcendentalizing of marriage is precisely the kind of understanding to which defenders of traditional marriage can and should offer a hearty and enthusiastic ‘yes.’ When it comes to constitutional reasoning, Obergefell is a disaster. But when it comes to our nation’s culture of marriage, Obergefell provides traditional Christians the best opportunity we have had in fifty years to make a more persuasive case for why marriage still matters.
“Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.” As Wesley Hill and others pointed out immediately after the ruling came down, such rhetoric makes it seem like those who opt not to marry are somehow missing out on a form of life that is essential to satisfy their needs and deepest desires. Such language doesn’t quite create a ‘dignitary wound’ toward those who are unmarried, since they are not in the precise sense denied marriage. But it certainly extends our current atmosphere where marriage is the only form of deep personal fulfillment we can imagine.
But Kennedy, I think, can be saved. If family is something slightly different than friendship, than marriage is essential to the needs of those who never marry. Sibling and parental relationships form our lives before we even begin to consider the possibility of voluntarily remaining celibate or entering marriage. The quality of the marital love between the parents establishes an environment that, for good or ill, marks our own lives.
Moreover, celibacy does not stand apart from the goods of marriage; it is not a hermetically sealed form of life that has no contact with the institution in adulthood. Marriage and celibacy exist in a symbiotic relationship, the meaning of celibacy only properly being understood in its relationship to the goods of marriage and the nature and limits of marriage only being known in communities where vocationally celibate individuals live and are supported. Those who are vocationally celibate still participate in the goods of marriage in the communities in which they live, because the goods of marriage are not limited to the family alone. Marital love both moves outward to the world (and not only through childbirth) by drawing the world into its orbit. It establishes a ‘household,’ in which individuals of many different statuses are invited.
If married individuals are to take an interest in the nature of celibacy and support those called to it, then, so must the celibate do likewise toward the married. Otherwise how will they know what they are remaining celibate from, which good they have opted not to enter into directly? Marital love is renewed and deepened as it is placed in near proximity to those who have chosen not to directly partake in it. And while a close proximity to marital relationships might make celibate individuals yearn for what they do not have, it also necessarily reminds families and married couples that the nature of their ties, while fundamentally biological, must have a voluntary element in order to avoid devolving into a diseased attachment to blood and soil.
An elevated, romantically infused view of marriage, then, demands an equally elevated understanding of celibacy. This is the kind of “yes, and” mentality that conservatives have sometimes struggled to adopt. When we reflect upon our culture’s idolization of marriage and the corresponding stigmatization or invisibility of lifelong celibates, it is tempting to address the problem by deromanticizing marriage. As Matthew Schmitz wrote:
Christians must counter the Court’s marriage idealism with their own marriage realism. Marriage exists only between a man and a woman, yes, but it is also not the be-all and end-all of existence. This latter belief, which has done so much to contribute to marriage’s decline, started in the churches before making its way to the courts. Let it be stopped in the churches as well. As more and more Americans live more and more of their lives outside of marriage, Christians must recover the forms of radical solidarity that gave St. Paul confidence when he said that it was good not to marry.
But elevating celibacy as a meaningful option within the church is commensurate with our current understanding of marriage as a fulfilling, transcendent way of life. We simply have to see celibacy as an equally ‘romantic’ alternative that reminds the world that marriage is a need that is passing away, and to dignify the ‘romance’ of ordinary, mundane living. In short, we need what Chesterton offered in his vision of the world now more than ever. From Manalive comes this bit, which I confess I love as much as anything I’ve ever read from him:
“Imprudent marriages!” roared Michael. “And pray where in earth or heaven are there any prudent marriages? Might as well talk about prudent suicides. You and I have dawdled round each other long enough, and are we any safer than Smith and Mary Gray, who met last night? You never know a husband till you marry him. Unhappy! of course you’ll be unhappy. Who the devil are you that you shouldn’t be unhappy, like the mother that bore you? Disappointed! of course we’ll be disappointed. I, for one, don’t expect till I die to be so good a man as I am at this minute– a tower with all the trumpets shouting.”
“You see all this,” said Rosamund, with a grand sincerity in her solid face, “and do you really want to marry me?”
“My darling, what else is there to do?” reasoned the Irishman. “What other occupation is there for an active man on this earth, except to marry you? What’s the alternative to marriage, barring sleep? It’s not liberty, Rosamund. Unless you marry God, as our nuns do in Ireland, you must marry Man–that is Me. The only third thing is to marry yourself– yourself, yourself, yourself–the only companion that is never satisfied– and never satisfactory.”
Now may be the best opportunity social conservatives ever have to make such a vision known again in culture. But the path to gaining a hearing begins, it seems to me, by affirming what nearly all Americans already believe. Because the current vision is so very nearly right. And yet so unquestionably wrong.
