what's left out of the debate on marriage

A smart analysis of marriage at an excellent new website called Front Porch Republic:
This last observation points to a basic feature of marriage that has largely been left out of contemporary debates over marriage (whether gay marriage or heterosexual marriage). Marriage is but one part of a larger set of cultural conditions. Marriage is a condition in which individuality is subsumed to the larger considerations, demands, and obligations of culture and commonweal. At the most basic level, we sacrifice our autonomy on behalf of the good of a “unit” now defined as a couple, not two individuals. At a basic level, that unit is the source of future generations - the very source and conduit for the conveyance of human life and particular cultures. But the unit is itself an expression of, and draws from, the community as a whole. Thus (as I’ve written elsewhere), marriage is entered into through the blessing of and in the presence of community, not (as Las Vegas versions would suggest) as a contract of individuals. Marriages derive from, exist for, and are legitimized by the community and culture from which they derive. Thus, in their earliest instantiation marriages had nothing to do with the wishes of the individuals who composed them. They were the arrangements by families who looked to the continuity of a way of life (and, yes, family status) rather than the individual wishes of the partners.

Even when the consent of the individuals became a central feature of marriage - an innovation of Christianity, as Remi Brague reminds us (see the last paragraph of the interview that Mark Shiffman kindly linked for us) - it was still understood by all parties that marriage was most fully a union by and for the greater community. Blessings of parents and the publication of “the banns” was a necessary precondition for a wedding. This was especially because the married couple - by committing to marriage - was not merely joining to each other in an official capacity, but was in fact becoming a constitutive unit of the community and the conduit for the continuation of culture. Marriage was thus essential to the life and future of culture, and could not be permitted to take place between two individuals who happened to love each other but who were culturally unrelated. Rather, and necessarily, marriage was the union not simply between individuals, but between two people who would convey the lived traditions of a culture - most obviously (for instance), a man and woman of the same religious faith (this is one of the main points of Fiddler on the Roof, where Tevye can brook the choices of his two older daughters - even marriage to a communist - because they are both Jews. It is only when his youngest daughter proposes to marry a Christian that he withholds consent). Marriage was most essentially a commitment to a community, not the sum of personal choices of individuals.

What can it possibly mean to defend marriage when one cannot also defend or even conceive of a culture in which individualism is not the reigning basis for self-understanding? Our “debate over marriage” is emaciated and unsatisfying precisely because the contending parties - Left and Right alike - are not even capable of discerning the more fundamental issues at play, and are content to play out the drama in the most deracinated and culture-less venue imaginable - the legal brief. At the distant end of a broken connection, we debate over an institution - marriage - that carries ancient connotations but for which the cultural preconditions have ceased to exist. We debate over a dried and dead husk.
Kinda dark, but true. Check out the rest of the article if you have time.


Dave said...


I haven't gotten a chance to read the whole thing yet, but I get TNR emails so I can read the other side if I have time.

Zach said...

I like TNR

Kevin said...

It was refreshing to see an article arguing against gay marriage by focusing on its communitarian nature and against the radial, over-emphasized "rugged individualism" of American culture. I have argued along those lines in the past, and usually it takes a great deal of time for people exposed to that argument to even understand it, given the ubiquity of individualism as the backgroud assumption in the use of all rights language in this culture.

Zach said...


I am in total agreement.

Rights-language has corrupted our politics in a very fundamental way.