The New Fight for Marriage

The fight to renew marriage in America is reaching a crisis point. We are losing. If national leaders and advocates for marriage continue their current course, the loss will become a rout. But if they change strategy, there are unique opportunities for a new kind of victory.

Most marriage advocates today build their main arguments around one of two major themes. The most common approach involves philosophical arguments growing out of the natural law tradition. Those who don’t follow this approach typically fall back on explicit appeals to Christianity, sometimes softened by references to “Judeo-Christian tradition.” And of course some use both themes.

I believe in both Christianity and also natural law philosophy. Both of them will always be critical components of the fight for marriage. In particular, we who call ourselves Christians must do all in obedience to Christ and for the love of his kingdom.

But those are not the places to start when making the case for marriage, and they should not form the center of our message. Natural law arguments, while true and important, can’t remedy the deepest and most powerful cultural changes undermining marriage. Those changes are non-rational and won’t respond to rational arguments. And “because it’s Christian” is not the right reason for the civil law to institutionalize marriage. In fact, it won’t even help convince people to value and reinforce marriage outside the realm of the law, since American culture doesn’t feel responsible to reproduce Christianity. Christians can be called to fight for marriage as their way of serving Christ without holding that Christianity is the reason law and culture should value marriage.

Post-Christendom Challenge

As America’s transition to post-Christendom has become more widely appreciated in the last generation, the natural law approach has displaced Christianity as the dominant theme among marriage advocates. The crowning culmination of this transition is the new book What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense by Sherif Gergis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George. It is a majestic expression of the natural law case for marriage—dense and elaborate but clear and cogent. It has been widely and accurately hailed as the best rational argument for the civil institution of marriage available.

The authors rightly focus attention on the central question of marriage: what is it? Our answer to that question more or less settles all the other questions. Is marriage just a meaningless piece of paper, as American law has declared for the last two generations? Or does it have a root in human nature?

I actually think What Is Marriage? would persuade anyone who read it with a basic willingness to accept its first premise. That is, the premise that marriage is something specific (not just “whatever we say it is”) and that human reason can discern what it is. Unfortunately, this premise is precisely what has been called into question.

Natural law advocates are attempting to reason about sexuality with people who fervently and fundamentally believe reasoning has nothing to do with sexuality. If they don’t want to reason, you can’t reach them with arguments. As Aristotle wrote at the beginning of his Ethics, people exercise their reason only to the extent that their rational capacities are nurtured, trained, and formed (mostly in childhood) by means other than reasoning. Most Americans today have received little such formation. The claim that marriage is something and we can know what it is comes to them as a completely novel and foreign idea, and they’re not much inclined to do the hard work of understanding it. The natural law case is gibberish to them.

Moreover, the natural law advocates’ description of marriage makes no sense to ordinary Americans today because of its political reductionism. Natural law advocates almost always restrict their account of marriage to the aspects that can be recognized by the law and public policy. This leaves them describing the nature and purpose of marriage solely in terms of reproduction.

It’s true that reproduction is the main reason it is legitimate for the state to institutionalize marriage. But when Americans hear marriage described as an institution that exists for reproduction, that bears no resemblance to their self-understandings and daily experiences of marriage. People don’t recognize themselves in this mirror. And they understandably cringe to hear their marriages described as tools for accomplishing the public good.

Just watch the debate at Harvard a month ago between Gergis and Andrew Koppelman. Interestingly, Koppelman devotes only a minority of his time to the logical merits of Gergis’s argument. He spends most of his time explaining why people today just don’t even understand what Gergis is claiming, and why Gergis’s mode of argument ensures there’s nothing he can do about it. Koppelman’s arguments on the merits of the marriage issue are half-baked and poorly organized, but his reasoning on why Gergis’s approach can’t reach people is well thought out, lucid, and (in my opinion) profoundly right.

As Koppelman explains, all of Gergis’s talk about “conjugal union,” “coitus,” “reproduction,” and “the common good” comes across as obscure, irrelevant, and alienating. Koppelman shrewdly devotes chunks of his time to reading passages from Gergis’s book; he knows its descriptions of sexuality and marriage come across to the audience as bizarre. Even though the arguments are true—indeed, they are ironclad and unanswerable to anyone who accepts their initial premise—they are nonetheless driving people away from Gergis’s position rather than towards it.

