Before Obergefell: Some Thoughts on How We Got Here

The establishment of same-sex marriage is not a bolt from the blue, but the logical outworking of a series of related developments in America’s practice and understanding of marriage. Same-sex marriage was unthinkable just a few decades ago. What made it thinkable wasn’t a concerted campaign on the part of gay rights activists to undermine marriage, but the changing material, economic, social, ideological, and moral conditions of the wider society and the way that our practice of marriage was both altered by and advanced this broader social mutation. The neutralizing of sex in marriage is like the sudden collapse of a wall that has long been undermined.

The character of marriage has changed under many influences. Medical, technological, and economic influences have been among the most powerful of these. Contraceptive medication and other contraceptive devices, coupled with greater access to abortion, have facilitated the growing detachment of sex from procreation. It has normalized a situation where society regards the default form of sex as ‘safe’—sterile and, ideally, STD-free. Sex that is open to the possibility of procreation is a break from the default form of sex, either a failure of responsibility or a determined act of choice. It is no longer regarded as just natural.

There are many consequences of this development. As sex in all of its standard forms is now sterile by default, it has become homogenized, the only criteria that continue to matter being consent and pleasure. Any categorical distinction between same-sex relations and those between a man and a woman will appear very artificial to many as a result. Sex is sex is sex, the use of the body for erogenous stimulation, and possibly thereby as a means of expressing emotional intimacy. When sex is regarded in such a manner, it appears quite gender neutral.

When sex that is open to procreation becomes atypical, the relationship between sex and marriage changes too. First, ‘responsible’ sex ceases to be sex that occurs within a marital context, where a vow of lifelong fidelity provides a context of welcome and support for any new life. Rather, responsible sex is ‘safe sex’, sex that precludes procreation, sex that is consequence-free.

This creates the conditions for a proliferation of non-marital sex. No longer perceived of as the responsible context for sexual relations, marriage gradually becomes a mere lifestyle choice, rather than a set of governing cultural norms. As such a set of cultural norms, marriage places restrictions and expectations upon parties both married and unmarried. Not only does it call for lifelong sexual exclusivity and fidelity of married couples, it also calls for abstinence outside of marriage for those who are unmarried and generally orients them towards marriage. As a lifestyle choice, it doesn’t do these things, but primarily offers particular couples the option of an institutional form for their bespoke customization and social recognition.

Second, when openness to procreation becomes an optional extra for sexual relations—because we now have the power to avoid it, the natural procreative potential of sexual relations is now (mistakenly) cast as if it were a choice—the place of children in marriage is changed. Marriage has always had sexual union at its heart. When sexual relations are normally sterile, however, the sexual union of marriage comes to be regarded as if it were fundamentally only about expression of personal intimacy between spouses, rather than entrance into a relation of shared openness to children, the procreative potential being integral to the nature of the union.

Most such couples will choose to have children, but, as sex and procreation are detached, this comes to be perceived as a choice to add a second story to their relationship, rather than as a development of a potential naturally integral to the sexual union and commitment of their marriage. This makes it difficult for people to recognize the essential difference between marital relations between a husband and wife and the sort of ‘marital’ relations a same-sex couple might have. Also, when children are chiefly regarded in terms of ‘choice’, the use of surrogacy, donated gametes, and reproductive technology is normalized and no longer regarded as a significant departure.

When, on account of the conceptual division of sex from procreation, marriage isn’t regarded to involve a commitment to a posture of openness to the possibility of children, the connection between the marital bond and the bond between parents and children will be reconceived. The natural connection between sex and procreation relates to the natural connection between marital union and the parental bond: sever the former and the latter is weakened. Children are the natural extension and icon of their parents’ pledge of their bodies to each other in marital union. However, through the separation of sex and procreation, children are increasingly perceived as choices that are no longer naturally integral to the marital union.

A result of this notion of marriage is that the marriage bond steadily becomes more ordered around the interests of adult couples. Marriage is a vowed union of two persons who share a loving sexual relationship, but, as the default form of sex is sterile, the procreative end of marriage is quite dispensable to the institution. If the procreative end of marriage is dispensable, then the shape of marriage should primarily be determined by what the marriage partners want. Since the marital union is no longer naturally open to children—although the couple might choose to open it up at some later stage—the interests of children should no longer be so determinative in forming the institution, or place so many restrictions upon the consensual activity of adults.

Unsurprisingly, this manner of conceiving marriage invited the liberalization of divorce laws and other such developments. Regarding their children as their choices, a father and mother may be assured that, provided they both continue to love their children, they can safely go their separate ways. Also, if a child’s personalizing bond to their parents is primarily established by choice, no significant conceptual distinction can be made between children born through donated gametes and surrogacy or obtained through adoption and children born through an aneconomic loving gift of bodies that precedes and transcends the political, legal, economic, and technological realms of human activity, belonging chiefly to humanity’s begetting rather than to its constructing.

Great suffering has occurred on the altar of this cultural conceit, not least the killing of countless unborn children who had the misfortune to be among the ‘unchosen’. Children are the natural extensions and icons of their parents’ union and that union cannot be dissolved without doing children harm and threatening their identity.