But the opening to present that vision is not the main one I am interested in. Near the end of his opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote, “In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.” This is not simply unobjectionable: it’s true and beautiful, and provides the key to conservatives moving the argument for marriage forward in their own communities and in the broader public. James Obergefell wanted a death certificate that listed him as married to his partner. As Kennedy put it, the absence of one meant “they must remain strangers even in death, a state-imposed separation Obergefell deems ‘hurtful for the rest of time.’” The impulse is not simply understandable: it’s just the kind of commitment that those committed to traditional marriage want to nurture and protect.
But a death certificate is a shadowy sort of permanent union compared to the living, breathing icon of just a husband and a wife and no third party. The idea that the kind of ‘transcendence’ on offer in gay unions is identical to that available within different-sex unions is clearly false. Children carry the stamp, the visage, the bearing of their parents. The New York Times’s recent story on two sets of twins who were mixed up makes it clear that biology is and will be resistant to our manipulations: we may try to erase the importance of creation, but still, it manages to cry out that it has an order and significance that we simply cannot construct for ourselves. To attain a similar kind of transcendence that different-sex unions can have, same-sex unions need the state to secure their marriage after death, or broken homes from which they can adopt children, or the ‘progress’ of synthetic biology to reconfigure the procreative process.
Treating a death certificate on file with the county register as equivalent to the possibility of procreation, as Anthony Kennedy does, reduces ‘marriage’ to a means of getting tax benefits. Now, this reduction has happened for a long time, and conservatives are as much to blame as anyone for it. But any number of arrangements for those benefits might follow, as well they should: any two individuals looking to keep more of their cash from Uncle Sam should sign up to be married, and quickly. But as I said before the Court ruled, if eros is not constrained then it will ultimately fade away. Kennedy’s ruling provides a roadmap for the final extinguishing of it.
Except among our churches, that is. Christians have an opportunity not simply to be the bearers of ‘better sex,’ which evangelical Christians have weirdly touted for years as a kind of apologetic message. Our witness can be much deeper, much truer, and more lasting than that: this is our moment to preserve and carry forward a form of erotic love that requires only the union of two individuals to transcend our own deaths. The one lesson that marriage proponents should take from the pro-life movement is that we must consistently, faithfully, and coherently demonstrate the unique beauty of the opportunity at the heart of traditional marriage. New human life is not simply a person, but a source of wonder and awe: we cannot look away from newborns because they bear in their persons all the tragic frailty and the nearly unlimited possibilities of our existence. And so also traditional marriage, where the permanence that transcends death depends upon so many factors outside our control and makes us immensely vulnerable to loss.
Yes, to make such an awe and beauty tangible to the world Christians need to attend to our own internal practices. We must renounce our own reliance upon and complicity in the “fertility industry,” reform our divorce practices, introduce a way of nullifying marriages that does not depend upon the state, expunge any “joke” that makes lifelong singleness seem ‘funny,’ hire single pastors to show our own community that they have insights into marriage, revisit our uncritical adoption of contraception, denounce any hint of treating single people as somehow unable to remain chaste before marriage, and a hundred other reforms I’ve argued for through the years that I’m not remembering right now. The work here is long and slow, and is only beginning.
But we can match the beauty inherent in our (reformed) practices with the beauty of our rhetoric. Pursuing internal reforms is possible while providing reasons for them to the rest of the world, reasons which would require continuing to explain why we still insist that two people of the same sex cannot marry, no matter how much they love each other. As Ryan Anderson has taught me, if conservative Christians want others to respect our moral positions and not consider us bigots, it is incumbent upon us to make those reasons public. Whether those reasons are ‘secular’ or not is irrelevant to the question at hand: if we wish to be responsible democratic citizens, we should bring forward our manner of thinking about such questions to anyone willing to listen. The Bible is not a gnostic text: it may require conversion to be obeyed, but not to be understood. Explaining our point of view demonstrates respect for our audience by seeking to make our positions intelligible to them.
But Obergefell also allows marriage advocates to let go of the pretense that marriage can be sustained through defense. If people have found conservative arguments for marriage wanting, that may be because only a small cadre of people have invested their time, energy, and reputations in making them consistently and repeatedly. Ryan Anderson, Maggie Gallagher, and Robert George, and the relatively tiny cadre of people laboring in these fields deserve social conservatives’ gratitude and respect for the work they have done. But the intuitions that make such arguments plausible have not been in place for a while. Now conservative activists and thinkers have the luxury of rethinking our approach from the ground up and considering not simply how we can preserve marriage as it currently exists in the law, but how we can recapture the hearts of the very people who have found our reasons wanting. Being free from pressing and immediate legal concerns, we can devote ourselves to the renewal of marriage in America over the next 150 years…or 500 years.