To me, “conjugal union” sounds like some kind of cosmic phenomenon from Star Trek: “When the positronic wave signatures of the isotropic energy fields are aligned, they achieve a state of conjugal union.” “Spock, I’m a doctor, not a particle physicist!” Every time the leading advocates of marriage use this alien terminology, another young American goes over to the other side.

Backlash Forming

So a backlash is forming against natural law. Some marriage advocates are returning to scriptural arguments. They rarely appeal to the severe commands and condemnations of Scripture; more often, they frame their case in terms of broader Christian themes. Douglas Wilson, for example, draws on scriptural images and narratives in order to convey the beauty of the Christian view of marriage. Others emphasize Christianity’s historic role in moving marriage away from its ancient basis in property management and the subjugation of women toward a more humane, civilizing institution.

To see why these approaches fail, consider Peter Leithart’s recent comments on a debate between Wilson and Andrew Sullivan. The objection from religious freedom and cultural pluralism is by itself sufficient to defeat Wilson’s arguments. The debate about marriage is a debate about public policy and the shared American culture, not theology or Christian ethics. “People have to be convinced that social institutions should participate in and reflect some sort of cosmic order,” Leithart observes. “Who believes that these days?”

But at an even deeper level, the audience doesn’t even understand Wilson’s claims, in the same way it doesn’t understand natural law. Like Gergis, Wilson is talking gibberish. Those who grew up in the mainstream cultural environment of the past half-century lack the mental reference points to interpret scriptural and theological language. “Does the vocabulary we have make any sense to the public at large?” Leithart asks.

Because these strategies aren’t working, more and more people are turning pessimistic about the future of marriage. Even the once-unflappable Maggie Gallagher titled her final syndicated column “A Farewell to Optimism.” Leithart opens his post with this cheerful thought: “It will take nothing short of a cultural revolution for biblical arguments to be heard, much less to become persuasive.” By the time he closes, he is flirting with despair:

In the end, these dilemmas may not matter. Perhaps Christians are called to do no more than speak the truth without worrying about persuasiveness. Perhaps we have entered a phase in which God has closed ears, so that whatever we say sounds like so much gibberish. We can depend on the Spirit to give ears as he pleases.

The turn to pessimism is wrong. Neither God’s sovereignty nor the failure of our current strategies is an excuse for fatalism. God is still at work in the world, and despair is a sin—it denies God’s providence.

The institutions of human civilization are God’s instruments. Our job is to play those instruments. If we’re not making the right music, we shouldn’t blame the instruments. We should figure out a better way to play. We’ll explore the better way of playing in my second article on the new fight for marriage.

  • Jon Sheets

    You have great points, I look forward to your next article. I am curious to hear your thoughts on the parallels between American arguments over slavery and arguments over marriage. Are we experiencing a similar cultural turmoil?

    • Greg Forster

      It’s certainly similar in that we are using the same words to mean different things. If I remember correctly, at one point Lincoln commented that the root cause of the war was that one side said “liberty” meant the right to eat your bread from the sweat of another man’s face, while the other side said “liberty” meant no one had the right to eat his bread from the sweat of another man’s face.

  • Thomas Burris

    “To me, “conjugal union” sounds like some kind of cosmic phenomenon from Star Trek: “When the positronic wave signatures of the isotropic energy fields are aligned, they achieve a state of conjugal union.” “Spock, I’m a doctor, not a particle physicist!” Every time the leading advocates of marriage use this alien terminology, another young American goes over to the other side.”

    It is unfortunate that our consumer culture has led to many young Americans to simply digest what they see from media outlets and their own limited experience over inquiry and curiosity to better understand all sides of an argument. Reason seems truly dead. We are in desperate need of a cultural revolution.

    • Anar

      We also need some good old fashion contexualization and creative communication. The fault cannot be placed entirely on people not paying attention (people pay attention to lots of things); it is the responsibility of the speaker to communicate ideas in a compelling way. The rhetoric of people with the more loving message for whatever reason just stick to logos and ethos and disregard pathos and kairos. This is one of the major clashes.

      • Greg Forster

        Yes, I’ve been saying this for years, and not just in the context of marriage. As C.S. Lewis remarked, when we send missionaries to the Bantus we expect them to learn Bantu, but we send missionaries to the English without requiring them to speak English the way the English people speak it.

    • Greg Forster

      Thomas Burris, reason’s not dead, only sleeping. We can wake it up. But you can’t awaken a sleeping person by telling him to wake up. You have to do something else, something that can affect those faculties that are still responsive even when he’s asleep.

