The marriage traditionalists are probably too numerous, too stubborn, and too well-entrenched – a majority or large minority depending on how you squint the opinion polls – for the harsh judgments of an opinion elite, or even for a prospective epoch of political, legal, and legislative setbacks, to silence them. As of now, they consider themselves under attack for believing in, conducting themselves according to, imagining themselves in relation to, ideas that in living memory if not quite the week before last were so consensual that any alternative to them would have generally been taken as absurd (and a little risqué).
For the traditionalists, to acknowledge “marriage equality” would be like re-defining “2 + 2” as equal to “5.” They find it mystifying that anyone believes, or pretends to believe, that marriages between two men or two women are really “the same” as marriages between a man and a woman, or that the proposition is somehow close enough to true to allow for equal treatment. The traditionalists do not believe that the word “marriage” merely should be taken to refer to the union of a man and a woman, and they do not admit of a distinction between a popular or common usage and a legal one: They insist, over and over if rarely with explanation, as per instruction from pollsters and spin-sters, that marriage simply is between a man and a woman – period. State and the law – so they believe and, perhaps more, so they may intuit without articulating – should reflect this primary denotation, not merely because a one-to-one correspondence between common or traditional usage and the law is generally preferable, but because, to state the apparently too obvious, heterosexual coupling is biologically and organically the basis of human life, making any discounting of it, where not merely a degrading indulgence, both inhuman and morbid, and ominous as a principle of the state.
Put differently, the biological “facts of life,” as natural or animal facts, would be precisely those facts that exist prior to language and opinion, prior to politics and law, prior to everything we know and do as human beings, as embodied selves. Under the inherited, possibly to be displaced definition – prior to sociological analysis of divorce, adultery, single parentage, and fertility rates; prior to any cataloguing of exceptions; prior to philosophical, historical, critical, and medical-technological de-centerings; well prior to the foul and morally insensate utterances of assorted hacks, demagogues, and pre-philosophical theologians – the word “marriage” has referred to those facts, as the institution through which the web of resulting social relations, all social relations under the heading of “family,” has been organized, and not just physically, but conceptually.
The traditionalists might never say so, but in this context the wedding – ceremony and celebration – must be seen as a fertility ritual, an offer of sacrifice to the tribal god: The bride’s body is commended to society, as mediated through the family and its next wider concentric circle of relations – “kith and kin” – for the purpose of renewing society, really and concretely re-generating it. The wedding party becomes the social concept itself in microcosm, but not merely that: It is the social recognition of society itself coming into being in the bodies of the bride and groom. Just as the heterosexual union produces the individual, it produces, confirms, and constitutes his or her identity, materially and psychologically. It produces his or her body, and at the same time re-establishes, re-generates, and re-extends the “ties that bind” leading to and re-radiating in all directions from it: The “blood relation” is (re-)established as the primary relation, the bond upon which all other bonds depend, put forward as at best analogues or imitations.
Under this view neither state nor law nor anything done through or for the state or under the law can be conceived of existing for any other purpose. Procreation is how people and therefore any and all of their purposes and ideas are brought into the world: It is the precise point at which the human being is joined, pre-consciously, to the source of life and to that which transcends the individual concretely in society – in religious language the “miracle of creation”; in dialectical materialism the “species-being.” The species-being is the living human correlate to God, and this conceptualization holds as true for atheists as for monotheists, since for the former the totality of humanity correlates only with itself. According to the traditionalist view, precisely because marriage is in this sense sacred, “holy matrimony,” before it is also a civil institution, that civil institution should recognize it as such, not seek a separate or non-committal understanding: A state that fails to comprehend this fact of all human life would be a state detached from its own reason for being, in a sense from being itself, by disclaiming interest in its own perpetuation.
In this sense “marriage” would not merely refer to a social institution, but to the absolute necessity for which all social institutions exist, and equally the conditions that enable them to exist. The state and the law would not exist without “marriage.” The state and the law exist for “marriage” – to serve and support it, as its appendages. The state and the law are even explicable as outward dimensions of “marriage.” Yet the meaning of “marriage” is taken to be even deeper and broader – as a or the ground of meaning: It is not just that family, as secondary external form of “marriage,” organizes society and therefore the state, or the state and therefore society. It is already integral to how society sees itself; it organizes the minds and aspirations of individuals in society. The Hegelian language with which I began this series of posts – marriage/monogamy as an “absolute principle” – gets at this notion: Procreation, both the sex act itself as well as childbearing and -rearing; society as a network of family networks; and, perhaps most primordially and yet at the highest level of abstraction, the conceptual machinery of synthetic union of opposites, all become the same phenomenon realized in different dimensions – biology, culture, mind.
Under this understanding we might argue that the traditionalists support and are seeking to protect the establishment of a notionally transcendent idea of marriage that is sooner or later a religious idea. Whether this position is “constitutional” at whatever level, or even “democratic,” would be at most a secondary concern, since human life and transcendent meanings would precede constitutional democracy. Human life and reproduction are the ultimate “constituting power” without which there would be neither “constituted” law nor “constituency” in the first place.
The marriage progressives should at least recognize this expectation of a political superstructure whose character aligns with ethical, moral, and philosophical principle. The progressives, the gay activists most of all, have made it clear that they, too, attach a value ineffably beyond whatever immediate practicalities (hospital visitation rights, property law, adoption, etc.) to having their self-ideal embodied in, validated by, and actively acknowledged and extended by the state and its operatives.
(next: what’s next)