Tuesday, June 26, 2012

On Defining Marriage

I was interested to watch ACL's webcast of a panel on 'Defining Marriage' (view here).  The issue of same sex 'marriage' has been much on my mind in recent months.

What do most Australians think about redefining the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act?  At present the Marriage Act states:  "marriage" means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.

What would the implication be of changing the definition to remove 'a man and a woman' and replace it with 'two persons'.

The Marriage Act definition has five key components:
  • union - the two people become 'one'
  • a man and a woman - a heterosexual relationship
  • to the exclusion of all others - others beside the two should not be 'in' the marriage
  • voluntarily entered into - not out of compulsion
  • for life - the participants should be sincerely commit to a life-long union which will, be default, continue until one of them dies.
Before one changes this definition it is worth asking a question about ALL these components: why these particular definitional elements, put together?  Why 'for life'?  Why only two people?  Why a man and a woman?  Why voluntarily? Why are others to be excluded from this (apparently loving) relationship? 

Clearly the IDEA of marriage in this form has been around for a very long time.  It exists for a reason.   The reason is not what Germaine Greer saw in marriage in the Female Eunuch, namely that it is 'legalised slavery' for women.  If marriage was designed to be slavery, it would not be defined be a union but as a transfer of ownership, and use made by one of the other; it would also not be exclusive; nor voluntary; nor for life, because slaves are bought and sold as their master pleases, singly or in larger numbers.

The social reason for marriage, which is a public, not a private institution, is this:  it is to provide a stable public basis for the formation of families.  At its core the family is all about a man and a woman bringing up their own biological children as one of their main life tasks, and later in their turn being cared by by these children when they as aging parents are in need of protection and support.

The family, built upon the foundation of marriage, provides the most fundamental public institution for the flourishing of human society.  Countless studies show that children do best in families when they are brought up by their biological married parents.  This is not rocket science.  It is what marriage is for.

Marriage is a union, because a family is based on unity of purpose and identity, and shared ownership of core property assets (like the family home).  It is a desire for unity which causes most couples, even in post-feminist contemporary Australia, to adopt a shared family name after marriage.

It is about a man and a woman because this is what it takes to bring children into the world and to raise them in optimal conditions.

It is to the exclusion of all others because jealousy and relational insecurity damages parents and the children who are raised by them.

It is voluntary because only by choice can a person undertake such a difficult and sacrificial task as committing to another for life for the purpose of raising a family.

It is for life because that's how long the family project lasts, as generation passes to generation.  Raising a family requires a unique kind of stability which the Marriage Act's definition is designed to give.

This is the ideal, and the law enshrines it.  Marriage is honored and respected, held in high esteem - despite all the knocks it has taken - precisely because it embodies this ideal, precisely because people respect and honor what it means to be part of a healthy stable family.  Of course many families are broken, damaging and even toxic.  But that doesn't disprove the validity of the core ideal.  A race horse may break down, but that doesn't prove it wasn't bred for speed.

Many commentators, like Germaine Greer, have despised marriage.  The denigration of marriage is a common theme of the past 40 years in the West.  Yet the institution remains perennially popular; and prestigious, despite all the blemishes, and multiple forms of legal and socially undermining which Western nations have been foisting upon the institution.

I suspect it is this prestige that some same-sex attracted people are attracted to.  Some may ask: "Why should someone be excluded from this admired status, just because of their sexual preference?" Yet the institution is not a private one. It is a public construct.  Its purpose is not to promote the self-esteem or respect of married individuals.  Marriage is not a 'right' or a product to be consumed for the pleasure of the individual.

One of my concerns about those who are leveling their jousting lance at marriage by seeking to redefine its fundamentals is that their arguments offer no ideal which could possibly perpetuate the strengths of the institution they covet, in a way which will protect and preserve its benefits.  For example, if marriage is just about honoring people's love for each other, what possible objection can be made against multiple relationships voluntarily entered into?  I'm not using a slippery slope argument here, but seeking an explanation why arguments for same-sex marriage are not equally compelling in supports of polyamory.  If marriage laws should not 'discriminate' against gays, why should they 'discriminate' against polys, who by conscience and/or desire are committed to a multiplicity of relationships?  The traditional nexus between family well-being and heterosexual marriage provides a rationale against the poly agenda, but same-sex marriage rhetoric severs that nexus and will render marriage ideologically defenseless against polyamory. 

And why 'for life'.  If the justification for marriage is love and individual rights, then surely a shorter term relationship can be just as dignified and worthy of respect as a life-long one?