  • Lori

    If marriage is the union of a man and woman before God for life–which I agree with–why is same-sex marriage seen as more of a threat than the marriage of two non-believers (which is far, far more common)? Or marriage with the promise of easy divorce? I wonder why we single out the aspect that, honestly, has the least impact demographically (about 1-3% of the population is gay, according to the best studies, and many do not want to marry), and not the far more prevalent threats to traditional marriage of marriage that doesn’t include God and easy divorce?

    • Phil

      Lori: “easy divorce” is a myth like, say, easy amputation… it only looks easy to those who don’t have to go through it nor live with the consequences. Divorce can take years (often many times longer than that courtship), cost more than the wedding, and take years to recover from. When you say “easy divorce” it strikes me like easy miscarriage, easy amputation, or easy bankruptcy or some such; you clearly have no idea what you’re talking about, nor any concerns for those you’re targeting. In your outrage as divorce, like most sin(*), please remember that you’re dealing with wounded folks.

      Before the days of so-called “no fault” divorce, the burden of proof for divorce has people ruining each others’ lives with often spurious allegations of “abuse” (whatever that meant in that context), neglect, adultery, etc. As system that *requires* someone to be guilty is just a setup for scape-goating and rampant injustice of flagrant false testimony. We see this live on today in current child custody battles, where such claims are tossed around as gambits to defeat the opposing ex-spouse. The solution is worse than the problem.

      Finally, divorce is nothing like homosexual lifestyle. The former is regulated, and in one case (Ezra 10) commanded, whereas the latter springs from behavior that God *always* calls heinous sin.

      (*) Note: I’m not saying all divorce is sin, or else I’d be accusing God of sin (Jer. 3:8) and commending sin (Ezra 10). But only to say that divorce always results from someone’s sin and was not intended as a part of God’s plan for our lives, though Biblically granted in some cases.

      • Greg Forster

        Phil, you’re right that the legal system before we adopted no-fault divorce had real and serious problems. This is precisely why no-fault divorce was adopted; people were hoping to escape those problems. I think it’s now clear that the cure was worse than the disease. Surely there are alternatives to simply re-instituting the old system? I feel confident that the ingenuity of the American people is sufficient to discover a happy medium between regulatory overreach and anarchy.

        • Phil

          Hi Greg, thanks for taking the time to reply. I do not feel that no-fault should be repealed. We have no-requirements marriages, and to be consistent, we have no-requirements (i.e., “no-fault”) divorce. The state, then, is little more than a civil registration service, on both ends of the arrangement. Under the former system of requiring fault, the accusations flew, and people were found “at fault” based on the bare minimum standard of evidence in civil law — a mere preponderance of the evidence. This system was ripe for abuse by the wealthier, smarter party. Private investigators were hired (it was quite a racket) and accusations flew, with the one with the most money, best “evidence” and/or investigators prevailing. A abandoned stay-at-home mom with little or no post-separation income didn’t have a much chance against her bread-winning husband. Worst, as in child custody today, abuse accusations flew fast and furious, too.

          Example: Imagine you’re a woman in a church (living under the fault-finding/fault-requiring system that you’re advocating) and your six-figure salaried husband has just “proven” to the court that you were unfaithful. How is the church to respond to such a “ruling on the evidence” by a court? Church discipline? Public shame? Oh, and don’t forget the supposedly “at fault” party often lost big time in the final settlement, whether really guilty or simply on the losing end of a higher caliber legal assault. I could play out 100 difference scenarios of abuse and legal absurdities that finally made everyone involved — including then-governor Ronald Reagan, who signed the measure! — recognized the untenuous mess for what it was.

          Equally important: Jesus’ time they HAD at-fault divorce, and even them man’s solution was the same: broaden the “causes” and the men abused the system and their (ex-wives) through abandonment — all with judicial “sanction” under their at-fault system. It didn’t work then, it didn’t work a generation ago, and it won’t work in the future. Jesus, who lived and preached under an at-fault divorce system, said “hard hearts” cause divorce, not lack of legislative or judicial oversight. I get very concerned when I hear fellow Christians start to sound like Statist leftists who always want another ban and more nanny state oversight to cure some social ill of the human heart.

          Finally, although no “fault” has to be found to grant a dissolution of marriage, make no mistake: there is plenty of fault finding and behavior judging beyond that. There’s nothing “easy” about it. I simply ask that you not advocating restoring the injustices of a bygone era. If you want to restore anything, restore us to the days when the church, not the State, was all that was needed to govern marriage.

