The Real Question

National Organization for Marriage

Dear Marriage Supporter,

Definitions are important. They are the means by which we can reason together and communicate ideas intelligibly. Without definitions, social organization becomes impossible.

The great English writer and Christian polemicist G.K. Chesterton illustrated this principle very clearly in his book Orthodoxy, by taking to task his friend, H.G. Wells, for a particular phrase that Chesterton called "not merely a misstatement, but a contradiction in terms."

Wells had said once that, "All chairs are quite different." And Chesterton, with his characteristic wit and his common-sense, pointed out the obvious problem with that assertion: "If all chairs were quite different, you could not call them 'all chairs.'"

A similar descent into meaninglessness has been the hallmark of the push to redefine marriage.

Advocates for same-sex "marriage" constantly evade the question of definitions. While they clamor ever more loudly for "marriage equality," they studiously avoid the necessary and logically prior point: What is marriage?

This is the real question. It is also, of course, the title of the wonderful book penned by NOM co-founder Professor Robert George along with Ryan T. Anderson and Sherif Girgis. These three have been incredibly heroic and consistent in their efforts to corner the arguments of the same-sex marriage lobby and return the debate time and again to that central question—a question that still has not sufficiently been answered by the other side.

Lately, Anderson has been fighting that good fight again, on many fronts, and I want to highlight the work he's been doing, as it is illuminative and instructive for us.


Last week I wrote about how New York Times columnist Josh Barro had taken to Twitter to level some cheap insults against people like you and me for supporting traditional marriage. Barro claimed our views were like those of racial segregationists of old.

But Ryan Anderson decided to engage Barro on Twitter, and the exchange was fascinating to follow. Ryan has chronicled the whole thing over at Heritage's The Daily Standard.

One part of the debate was of particular interest:

Ryan then pointed out that, by this logic, "government could never define marriage wrongly."

Barro then argued that "A public policy defining marriage can be bad or undesirable but it cannot be false" [emphasis added].

And Ryan is the one who's supposed to be engaging in "doublespeak"?!

This kind of reductive logic is dangerous in any application, but especially when it relates to a question as important as the definition of marriage, and an institution as close to the roots of our civic order as the family!

But it is also a logic that simply undoes itself. If marriage is whatever the government deems is to be, and if political will is all that makes any given definition of marriage the "true" one, then how can Barro and others support the usurpation by judges of the will of legislatures and citizenries to identify marriage as the union of one man and one woman?

No, this is the real doublespeak in the marriage debate. Barro cannot allow that there is a "right" definition of marriage outside of the fiat of the state—but then he tries to maintain (without any evident basis) that some definitions are "bad [and] undesirable."

Barro razes the bastions of natural law to pave the way for the state to posit whatever it will about marriage, but—as Anderson points out—now he has left no barriers in place for making any rational determination about marriage.

As Ryan puts it:

Indeed, if the law redefines marriage to say it is about consenting adult romance and caregiving, what principle would govern the contours of marriage policy? Can't three people form such a union, so that if you sue for marriage equality for the same-sex couple, why would you deny such equality to the throuple? And how about those who desire a "wedlease" instead of "wedlock." These are the sorts of consequences that result once you abandon the natural law understanding of what marriage is.

This is why there is now, and really always has been, only one question of real relevance in this debate: What is marriage? To that question, only those who acknowledge the public good of marriage and the natural and conjugal complementarity of men and women have a real answer.

And because there is a "what is" to marriage—because marriage has a real definition—we can, indeed we must say that it still holds even in those states where marriage has been legally reconstructed and redefined.

The Unequal Argument of "Marriage Equality"

In another posting at The Daily Signal from Anderson last week, there is a video of an exchange during a lecture at Stanford, between Ryan and a gay man who asked: "Why should I, as a gay man, be denied the same right to file a joint tax return with my potential husband that a straight couple has?"

In the clip, we see Ryan brilliantly holding the line on the fundamental question of what marriage is, which cannot be separated from the question posed to him.