And why 'exclusive'?  Why should love be exclusive?  If, as many have argued, exclusive relationships are exceptional for homosexual men, why should their normative non-exclusivity be punished by retaining 'exclusively entered into' in the definition of marriage?

The thing is, once you abandon this core element of marriage as a union of a man and a woman — which is protected and privileged precisely because this is the foundation of biological families, with all their benefits for society — what principled basis can there be for not removing most of the other elements in the definition of marriage as well?  This is not about some kind of phobia about the 'slippery slope'. Nor is it a rhetorically lazy appeal to fear.  At issue is a fundamental lack of principle and confusion about purpose from the camp of those who desire to mutate the definition of 'marriage'.

The other thing that concerns me about same-sex 'marriage' is this.  Again and again we have been seeing around the world that where this public institution of marriage is restructured, the state inevitably intervenes into education, the workplace and right down into family life to persecute those who hold to a traditional understanding of marriage.  When the fairy tale about the prince and the princess must be transformed into a tale about the prince and the prince - because the law makes no distinction -  so many other things must change as well.  Sex education in schools will have to explicitly affirm the dignity of same sex genital practices.  Relationship counsellors shall be forced to honor same sex relationships.  Same sex couples will be given the same adoption 'rights' as heterosexual couples, trampling a child's right to having a father and a mother.  In some jurisdictions Christian agencies have been driven out of adoption services altogether for this very reason. 

There are a plethora of cases in overseas jurisdictions where people of conscience who uphold the traditional definition of marriage – which has applied for millennia – have lost jobs, careers, reputations,  livelihoods and even children because of states' intrusive insistence on compelling respect for same-sex relationships.  This is a case of the once-marginalized becoming the new persecutors, with a vengeance.  Melanie Phillips recently wrote of the outpouring of hatred she was subjected to when she dared to criticize the injection of homosexual materials into all subjects in the British school curriculum:  “... the total inability of those who subjected me to such abuse to realise that they are, in fact, spewing out the very hatred, intolerance and incitement to violence of which they are accusing others would be hilarious were it not so terrifying.”  Same-sex marriage laws empower collective societal acts of retribution against people who disagree with the redefinition agenda.

Redefining marriage can only give greater momentum to this totalitarian tendency, which I do not so much fear as acknowledge as a cold fact of life in the 21st century.

If Australians allow their marriage Act to mutate into something quite different, they will only have themselves to blame.  I do hope that the current discussion broadens and deepens, setting aside all forms of invective and fear-driven rhetoric.   I also hope that ordinary people, instead of just ticking the option marked 'tolerance' on their mental questionnaires about same-sex marriage, would do some deep thinking about what a marriage really is and whether it is worth fighting for.  As for me, I have decided it is.


  1. Considering how normal divorce is now I doubt too many Australians actually think of marriage as for life any more.

    1. All the couples I have married do regard it as being for life, including those who have been divorced. I've never met anyone getting married who thought they were in for a limited period of time. Some cultures do have actual 'fixed term' marriages, where you anticipate a closure at the start. But in Australia this is not the intention of a marriage, no matter how messy the reality may end up being.

  2. Hello!! The legislation is not going through, won't be going through any time soon. Can you go back to things that matter, eg http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/kenyan-officials-at-least-15-killed-scores-injured-in-church-attacks-near-somali-border/2012/07/01/gJQAN0F3FW_story.html. It's been 119 days since you worried about what Muslims are doing to destroy our world.

    1. Funny how it seems difficult for some people to fathom that there might be more than one issue that "matters" in the world, let alone that they might even have some thematic link. Also interesting that the commenter does not interact at all (even if to disagree with this or that point) with the substance of the article itself. Mr. Durie is talking intelligently about issues of justice that affect the fabric of society and the human condition on a large scale - issues that he has clearly thought about and cared about for a long time. Keep multi-tasking, Mr. Durie - it is an excellent article.

  3. Pastor Mark, I wish you could turn the light around onto the Anglican Church in Australia - it would seem that there are many people within it that are at the forefront of same-sex marriage advocacy.

    I am a 'new Anglican'. After reading Anglican newspapers, websites etc I cannot but have a sense of hopelessness with regards to the Anglican leadership around the world - how are we mere congregants supposed to advocate for Biblical marriage when our Ministers advocate and promote homosexual marriage?

    1. This is a serious concern.
      Throughout the world for the most part Anglicans reject same-sex relationships.
      In North America although the "Episcopalians" embrace same-sex marriage, the newly formed "Anglican" Dioceses reject it. I expect that in time the Episcopalians will become quite separate from the mainstream of global Anglicanism.


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