          PS: I just re-read my initial post. My apologies for the rushing-off-to-work typos.

          • Douglas Johnson

            I second Mike. Great argument.

          • Scott

            I third Mike. Especially the last sentance. I’d like to see the State exit the marriage license business.

      • Mike

        Wow Phil. Great comment.

    • Greg Forster

      Lori, I agree we should deemphasize gay marriage. The real problem here is no-fault divorce. Gay marriage is plausible to people and the alternative is not because we have now raised two successive generations in a country where marriage is, not just in theory but in the actual institutional practice of the law, just a meaningless piece of paper. Of course they can’t understand why you wouldn’t extend it to gay couples!

      Marriage of unbelievers is a different issue. Like the rain that falls on the just and the unjust, marriage is a creation ordinance that God has given to the entire human race. We have no right to deny our unbelieving neighbors what God has given them. Christians are called not to marry unbelievers but that does not impact the civil law or the practice of the human community outside the church.

      • Phil #2


        I am not sure why you call marriage “a meaningless piece of paper.” I suppose, mostly, for rhetorical effect.

        But I see two problems with this

        1) I don’t think the vast, vast majority of people think of marriage this way (so it seems to be unnecessarily weakening your point–and I certainly don’t think the law views marriage as “a meaningless piece of paper”) and

        2) it is not, literally, true for states that still recognize common law marriage. In those states, no paper necessary. All you have to do is 1) believe your self to be married and 2) hold yourself out to be married. And suddenly, “poof”–you’re married. [I always thought there was something majestic about common law marriage–the triumph of lived experience over picayune legalisms.]

  • Lisa Kay

    Great article. I’m eagerly anticipating part 2.

  • Mat

    The best argument for secular consumption seems to be coming from France — the rights of children (to have a mother and a father) trump the right to children. In addition to Scripture and Natural Law, they appeal to the UN’s declaration of children’s rights.

    • Greg Forster

      Yes, that comports exactly with my observation that reproduction is the reason it’s legitimate for the state to institutionalize marriage. The difference between the American and French contexts is that Americans aren’t as comfortable allowing the state to act against parents in the name of the child’s rights. For legitimate and important reasons, Americans prefer to assume the parents are more likely to properly protect the child’s rights than the state. In general that’s a sound principle – that’s why I support school choice, for example – but in the case of divorce it creates problems. For the American context we need to transcend rights language and go deeper. I’ll get more into this in part 2.

  • Stan McCullars

    America is under God’s judgment. Many in America have been given over to a debased mind. There is no strategy of argumentation that can change that.

    • Scott

      The whole world is under God’s judment. That doesn’t provide an excuse for pessimism or disengagement. Carry Paul’s thought forward in Romans and he calls for the prolamation of the gospel.

  • Anar

    Getting accurate but also compelling terms and phrases is important. How about “organic marriage” instead of “conjugal union”?

    I like to basically say, “Protect the children. Keep marriage equally organic for all.”

    • Greg Forster

      “Organic” – very hip. I like it! This is the kind of thinking we need.

  • Nathan

    I’ve been reading blogs for 8 years and I don’t know if I have ever anticipated a part II so much. Greg, I fear you will be letting me down… : )

    Here’s a recent post I did on this topic:

    I wonder if this is the direction you will be going in?…

    I’ve read with great interest the debate surrounding David Bentley Hart’s recent take down of natural law theory and also this excellent piece from the other day:


    • Nathan

      When I guess about the direction you might be going in, I highlight this quote from Frederica Mathewes-green:

      “there is just a primeval reality to heterosexual marriage, and it will eventually be seen. Wont stop any gay marriages, but will just dawn on people that there is an ineradicable difference. Nothing anyone can do to hasten the moment.”

      Combine this reality with organic eco-friendliness and “sustainability” (Jonathan Last’s What to Expect…) and a positive attitude and we have your second post…? : )


    • Greg Forster

      If you expect me to deliver the best thing you’ve read on a blog in eight years, then either I will let you down or you have been reading the wrong blogs. But I promise to deliver the best I have to give, and I hope you’ll find it (at minimum) a constructive starting point for the next conversation we need to have. Thanks for your high praise!

  • Kenton

    Neither natural law nor scripture are convincing to a secular culture that doesn’t hold the same premise as we do.