Ryan explains that the reason the man cannot file a joint tax return is because, simply, he can't get married. When the questioner objects that he can get married in California, Ryan's answer cuts straight to the point: "You can be issued a marriage license in the State of California, but you can't actually get married... given what marriage is."

Ryan points out that there is no real 'discrimination' because the man has an equal right to enter into the marital relationship—a union of husband and wife— and, as he explains:

If you're not interested in entering into that sort of a union, you're not being discriminated against. What you're asking us to do is to redefine marriage to include the adult relationship of your choice, and the adult relationship of your choice happens to be a same-sex couple. There are other adults who want to have marriage redefined to include the relationship of their choice, which may be the same-sex 'throuple' or the opposite-sex 'quartet.' And so what I'm asking you in response is, what principle are you appealing to, when you say this is discrimination, to vindicate your rights and not their rights?

This is the kind of logical thoroughness this debate needs. You can see in the Stanford exchange the same logical errors Barro made on Twitter: by evading the question of the definition of what marriage is, they logically weaken any rationale for setting aside any kind of relationship as 'marriage'.

Clear-sighted people can see the wisdom and common sense of Ryan's logic here. One such clear-sighted person is Federal Judge Paul Niemeyer, from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Fundamental Right to Marry Does Not Include Same-Sex 'Marriage'

Niemeyer was on the three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit that heard the appeal of the case regarding Virginia's marriage amendment, which a lower court had deemed unconstitutional. Unfortunately, in its decision on Monday the panel split 2-1 and upheld the lower court's ruling.

But Niemeyer was the dissenting voice, and his dissent rings with such clarity and wisdom precisely because it acknowledges the real question: what is marriage?

This analysis is fundamentally flawed because it fails to take into account that the "marriage" that has long been recognized by the Supreme Court as a fundamental right is distinct from the newly proposed relationship of a "same-sex marriage." And this failure is even more pronounced by the majority's acknowledgment that same-sex marriage is a new notion that has not been recognized "for most of our country's history." Moreover, the majority fails to explain how this new notion became incorporated into the traditional definition of marriage except by linguistic manipulation. Thus, the majority never asks the question necessary to finding a fundamental right—whether same-sex marriage is a right that is "deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition" and "implicit in the concept of ordered liberty, such that neither liberty nor justice would exist if [it was] sacrificed."

It is refreshing to read in Niemeyer's acknowledgement that "when the Supreme Court has recognized, through the years, that the right to marry is a fundamental right, it has emphasized the procreative and social ordering aspects of traditional marriage," which is why "the marriage of a man and a woman... rationally promotes a correlation between biological order and political order" [emphasis added].

And Niemeyer also drives home the same point observed above: he says that if the majority opinion is correct—if there is a fundamental right to marry for any consenting adult relationship—there is no principled legal way to prevent plural marriage or a host of other imagined unions.

Let's hope more judges begin to see with the clarity of this the importance of the fundamental question of what marriage is!

All Marriages Are Marriages

I'd like to recall again Chesterton's reply to Wells about "all chairs being different." Suppose you took a table and a chair and together referred to them both as chairs. In that instance, the two things really would be different—and by calling them the same thing, you would have made the term "chair" meaningless.

The point is this: the word "marriage" either means something or it does not. Isn't it only fair and just to ask first what it does mean before trying to decide to apply the term to something new?

Calling a table a chair does damage to the meaning of the word "chair"—and it does no service to our understanding of either tables or chairs. It is thus injurious to our wisdom and knowledge on three counts, and reduces our ability to reason at all.

So it goes with marriage. Calling something "marriage" that is not marriage damages our public notion of marriage, in multiple ways. It neither serves society as a whole, nor does it ultimately serve society's members because it reduces their ability to make any reasonable or legal distinctions. And so, when something else comes along purporting to be "marriage," no legal or moral rationale exists for drawing the line.

This week, please join me in offering kudos to Ryan Anderson for constantly reminding us of the importance of the one and only real question in the marriage debate: What is marriage?

It is a question we should ask more ourselves, and without fear: because we know the answer.


Brian S Brown

Brian S. Brown
National Organization for Marriage

Brian Brown

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