This shift in our understanding of the place of children and their relationship to marriage corresponds with a shift in our understanding of the sort of union that marriage itself is. Marriage has hitherto been ordered around the natural reality of the family: the sexual union between husband and wife and the children that arise from that union. These natural bonds of sexual union and blood are adumbrated by the law, but not ultimately the creation of it.

When sex has been sterilized, however, cut loose from the telos of procreation, the concept of sexual union slowly shrivels down to one of mutual sexual excitation of erogenous zones as a means of expressing personal intimacy. Such a union is no longer clearly related to the natural sexual complementarity of male and female or to the natural ordering of their relations to the conception of children. Hence their union moves away from the realm of nature and becomes purely one of volition and attraction. A corresponding evolution of the institution of marriage presents it as a purely constructed reality, designed to facilitate individuals’ chosen relations, one that can be reinvented and re=engineered through social and political will. It is also, importantly, a union that no longer needs to be considered in gendered terms.

When marriage and child-bearing are oriented ever more consistently around choice we will have fewer children, which itself weakens the cultural grasp of the connection between marriage and procreation. Children are no longer seen to belong to marriage by virtue of their parents’ commitment to a shared vocation of which they are a primary purpose. When marriage ceases to be perceived as a vocation that has procreation as one of its purposes, unsurprisingly people will have fewer children and child-free by choice marriages will become more commonplace. When choice becomes the grounding principle of marriage, marriages are much more vulnerable to divorce. When the continuation of a marriage ceases to be desired, there is less of a sense of duty to preserve it. There will also be less willingness to bring children into a union that is increasingly susceptible to dissolution.

In these and other respects, marriage has also been changed by the related forces of capitalism and the state. Indeed, given the revolutionary and destructive power of capitalism in our social order, it is rather baffling to me that so many of the Christians who strongly oppose the Supreme Court’s judgment harbor so little suspicion or concern about it or appreciate how connected capitalism is with the state.

Marriage and the family is no longer a primary site of production, whether of material goods and services, or of community and society. Production of goods and services migrated from the cooperative economy of the home to the industrial workplace: it is now uncommon to find spouses or families who are bound together in collaborative production or who share a trade. Mass mobilization of the population for the purpose of the national economy led to men and women being pushed into the workforce in an increasingly undifferentiated manner. The wider communal, social, welfare, and pedagogical functions once largely performed by families were steadily taken up by the state and its agencies.

With little weight placed upon it, marriage and the family atrophied as an institution. The family is now often closer to a privatized and sentimental environment for independent careerists who share similar patterns of consumption. Marriages become more hedonic in character, oriented around the activities and products that married couples wish to enjoy together. This hedonic version of marriage, boldly declared in the lavish excesses of the modern wedding, is a lifestyle luxury that the poor are largely priced out of.

Marriage is also shaped by the way that we now function as workers in the capitalist economy. As capitalism uproots populations, our communities and relationships become shallower and more transitory. Within past generations, where a majority of persons might be firmly embedded in a single community for most of their lifetime, there was a rich and robust social fabric within which to forge variegated relationships and in which to feed our need for personal bonds. For many of us today, however, a spouse is our only hope of a lifelong companion and our spouses will bear a disproportionate amount of the weight of our emotional fulfilment. It should not be a surprise that many marriages cannot sustain the weight of such expectations.

Individual choice and autonomy are dominant and foundational cultural values in a capitalist society, eclipsing almost all else. The liberal notion of the person as androgynous transacting party and consumer that constitutes the heart of the anthropology of capitalism has no real conceptual place for the lasting natural union between the sexes or between parents and the children that they bear. Such unions threaten this anthropology, as they present us with realities that displace the autonomous individual from the centre of the picture, revealing that we are connected to others by nature, not solely by choice.

The gender-neutralizing notions of liberal personhood informs various movements—among them certain forms of feminism—that seek to form an egalitarian society where all differences are reduced to the level of indifference. The natural family, with its clear differentiation between the sexes, is either an eccentric exception to this ideology or an unreconstructed and backward opponent of it that needs to be brought into line. The sexual difference between husbands and wives, between mothers and fathers, is irrelevant. Any two loving parents are interchangeable; sex should not come into it.

The values of egalitarianism and individual choice have been integral to the movement towards same-sex marriage. The notions of ‘equal’ marriage and the right of every individual to marriage as a lifestyle choice expressive of their love appear self-evident to most persons within our society. These values of equality, individual choice, the pursuit of pleasure, and self-expression—the values of liberal capitalism—are sacred and any threat to them will be treated as heresy. Few can even begin to understand why any persons might call these values into question.

The values of liberal capitalism pose an immense threat to marriage as an institution, to the ordering of marriage around ends that exceed those of individual couples and to the ordering of marriage around duties rather than merely choices. A feature of the debates surrounding same-sex marriage has been the radical and persistent failure of so many advocates of same-sex marriage to grasp the institutional character of the union (I have discussed this point in detail here).