    1) Our natural law argument is premised on reproduction. We add to that philosophical abstractions about society and the common good. But the issue isn’t that they don’t use reason: they do. Their premise is simply different. Individual choice IS the common good, and if marriage exists, it does so primarily for the good of the committed individuals, not for society or future children. Furthermore, their natural law states that homosexual attraction is natural and historical, and therefore it should be permissible. So the issue isn’t that they don’t use natural law or reason, it’s simply that they have a different premise. The fact that they aren’t advocating the elimination of heterosexual marriage also gives them some advantage (as they are the people who wouldn’t be contributing to societal reproduction anyway). Not saying that their arguments are right, but they are quite rational.

    2) Scripture is our only absolute basis for rejecting the legitimacy of homosexuality. And as has been stated, its widespread legal application has been ruled out by religious pluralism and the secular nature of our government (secular meaning religiously neutral, not anti-religious as it is culturally).

    There is something that we should be far more concerned about, as it relates to society and defining sexuality: transgender issues. The only reason I point this out is because the distinction between male and female, and man and woman, is fundamental to society (and even to marriage). If that becomes blurred or even irrelevant, then how we define marriage won’t even matter.

    As for how we engage the world with regard to marriage and culture in general, I think it’s apparent that we’re going to have to go back to the way of the New Testament, where churches were communities that were quite literally separate from the world, distinct with regard to belief and practice, and where evangelism called people out of the existing society and culture, into the kingdom of God; rather than attempts to preserve Judeo-Christian-like cultural institutions.

    • Greg Forster

      When you say “scripture is our only absolute basis for rejecting the legitimacy of homosexuality,” I think a lot turns on what you mean by “absolute.” Certainly scripture is the only place where we find an authoritative verbal revelation from God on the matter. However, let’s not create the impression that down through the ages of human history, only Christians have rejected homosexuality. Aristotle’s condemnation of homosexual relations is quite strong; I’m told Confucius’ is, too, although I haven’t read up on that. Today, the Dalai Lama has the passages condemning homosexuality edited out of the western editions of his books. Moreover, even societies with relatively relaxed attitudes about homosexuality would never, ever countenance mixing up such relations with marriage. The whole idea of gay marriage stands not in opposition to Christianity, but in opposition to the whole history of human civilization.

      On another topic, don’t think that the church can stay for long in an isolated cultural bubble. Times of extreme persecution (such as in the first century) may require this, but it is never a long-term solution. God makes human beings as cultural creatures and we cannot go for long separated from our cultural roots.

    • Earl

      Separation may be best. Ecclesiastical marriage for Christians may be the solution. Even secession from the union may be required. These people don’t want us anymore. They hate us. They have it all figured out. Maybe we should give them what they want: to just go away?

      • Greg Forster

        Two answers to your final question:

        1) Because we love our neighbors too much to wash our hands of them.

        2) Because we are part of this society whether we want to be or not. Separation would be an attempt to live out a fantasy – a fantasy with obvious attractions (who wouldn’t prefer not to have to fight all these battles?) but in the end one with no more grounding in the real state of things than the fantasy of no-fault divorce.

        • Scott

          Plus it buys into the Enlightement worldview that says human problems of a spiritual nature can be fixed with institutions, political processes, and so forth. Enlightenment liberalism holds to a very different set of assumptions about human nature, a different telos, and different metaphysics than the gospel.

  • NathanK

    I agree with much of what you’ve said, and so would many, including many of those involved in this ongoing debate that you quote throughout the article. The crux is: where do we go from here? I’d have preferred it if you addressed it head on, rather than leaving it for a part 2. I look forward to reading it.

    One quibble. I don’t believe Leithart or others are anywhere near dispair. One can take a realistic, eyes-open assessment of the culture at large and come to a similar conclusion. If that’s where we’re placed, so be it; we will continue to be faithful, and content, while hoping for the underlying salvation that we know is what’s truly needed.

    • Greg Forster

      Well, one of the blog posts I linked to is by my good friend Dan Kelly, who says point blank “marriage is dead.” I think he’s wrong, but he’s not the only person I’ve heard this from. And when Maggie Gallagher – of all people! – titles her final column “Farewell to Optimism,” we have a real problem on our hands.

  • Michael Snow

    Yes, we are losing. There is no full scale battle. Is the average Christian equipped to understand the basics of love, prayer, and forgiveness as distinct from their perversions by the Zeitgeist? No.

