The legal definition of marriage has been a hot topic in recent years (which is why it comes up so often on this site). Faithful Catholics know that while traditional marriage was created by God and raised to a Sacrament by Jesus Christ, there are very good reasons in the natural order to preserve it as an institution, such as that it provides the best environment by far for raising and forming children, and it is an essential building block in any stable and prosperous society. Unfortunately, a “hot topic” is not the same thing as a reasoned debate, and advocates of marriage redefinition generally do not respond to arguments with counter-arguments, but rather with attempts to silence and even destroy those who disagree with them (this is just the latest example here).
Such activists, however, are a minority, and there is still a mass of people in the middle who are open to reason if they can be given solid reasons for supporting traditional marriage, and a sense that they are not facing the brown-shirt tactics of the left all alone if they profess the traditional view. Given that many, perhaps most, of the people in the middle are more secular than religious (even if nominal Christians) we need to be prepared with arguments rooted in the natural order. Moreover, there are certain constituencies that at least ought to be natural allies for those of us fighting to preserve marriage.
It is to one of these constituencies that I am addressing this essay: namely, libertarians and others for whom liberty is a primary concern. Many such liberty-minded people have been drawn into the anti-marriage camp because those who would redefine marriage often rely on an appeal to freedom: one hears arguments such as "nobody has ever shown me how two men or two women marrying each other is going to harm their own marriage.” Another argument we all have heard is something like: “You anti-gay marriage people are anti-freedom: you want to keep gay people from marrying the partner of their choice.” I’ve even seen protestors standing outside my church holding a sign that says “When did I get to vote on your marriage?” So perhaps it’s no surprise that many people, particularly those of a libertarian bent, have been convinced that the pro-gay marriage advocates are on the side of liberty, and that supporters of traditional marriage are the would-be tyrants; how can they be wrong?
To begin with, all the arguments above proceed from false premises. Virtually nobody today is arguing for the return of anti-sodomy laws, or advocating the forcible separation of co-habiting same-sex couples. Nor have I heard of anyone promoting laws that would somehow prevent homosexuals from calling their relationships “marriages”. Traditional marriage supporters are simply working to preserve the legal definition of our most important social institution (older than the state and older even than institutional religion) against those who want to use the force of law to compel the rest of us to agree to a new definition, a definition that nobody anywhere has ever held (up until the last few years), and one which will change our understanding of that most important institution in fundamental ways. By any objective measure, the gay marriage advocates are trying to deprive the rest of us of our liberty to hold and to express our beliefs. The incident from Notre Dame (a supposedly Catholic institution) cited above is, again, just the most recent example. I don’t have the space here to run through the list of businesses and individuals attacked, smeared, harassed, sued, etc. by the redefinition advocates, but one only needs to pay attention to the news for a couple of days to know that such tactics are the rule, not the exception; and they all come from the side that accuses us of opposing freedom.
Beyond the tactics used by the opponents of traditional marriage, there is a much more profound issue, one concerning the proper role of government. Laws concerning marriage have always been descriptive, describing and recognizing an institution that was not created by the state, and in fact existed long before the state came into being. Even laws regulating certain aspects of marriage (the ban on polygamy, for instance) are intended to protect marriage, and conform it more closely to its traditional contours. A law that re-defines it to mean something completely different, something it has never been, is a prescriptive law, one that prescribes or creates a new reality. This is a power that few governments, and certainly not our constitutional republic, have ever claimed in regard to marriage. It is to treat something that the state has always recognized as pre-existent, above and beyond itself, as if it were a creation of the state, to be manipulated, redefined, and at some point (why not, after all?) even abolished at the whim of the ruling power. This is truly totalitarian. I don’t believe that lovers of liberty really wish to give the state such powers.
Giving the state total control over the institution of marriage would have profound ramifications for freedom in general. Families are, along with organized religion, the most important “mediating institutions” between the individual and the state. Mediating institutions are groups of people large and small that help serve as a check on government power and provide individuals with a way of influencing the state much more effectively than they could on their own. These independent sources of authority are essential to the preservation of liberty: without them the behemoth of the state would easily crush the lone citizen. That’s why totalitarians of every stripe make the subjugation, or even destruction, of these institutions (especially the family and the Church) a top priority. Giving the state the power to manipulate, redefine and hence to unmake such essential protectors of freedom must necessarily lead to an ever more powerful state, and an ever smaller place for individual liberty.
The desire of libertarians to work to preserve personal freedom is quite understandable, but the legal redefinition of marriage will do just the opposite: it will necessarily mean the loss of freedom to express and to act according to our most sacred beliefs, and it will grant to the state an enormous and unprecedented power for remaking society according to its own designs. If you want to defend liberty, therefore, protect the traditional family.
(See also, "Marriage and Liberty, Part 2" here)
Note: Today is the feast of St. Athanasius, who stood almost alone (Athanasius contra mundum, "Athanasius against the World!") in defending the True Faith against the seemingly overwhelming tide of Arianism. May St. Athanasius pray for us, and encourage us to show similar courage in defense of the Truth.