Like many Americans, I have changed my mind on same-sex marriage—though my change of mind has gone the opposite way of most. My support for same-sex marriage was early and enthusiastic. In high school I wrote a research paper titled “Gay Marriage as a Constitutional and Human Right.” I was earnest and impassioned, motivated by a desire to see justice done and unsure of how or why anyone could disagree.
I triumphantly quoted J. S. Mill’s On Liberty, and cited Socrates in Plato’s Apology, about the limits of religious views on civic matters and the growth of our national wisdom, respectively. The arguments seemed clear. I agreed with former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, “society can no more deny a gay person access to the secular rights and religious sacraments because of his homosexuality than it can reinstate Jim Crow” (“A Victory for Liberty in California,” Newsweek, 11 August 2010).
Then something changed. As I entered college, I found myself being drawn from social democratism to Burkean conservatism thanks to British philosopher Roger Scruton. But I still held to the consent-based or revisionist view of marriage (where it is an intense romantic union between two people), rather than the conjugal view (where marriage is the comprehensive union of a man and a woman, sealed in coitus, and ordered towards family life) defended by Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George in their book, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (NY: Encounter Books, 2012). The turning point came when I read a paper by Scruton and Phillip Blond (“Marriage: Union for the future or contract for the present,” Respublica, 2011). They distinguished how a romantic union between two individuals of the same sex could have the same level of intensity as that between two individuals of the opposite sex. Yet they said that the conjugal view of marriage did not see exclusivity of romance as the telos of marriage. Rather, it “extends beyond the individuals who marry to the children they hope to create and the society they wish to shape.”
I came to realize the institution of marriage is not merely a private contract between two partners. Rather, it is a natural, social, and civil partnership in the living present between the past and future. Because of the inherent procreative capacity in the conjugal act, the union is also the union of the generations, of all society. And the interested members in this partnership are, as Edmund Burke said, “not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” The state rightly takes a particular interest in this type of relationship.
I’ve changed my mind on marriage, but I retain the conviction shared by almost all of my peers who disagree: that marriage is important, that it is worth contesting, worth extending to all those who can enter into it. Despite our shared opinion of marriage’s importance, we lack the moral grammar to have meaningful public debate on civil marriage. That Americans have so recently (and so suddenly) changed their views on what makes a marriage becomes more understandable when one considers that they lacked common moral principles (say, those of natural law theory) with which to discuss something like marriage. Due to the cultural and legal changes of the sexual revolution such as no-fault divorce, my generation has been given a different “tradition of practical rationality,” to borrow from Alasdair MacIntyre, by which to analyze moral and legal issues.
Given this, it may seem reasonable to despair of trying to persuade my peers. Yet I observe the rapid growth of Anscombe Societies and the many conversations I have had that helped reshape opinions even when they have not changed minds. In conversation with my fellow college students, I have found the best course is to clarify what the actual issue is. Many today suffer from what I like to call the Princess Bride Syndrome: They think marriage is about romantic union, while sexual complementarity is an afterthought. As the film’s wedding priest begins comically, “marriage is what brings us together,” and only upon the insistence of the evil Prince Humperdinck, does he mention “man and wife” at the end. Pointing out that this afterthought of sexual complementarity is the actual crux of the debate has for me removed barriers to discussion and given me a chance to put pebbles in the shoes of others—so that eventually a person takes it out and says, “Yeah, I had not considered it that way before.”
That is how I changed my mind. Along with many other students today, I am one small piece of evidence that my generation’s perspective on marriage can evolve.
This article was adapted from its original appearance on First Things (www.firstthings.com).