Every discussion of gay marriage should begin with a recognition of its historical radicalness, its exceptionality. Heterosexual marriage has been the fundamental unit of human sociability for thousands of years, a common thread running through otherwise disjunctive cultures and wide-ranging ethnic diversity. Wherever one lands on the issue of same-sex marriage, there can be no gainsaying its extraordinariness.
It’s also clear that same-sex marriage is a culmination of a long-brewing development, an unspooling of essential modern premises. The relentless logic of modernity is unrestrained individuality, the lonesome sovereignty of the singular person. The pith of matrimony is natural gregariousness, our completion as human beings through coupling. It was only a matter of time before the crashing tide of autonomy reached the shores of conjugal union, pitting the inviolability of the individual against the venerableness of the family. If anything, it is remarkable marriage has remained intact for so long, a testament to its profound allure even in a culture whose trends undermine it.
Traditionally, marriage wasn’t conceived as a conjoining of two individuals, but rather of two families. It was neither an expression of individuality nor even a constraint upon it: Individuality was too abstract and deracinated a notion to demand chastening. In this way, marriage stands as a vestige of the premodern universe, a time when social dependence was accepted as the central feature of communal life.
If individuality is now our central political category, consent is our chief moral one. But historically, consent was not understood as the crux of marriage. If anything, marriage was interpreted as a limitation on consent since the bonds of marriage could not be consensually dissolved. And since marriages were arranged by heads of families, to the extent that marriage was an expression of consent at all, it was the consent of families and not individuals.
This historical context complicates the dispute for both sides. First, it’s not clear why gay activists are all that interested in marriage as traditionally understood. They often declaim against the tyranny of bourgeois morality and the arbitrariness of the sexual tethers it imposes. Why do they want access to an institution they consider a tired exhibition of antiquated prejudice?
The typical answer is they want that access in the interests of equality. This itself is not an uncomplicated demand; the insistence on equal rights presupposes equal conditions, or in other words that gay marriage is, in all relevant aspects, the same as traditional marriage. But do even the defenders of gay marriage believe this? Do they accept the centrality of monogamy to marriage? Do they understand the connubial relationship as sanctified by God, forever infrangible, sub specie aeternitatis?
And why does the gay community pine for governmental benediction of their relationships? Shouldn’t they be against official or authoritative privileging of any union over another? The apparently irrepressible rationale of consent should legitimate any arrangement irrespective not only of gender but also number, purpose, and the like.
Why even assign special status to those who are serious? Isn’t the inclination, on both sides, to exalt gravity a dogmatic discrimination? Presumably, two (or seven) persons could freely consent to wed light-heartedly. After all, this is the gravamen of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Lawrence v. Texas: that the government has no right to ordain one autonomous relationship superior to another.
On the face of it, the argument for gay marriage almost seems conservative, in the sense that gays are seeking to participate in a conservative sacrament. But the thrust of gay marriage, powered by the exaltation of individuality and consent, leads to more libertarian conclusions, such as getting the government effectively out of the marriage business entirely. It could even point to an end to marriage itself, or to any conceptual corset that limits or certifies our irreducibly individual choices, that dares approve or regulate our social and libidinal impulses.
Gay marriage does not mean, at its core, equal access to marriage. It means the redefinition of marriage, its transvaluation. It means expanding and swelling marriage until it bursts at the seams, leaving something unrecognizable. For marriage is not really the prize, nor is equality. Behind the activist rhetoric of equal rights one sees the march of modernity itself, carrying its influence to one of the last quarters that stubbornly resist it.
The problem for defenders of traditional marriage is that marriage as we find it today isn’t that traditional. It has already been decisively transformed by the advancement of modernity’s twin ideals, individuality and consent. Divorce has become easy. Contraception, not gay marriage, sundered the connection between marriage and childbearing. Almost no one, even the staunchest defender of traditional marriage, thinks of it primarily as the union of two families.
And herein lies the problem in disentangling the knotty dispute of how to define marriage. Both parties to the debate tend to accept the cardinal elements of modern thought, which undermine traditional marriage. Both sides, when they unfurl their positions to their furthest reaches, end up with the libertarian retirement of marriage as an institution. They are fighting over a treasure neither truly understands nor wants. Whoever wins in the short term, traditional marriage may well be doomed.
The best hope for traditional marriage is that the current contest ignites searching reflection on its meaning and value as well as its tenuous residence in the house of modernity. In many respects, the United States has fared far better than Europe in at least forestalling what increasingly presents itself as inevitable. This provides some promise that within the American mind there resides the will thoughtfully to reconsider, and therefore to withstand, the otherwise thoughtless rejection of whatever wisdom our cultural inheritance contains.
Ivan Kenneally is editor in chief of Dailywitness.com.