What is marriage – and why is it a matter of public policy?


I’m not going to say anything about morality, anything about theology or anything about tradition. There are some people who talk about marriage and talk about the same-sex marriage debate in terms of a moral argument, a theological argument or a traditional argument. A Burkean conservative might say, ‘Because marriage has been this way, this is how it ought to be.’ None of those arguments will be ones that I’ll be making.

With these words, Heritage Foundation scholar Ryan T. Anderson began his presentation on the pressing topic “What is Marriage?” in remarks delivered at the “Communicating Values: Marriage, Family and the Media” conference hosted by the Stanford Anscombe Society at Stanford University in California.

Anderson continued,

I’ll be making a philosophical argument with some appeal to social science largely to get at a public-policy purpose of marriage. The question I want to ask and then answer is, ‘What is marriage from a policy perspective? What is the state’s interest in marriage? How does the state define marriage? How should the state define marriage and why?’

Now I would imagine that everyone in this room is in favor of marriage equality. The other side uses that slogan, and it’s a great slogan. It’s a wonderful piece of advertising. It fits on a bumper sticker. You can put an “equals” sign up as your Facebook icon and yet it’s completely vacuous. Everyone in this room is for marriage equality; we all want to treat all marriage equally. What we may disagree with each other about is “What sort of relationship is a marriage?” because that’s the question you have to answer before you can then get to considerations of equality. Because even those who want to redefine marriage to include a same-sex couple will draw certain lines between what sort of relationship is a marriage; what sort of relationship is not a marriage. And if we’re going to draw a line based on principle, if we’re going to draw lines that reflect the truth, we have to know what sort of relationship is a marriage and what sort of other consenting-adult relationships are non-marital.  …

I’ll place a challenge…when we get to the Q&A, I invite you to give an answer to these questions: If you want to redefine marriage to include the same-sex couple, why would marriage – how you understand it – require that that relationship be permanent, monogamous and exclusive, and be the type of relationship a government takes interest in? … Because on this account of marriage, where marriage is an intense emotional union of consenting adults, that’s something that can be formed by more than two people. There’s nothing about intense emotional union, just as such, that says it has to be between two and only two. Threesomes and foursomes can just as easily form an intense emotional and an intense romantic and intense care-giving relationship. There is nothing in principle that would require twos.

In his incisive prepared message and in the extended Q-and-A interaction with conference participants, Anderson presented cogent arguments. As importantly, he did so with an attitude of civility and respect that elevated the dialogue in this very challenging contemporary issue to levels essential for sound decision-making by citizens, policy leaders, elected officials and all public servants.

Anderson is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and editor of Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, N.J. He also co-authored What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (2012), with Princeton Professor Robert P. George and Sherif Girgis. Justice Samuel Alito cited the book two times in his dissenting opinion in the U.S. Supreme Court case about the Defense of Marriage Act.