Marriage, as it functions for the proponents of same-sex marriage, is regarded more as a form of expressive lifestyle choice for individuals, rather than a vocation and set of cultural norms imposed upon wider society. Any set of cultural norms that marriage might impose upon prospective spouses or upon the society more broadly are resisted. Marriage must be a pure choice, not something that is in any way expected of people.

The norms of marriage itself—norms such as sexual exclusivity and lifelong fidelity—are negotiable between consenting parties. Non-monogamous, monogamish, and open marriages are positive expressions of individual choice and should in no way be opposed. Same-sex marriages are perceived as if they were purely additions to the ranks of existing marriages—how can my marriage hurt yours?—rather than as representing an ecological shift in our marriage culture more generally, rendering marriage a gender-neutral institution, with implications for all parties that will work themselves out over generations. All of these developments, however, have been presaged by the shifting character of marriage under the influence of liberal capitalism over the last century.

The elevation of the values of liberal capitalism has also hastened the process of secularization. Society and its public square must be purged of all values beyond those of individual choice, self-realization, and expression, all policed by the harm principle. A society publicly maintaining marriage as a sacred union between husband and wife open to the bearing of children contravenes this ideology. As a quasi-religious entity, it seems to have no right to be so treated.

Marriage as such a cultural value represents a commitment to a substantive set of natural realities—to the natural bond between man and woman and to the natural bond between children and the parents to whom they were born—rather than merely a formal commitment to freedom, choice, and love as such. In upholding marriage in such a fashion, a society expresses its commitment to freedom as something that has a specific form, rather than just its valuation of negative freedom—the freedom to do what we want without obstruction. It upholds a sort of sexual differentiation that threatens the liberal anthropology of gender indifference. It also imposes institutional norms upon society that undermine freedom of choice and expression. Marriage must be ‘secularized’, reconstituted around the supposedly neutral values of liberal capitalism.

Liberal capitalism markets its foundational ideology to the consuming masses, nourishing them from its own teats. ‘Marriage’ is just one of the self-defining choices that capitalism holds out to us, increasingly presented as if a consumer good, rather than as a demanding vocation within a community. It should not be surprising that so many large corporations have jumped onto the gender-neutral marriage bandwagon. Gender-neutral marriage is not only good for business, firmly situating corporations on the progressive ‘right side of history’, it is a vindication of liberal capitalism’s social ideology. The robustness of the natural family presents a sort of friction to the spread of the logic of capitalism within society.

Capitalism has long been a force eroding traditional bonds and social forms for its freer operation. The natural family represents determinative realities, bonds, commitments, and duties that transcend and constrict the realm of unfettered choice and the marketplace. It tends to undermine the market’s desire for an undifferentiated and easily mobilized workforce and makes it harder for the state and market to deal with persons as autonomous individuals. The sort of hedonic model of marriage that same-sex marriage represents is more appropriate to the private relation of shared lifestyle consumption between two undifferentiated individuals, whose relationships are purely chosen and negotiated around the demands of their careers, apart from a sense of a higher shared yet differentiating vocation of child-bearing and raising.

Same-sex marriage—gender-neutral marriage—is the establishment or institutionalization of a revolution in our understanding of marriage that has been ongoing for some time. Gender-neutral marriage isn’t just an exception to the norm of the marital ideology of liberal capitalism: in many respects it is that norm. Gender-neutral marriage is marriage cut loose from the constraints of nature and placed within the realm of pure choice and volition, allowing the value of ‘love’ to appear in the sharpest relief. It is marriage where sexual difference has been rendered indifferent.

As this recent article contends, same-sex marriages are supposedly superior to marriages between a man and a woman because sexual difference doesn’t get in the way of the satisfaction of individual choice and desire. They are also superior because they are more likely to take an egalitarian form. The author of the article, like a number of other liberal writers, presents the apparently considerably greater propensity of gay couples to have open marriages as a positive sign: creative consensual customization of marriage for the private ends of couples is far to be preferred over adherence to imposed institutional norms. Within a same-sex marriage sex is always ‘safe sex’, provided that STDs are avoided. Having children is always a choice, absolutely detached from the act of sexual relations.

Gender-neutral marriage is also marriage made congruent with the ends and values of liberal capitalism. Removing sexual difference, procreative relations, and their vocational correlates from the picture, we can all better function as interchangeable consumers and careerists.

Recognizing how we got to this point is imperative. Same-sex marriage may institutionalize the revolution, but the revolution long, long preceded it. The substance of marriage has been steadily chipped away or falsely alloyed for over a century, leaving us with a debased coinage. That the counterfeit of same-sex ‘marriage’ now passes for marriage within our society is an indictment upon what we have allowed to happen to the institution.

In such a context, perhaps our most effective means of resistance involves establishing and defending a clear standard in our practice of marriage within the Church, which will enable us more consistently to reject the currency of that which now falsely masquerades as it, whether between couples of the same sex or between men and women.

Alastair Roberts recently completed his doctoral studies in Durham University. He is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged.

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