  • Earl

    As a veteran and a father, I have struggled with the demise of my beloved Corps and Country. What to do? How to feel? I have to look back on the time before Constantine in Rome… to the gospels. The answer is: we Christians have no allegiance to the state. We are pilgrims here. That is very hard for me to state. They hate us. Our men come back from (200 years of) defending their mothers and wives and daughters from barbarians around the world, and our daughters tell us that the U.S. is a “rape culture.”

    Why defend another dead institution?

    • Greg Forster

      We have no allegiance to the state, which Paul called “God’s minister to you for good” and to whose citizenship he appealed without hesitation?

    • Douglas Johnson

      I’m sympathetic. But for you (and me) perhaps the fight is the thing. I don’t agree that the prospects for marriage are bleak, but let me assume for a moment that they are. Done deal; it’s over. In fact let’s say you are the last man standing. You have a choice, either you keep on your armor and fight no matter the odds, or you take it off and join the other side. The temptation, to which I sometimes succumb, is to say that I’m only a Christian and then to wash my hands of the state. But that’s what the worst elements in government have been trying to get Christians to do for the last 2,000 years. Like Peter at the coal fire, the state will come to you sooner or later and ask–in one form or another–if you are with Him.

      So, if you think are you going to lose,if you see an army of Perez Hilton’s coming at you in tanks while you stand there holding a .22, do not put down your weapon and do not take off your amour. Your allegiance to the state is this: keep fighting no matter what, keeping in mind that there are good ways to fight and bad ways to fight.

      • Kenton

        Of course, the two important questions are:

        What exactly are we fighting? and How do we fight?

        • Douglas Johnson

          With regard to marriage my quick answer right now is that “it is in the best interests of every child to have a mother and father, and at the very least, nothing should get in the way of that.” And so that is both what we are fighting, and by saying that, how we fight. Marriage cannot be redefined if it is in the best interests of every child to have a mother and a father, which is why when marriage is redefined this happens (as it did in Canada and Iowa). I would also always have this story at the ready.

          Those on the front lines to redefine marriage understand this, but do all they can not to say it. To those who aren’t sure what to do, they need to hear something they already know is true and to realize that this is what the fight ultimately comes down to. At least that’s my two cents and I look forward to hearing what Greg has to say.

          But as Christians we have to fight as well, but it’s a different fight. Everything we do is supposed to answer the question “Who do you say that I am?” And we want others to answer that question the same way we do. We can’t argue with our opponents. Why? How often in your life have you ever been in an intellectual debate with someone and stopped at some point and said “wait…you are totally right and I am completely wrong!” It just doesn’t happen. Christians must fight by making others want whatever it is we have.

          • Phil #2

            With regard to marriage my quick answer right now is that “it is in the best interests of every child to have a mother and father, and at the very least, nothing should get in the way of that.”

            The problem is that there is no proof of this statement.

            I would also always have this story at the ready.

            This story seems to me that the kid was asked about why it was ok to be the child of a divorced parent. He reasoned that he came out ok, even though he didn’t have a father. He concluded from that that fathers aren’t necessary. I don’t see how this is so devastating to the same sex argument, or even relevant.

            • Douglas Johnson

              Phil #2,

              Sadly, one demographic of our culture has already lived through the experience of a fatherless homes for two or three generations, and it is little surprise to me that this most politically liberal demographic also opposes the redefinition of marriage. There’s your proof. The only difference with redefinition is that we want to move the experiment from fatherless homes to motherless homes.

              You correctly remember the story of the kid on the plane. Actually, he was asked “Do you think you will matter to your kids?” and sticking with the logic of his argument on redefining marriage, he answered that he wouldn’t matter to his kids as long as he got himself out of the picture early enough.

              When we talk about children, people might think this only applies to cases of same-sex couples adopting a child and denying that child a mother or a father (not that there’s anything so “only” about that). What the kid on the plane makes clear is that adoption is the very least of it. It is fundamental to redefinition that having a mother and a father doesn’t matter. What will a 20-year-old guy who gets a girl pregnant do with that lesson? That is devastating, and I would argue that is why black Americans who have already lived through the horrors of that lesson on a generational scale are so opposed to redefinition.

            • Phil #2

              I don’t follow your responses, but thanks for taking the time to respond!

