Recently, the National Organization for Marriage posted an article from a young Catholic thinker named Brandon Vogt which supposed to analyze the ten reasons that same-sex marriage advocates give to bring LGBT people into the fold of civil marriage. As a marriage equality advocate (heck, as one who is in a marriage with another man), I found myself vehemently disagreeing with most, but not all, of what Mr. Vogt stated. Yet because I found the article – and the arguments that Mr. Vogt made – compelling, I have decided to analyze each point that he made, and instead show why we must extend marriage rights to same sex couples. Realize that Mr. Vogt has set up his inquiry as making a statement that many marriage equality advocates make, then supposedly refuting the statement.
Mr. Vogt first point in in reference to marriage equality advocates stating; “Marriage has evolved throughout history, so it can change again.”
Different cultures have treated marriage differently. Some promoted arranged marriages. Others tied marriage to dowries. Still others saw marriage as a political relationship through which they could forge family alliances.
But all these variations still embraced the fundamental, unchanging essence of marriage. They still saw it, in general, as a public, lifelong partnership between one man and one woman for the sake of generating and raising children.
This understanding predates any government or religion. It’s a pre-political, pre-religious institution evident even in cultures that had no law or faith to promote it.
Yet, even supposing the essence of marriage could change, would that mean it should? We know from other areas of life such as medical research and nuclear physics that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you ought. After all, such action may not be ethical or serve the common good. Even if this argument had historical basis, it would not necessarily be a good reason to change the meaning of marriage.
There are two important things to recognize in Mr. Vogt’s response, things that will be important to remember as we analyze other arguments that Mr. Vogt makes. First, in this paragraph, he is acknowledging that marriage has had differing purposes in different historical contexts. For this I applaud him, for it would be intellectually specious to argue that marriage has always had one purpose, when history clearly teaches otherwise. Marriage was clearly used as a method of establishing political control or alliance as well as was an easy method of transferring property or inheritance rights. Outside of a religious context, marriage can be seen as an economic or political union for the benefit of (historically) males. Additionally, Mr. Vogt is semi-correct in asserting that “in general” marriage was viewed as a method of “generating and raising children”. Yes, propagating your lineage has been an important aspect of marriage throughout the centuries (for property right transfers), but it has not been the only or even sole reason for marriage as a legally blessed covenant. To go on and assert, after listing the other reasons marriage has been legally bless, that one historical reason (procreation of children) is THE reason why society has recognized marriage overlooks the other fundamental reasons that has marriage existed in society. Based upon that logic, I could just as easily claim that the male ruling class viewed marriage solely as a way for them to dominate women, and thus they ensured that it was legally recognized. Though Mr. Vogt can argue that procreation was an important part of why society has historically recognized marriage, it is clearly not the only reason why we have recognized the institution.
Second, Mr. Vogt has acknowledged the societal aspect of marriage (as opposed to government) when he says that, “This understanding [procreation purposes of marriage] predates any government or religion. It’s a pre-political, pre-religious institution evident even in cultures that had no law or faith to promote it.” This admission by Mr. Vogt is important, especially as we get to the points that he makes in his article. Though Mr. Vogt may not have realized the argument that he was making, in essence, he has asserted that society has a conceptualization of marriage and its purposes, and the law reflects that understanding. This is a very democratic perspective on culture and cultural values, and one which I have argued for in the past. This argument of societal understanding of an institution, and how the law reflects that understanding, will be important in the near future.
Yet, the main purpose of Mr. Vogt’s argument is to assert that marriage has mostly existed between one man and one woman. A simple look at history, even his own scriptures, can dispel this notion. Throughout history, polygamy and polyandry have been widely practiced, and those relationships legally recognized. In the comments section of his article, Mr. Vogt acknowledges this, yet tries to distinguish it by asserting that such marriages could be still viewed as “one man, one woman”. Yet this makes no sense. In a polygamous marriage for example, though you may be able to have this perspective from the woman (she is, in fact, only married to one man), this 1-1 ratio does not exist from the perspective of the man. He is in fact, legally married to multiple women; it is not one man, one woman. It is one man, multiple women. Though those women are not legally married to each other, the man is still married to all of them. So historically, even if we acknowledge the supremacy of procreation as a reason for marriage, marriage has not been a static institution and has in fact changed drastically over the centuries.
Finally, Mr. Vogt says that even if marriage does not have historical meaning, and has changed throughout history, that does not mean that we should change it now. Agreed. Yet the flip-side can also be true, that just because marriage has not been historically extended to same-sex couples, that does not mean that it shouldn't be. Arguing for or against tradition, though helpful, is not an adequate or intellectually stimulating exercise. Instead, we must argue WHY tradition is good or bad to support, based upon the knowledge that we now have about history and the institution that we are discussing.
I look forward to delving into the other nine marriage equality arguments, and Mr. Vogt's critique of them. I also look forward to your comments. Part two can be found here.