Everybody’s Marriage Impacts Everybody Else’s. That’s How Social Institutions Work.

By his own admission, David French has “flip flop flip[ped]” on gay civil marriage (of the secular legal, not his moral religious view). First, he was for it, then he was against it, and now he’s for it again. He’s writing because of his, surprising to some, seeming change of heart and open support of the recently passed Respect for Marriage Act that enshrines gay marriage into law.

In explaining his back and forth on this, he originally was for it as a civil libertarian, because, as he argued then:

For those who believe gay marriage is morally wrong for Biblical or other religious reasons, this decision changes nothing. Churches can still speak out against sexual immorality and can still choose not to perform gay weddings. The gay couple down the street in no way makes our own straight marriage more difficult or challenging, nor can any decision of any court of law change the definition of marriage in the eyes of God.

The negative sort of “legislate not unto others as you would have them not legislate unto you” logic of libertarianism seems to be the main driver of the position he held for many years. Then, like many others, he reasonably got spooked about religious liberty around Obergefell, so he was against it. But now that so many religious liberty cases have gone well, and we’ve got more ground constitutionally and legally, it appears he’s sort of back to his civil libertarian posture. He’s added other reasons, such as the concern for families that have formed since the Obergefell decision, but it does appear that once his concerns about religious liberty were answered, he defaulted to his prior position with an extra dose of reinforcement due to the nature of pluralism and so forth.

I’ll leave aside the question of whether or not the religious liberty situation is as rosy as French says it is, as I am not a legal scholar, nor will I mount a full case for natural or traditional marriage as a whole. (Though, for the record, I hold a traditional view for both church and society as a whole.) I do want to note one thing that is inadequate about his basically civil libertarian claim about the way “the gay couple down the street in no way makes our own marriage more difficult or challenging, nor can any decision of any court of law change the definition of marriage in the eyes of God.” I’ve seen the claim so often and in so many forms that it merits comment.

To be clear, nobody’s concerned that the definition of marriage is being altered in the eyes of God. Many are concerned that the legal redefinition away from marriage as it is defined by God to some other understanding will be detrimental to the institution within our society as a whole, for several reasons.

A number of Christians, possibly the majority, possibly not, are at least partially concerned with the common good. Whether due to natural law arguments, or convinced by revelation that running against the grain of God’s created order is bad for society, they legitimately think that ensconcing a modern, sexless definition of marriage into law will have far-reaching negative political, social, moral, and spiritual repercussions for all involved. And this is so for two reasons.

First, many will point out that the relationship between law and society is not a one-way street: the law instructs and shapes the way society thinks about reality.

Second, and this is perhaps bigger, this view works with a naively individualistic understanding of marriage as a shared social institution. The reality is that my neighbor’s marriage can and does have an impact on mine in several ways. That’s how social institutions work and part of why the State has had an interest in recognizing and building legal frameworks around them.

Take an example French himself mentions: the institution of no-fault divorce represented and instituted a shift in our understanding of marriage bringing about long-term consequences still with us, many conservatives see the legalization of same-sex marriage playing out in the same way. For your neighbor to be able to get a no-fault divorce, the law had to be altered such that you can now get a no-fault divorce. That means your own divorce is that much easier to acquire and thereby your marriage is potentially weaker in a moment or season of doubt and frustration. Indeed, the meaning of the vows you took and the devotion and resolution are socially retconned into something far less substantial than they were when you took them. The social and moral currency of marital vows was diluted once no-fault divorce was instituted.

Beyond that, however, while your neighbor’s divorce doesn’t effect your own divorce, or force you to get a divorce, it does make your own divorce more thinkable and possible. Every couple who has been married long enough and sees the first, second, third, etc. divorce hit their friend circle knows this, as does every 90s kid who got scared every time one of their friend’s parents got divorced. It made your own sense of your parents’ marriage that much weaker, that much less safe. Divinely instituted and grounded firmly in the nature of things though it may be, marriage is also an inescapably social institution. This is why we can coherently speak of marriage cultures and so forth.

In which case, it is very plausible that the legal redefinition of marriage away from a union between a man and a woman with procreation at least theoretically possible, or in view, towards a sexless union that is ontologically incapable of procreation (without massively expensive, ethically-questionable technological intervention), does have broad, society-wide, knock-on effects on our marriages as well as our children’s and our children’s children’s marriages. This is not insignificant given that historically (and currently) one of the main reasons the State has any vested interest in legally codifying marriage is precisely to support and structure a stable familial environment for the propagation and nurture of children–the future of society. Legally redefining marriage shifts our conception of what a marriage is and therefore its proper practice. Whether explicitly and consciously or subtly and unconsciously it inevitably shifts away from these ends and the practices that are conducive toward them.

Now, by introducing the issue of no-fault divorce someone may want to point out that even if it’s true that our neighbor’s marriage does impact ours, the cost of a society without no-fault divorce is worse than that of a society with them. Go aheaf and have at it. Make the broad argument. And, similarly to that of gay marriage, I suppose. Note, I’m not actually disputing that there are places where there is a proper distinction between acts that are proscribed for believers, but should not be by the State. Debates must be had about principles, their prudent application, and so forth. But as you do, especially around marriage, I’d just like to make the minimal point that you have to do better than this highly individualistic and libertarian understanding of things.