    • Douglas Johnson

      One more point. In Luther’s commentary on Galatians he quoted Bernard as saying that the church is in the best position when it is under attack from all sides, and in the worst position when it is most at peace. If Bernard was right, then things are looking very, very good!

      • Greg Forster

        Amen to that! Now you’re speaking my language. My only caveat would be to make sure we remember that the fight is spiritual and not human – we don’t want to think of ourselves simply as the “good guys” whose job is to defeat the “bad guys.” In a fallen world, we often have to decide between seeking victory for a just cause (like marriage) and seeking a visible defeat for our opponents. If we can force worldly powers to co-opt our position and take the credit for it, that’s a win for our position over the position we’re against, even if it’s not a visible win for us over our opponents. We should prioritize victory for the position, not for ourselves.

  • Douglas Johnson


    I was in a debate on marriage the other day and a gay fellow with adopted children was slamming his fist on the table about how his estate taxes would be unfairly handled and his kids victimized because he can’t get married. (His claim was challenged by financial planners in the room and he eventually let that point dropped.)

    I said I think his focus on the best interests of his children is good, but I also said that it is in the best interest of every child to have a mother and a father and nothing should get in the way of that. The room was generally supportive of my opponent but once he started arguing that it makes no difference whether a child has a mother and a father, the wheels fell off.

    Folks in the room were all willing to shrug their shoulders at the redefinition of marriage, but they told my opponent he should really put aside arguing that the ideal isn’t for every child to have a mother and a father. Little did they know that the whole argument to redefine marriage falls apart if we regard that as an ideal. But my opponent understood that very well.

    I think I’ve read just about every prominent article and book in this debate, and I don’t think I ever read anything more persuasive than this quick story with the kid on the plane (click here).

    But in the end these ARE arguments, and people aren’t persuaded by their opponents arguments. The best book I’ve read so far this year is a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davison titled “Imaginative Apologetics.” I think, Greg, this book is the sort of thing you are talking about. While not one essay mentions marriage, I think this approach is one we need to study.

    I look forward to your next essay.

    • Greg Forster

      This is just the direction we need to move in. The next step will be developing an “imaginative apologetic” (haven’t read the book but I love the phrase) that leads people to see the connections that you and your opponent both saw but the audience did not – that redefining marriage is at odds with valuing the presence of both parents in the home raising the child.

  • Luma Simms

    Dr. Forster, I haven’t read Gergis’ book, I have, however, read Love & Economics by Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse. She appeals to the Libertarian mind on the importance of the issues surrounding marriage, family, and children.

    “My ideal world is a world in which the bast majority of the population understands the importance of family life, for its own good and for the good of the greater society. My aspiration is a world in which people continue to support the ethos of loving families, even when they do not live up to the demands of love themselves.” —Jennifer Roback Morse, PhD, Love & Economics: It takes a family to raise a village

    The two basic problems facing our post–modern American culture are of language and presuppositions. As a nation we are united in neither. And that is where we need to start. There is no shared understanding of Natural Law or the Christian ethic. Upon his return to England after his missionary work, Lesslie Newbigin noted that the Church was still approaching the culture as if it had Christian presuppositions, but the culture had lost this. Hence, the Church could not communicate to the culture. America has been in this position for a long time now. It does no good to wring our hands over the “lost Judeo–Christian culture.” There is no “reclaiming” as far as I can see. There is, however, the work of going back to the beginning. A study of how early Christians lived and worked within the framework of their pluralistic Roman culture would be helpful right now.

    Excellent article. I look forward to the second post.

    • Greg Forster

      Wonderful book; highly recommended. Thanks!

  • Laurie Higgins

    I’m very much looking forward to the follow-up to this post.

    That said, I disagree with some of the things Greg seems to be saying. I agree that Girgis, Anderson, and George’s book “What is Marriage” can be challenging, but there are ways to express their ideas in less intellectually formidable and foreign ways.

    One of the great aspects of the book is that they get people to think about why marriage–even to most marriage “revisionists”– is still binary, and ideally permanent and exclusive. If marriage is severed from any inherent connection to reproductive potential, there is no rational reason for it to be binary or permanent and exclusive. Those ideas are intellectually accessible and may make some people think more deeply about why marriage IS a sexually complementary institution.

    I would agree that in our cultural place–one that Neil Postman warned about–we are at a distinct “narrative” disadvantage. The most compelling emotional “arguments” that supporters of “organic marriage” have revolve around children. No one asks “progressive” lawmakers if they believe children have any inherent rights to know (and be known by) and be raised by their biological parents. I would like to hear Dick Durbin or Obama say “No, children do not have any such inherent rights.”

    We WILL have emotionally compelling narratives in another twenty years when children who were deliberately deprived of either a mother or father and who were raised in disordered family structures start telling them. It’s too bad that these children will have to suffer before they can tell their stories.

    • Greg Forster

      When you write that “What Is Marriage?” needs to be translated into more accessible language and modes of argument, you are agreeing with me, not disagreeing. Thanks for your comments!

  • David

    Does anyone know of a well researched, scholarly work on either a history of marriage in other cultures, or a history of the role of the state (government) in marriage?

  • Cindy

    We will never “win” the debate to the unbelieving world about biblical definition of marriage between one man and one woman until we also promote and strengthen the heterosexual marriage ideal, its primary purposes and ultimate benefits. Marriage is the seedbed for the purpose of ensuring strong and stable future societies through the procreative and nurturing process. Even if a couple is unable to have children, all marriages should promote and perpetuate that model for ensuring the strong marital bond between husband and wife for the sake of society’s children. The concept of marriage has already been weakened and diluted by so many divorces, and couples so afraid or don’t feel the need or even desire to commit, or often that marriage is “just a piece of paper” that they end up living together without or before marrying (which also, btw, as studies have shown, markedly increases the chances of divorce should they ever marry). With so many children being born to unwed mothers, or are being cared for by divorced or single parents, even as they struggle daily to provide and care for them in very wonderful ways, “drive-by” parenting by the non-custodial parent does not provide the best nurturing that a child can receive. Gay marriage further weakens and dilutes the importance of the husband/wife relationship and its procreative purpose by inserting itself in the mix. Hence, the term, “adulterate”. Several studies have concluded not only that children benefit most from the daily nurturing of their married mothers and fathers, but they also benefit best by being cared for daily from the different qualities of both mother and father just by virtue of their personalities and qualities inherent in their own sex. The heterosexual, one man, one woman marriage model provides the strongest bond between mothers and fathers, husband and wives, also provides the best bond and caring for the children of that union through their generation and beyond. What is best for children is best for society by ensuring a strong and stable one for the next generation.That ideal is what should be in the state’s interest.

  • Cindy

    I might ask as well, has the church lost the “war” on sexual purity, which I believe, is at the heart of the weakened state and importance of the one man, one woman marriage ideal?

  • Cindy

    Since there is no ability to edit my above comment, and upon further research, I have been unable to find any in-depth nor exhaustive research regarding the gender of parents having an effect on a child’s well being and/or its future as an adult. Therefore, I feel the need to revise my above statement: “Several studies have concluded not only that children benefit most from the daily nurturing of their married mothers and fathers, but they also benefit best by being cared for daily from the different qualities of both mother and father just by virtue of their personalities and qualities inherent in their own sex” to state, “…and although no exhaustive studies have been done to prove that parental gender matters, I would argue that children do benefit even further by being cared for daily from the different qualities of both mother and father just by virtue of the personalities and qualities inherent or innate of their own gender.” If such a study exists that addresses the importance of parents genders, I would certainly think it should brought forefront to the marriage and family issues. If anyone knows of any, please post or direct me.

    • Douglas Johnson

      My own inclinations is to stay away from studies, but here is the Regnerus study that is the most exhaustive (in terms of data) of it’s type so far. I haven’t read it.

      And not to put too fine a point on it but we have plenty of data through the generations showing the impact of broken families, which are most commonly fatherless. Proponents of redefinition would baulk at my comparing a fatherless family to two lesbian “mothers,” as if the only problem with having no father is the lack of one caregiver. But if it’s a numbers game then three caregivers would be superior to any natural family, and four caregivers better yet.

      I was talking to someone at church the other day and I said, “if a man unfurled a chart with lines and arrows and logical symbols proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that he loved his wife, the first thing I would think is that this guy doesn’t love his wife.”

      Even if all the best data shows we are in the right (and from what I’ve read about it, it does) a study-war is not the way to go because when you know the consequences of your answers, there is just no way to do unbiased work on the topic.

      I’m also reminded of a quote by the communist spy turned American patriot, Whittaker Chambers: “[Communism’s] first commandment is found, not in the Communist Manifesto, but in the first sentence of the Physics Primer: ‘All of the progress of mankind to date results from the making of careful measurements.'”

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