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March 04th 2009 print

Bill Muehlenberg

What Marriage Means

David Blankenhorn is a world authority on the institution of marriage. One of the biggest debates concerning marriage today is whether we should expand the concept to include same-sex unions. Blankenhorn thinks not, and has penned a book to explain why.

David Blankenhorn is a world authority on the institution of marriage. One of the biggest debates concerning marriage today is whether we should expand the concept to include same-sex unions. Blankenhorn thinks not, and has penned a book to explain why.

In The Future of Marriage (Encounter Books, 2007) he spends 300 pages in setting out the ‘no’ case for homosexual marriage. But he does so, pre-eminently, by making the ‘yes’ case for the institution of heterosexual marriage.

He first seeks to get a handle on what marriage is, and then show how it has been experienced over the centuries. The first half of the book is about what marriage is, and how it has developed. The second half deals with the challenge of same-sex marriage.

Blankenhorn recognises that a definition of marriage is a slippery affair, but after a close examination of the issue and how others have thought about it, he comes up with this helpful conceptualisation:

“In all or nearly all human societies, marriage is socially approved sexual intercourse between a woman and a man, conceived both as a personal relationship and as an institution, primarily such that any children resulting from the union are – and are understood by society to be – emotionally, morally, practically, and legally affiliated with both of the parents.”

In his overview of the history of marriage, he demonstrates what has been the universal belief about marriage: It reflects the fundamental belief that “for every child, a mother and a father”. Thus marriage is primarily about two things: the socially approved sexual intercourse between a woman and a man, and the protection and nurturing of the fruit of that relationship. Both are vital components of marriage, and must not be separated from it or from each other.

He argues that marriage is based on two universal and timeless basic rules: the rule of opposites (marriage is man-woman) and the rule of sex (marriage involves sexual intercourse). And even though it is difficult for moderns to get their head around this fact, sexual intercourse has always been about procreation, or at least its possibility.

Put at its simplest, “marriage is fundamentally about sex and reproduction”. And children born into married households are greatly advantaged. As such, “Marriage is society’s most pro-child institution.” The research on how child fare in a two-parent household cemented by marriage is now voluminous. No other type of relationship is as good for children as heterosexual marriage. Family structure, in other words, matters overwhelmingly for children.

And marriage is not just a private relationship; it is a public institution. Social institutions exist to meet fundamental human needs. The need for the institution of marriage arises because human beings are “sexually embodied creatures who everywhere reproduce sexually and give birth to helpless, socially needy offspring who remain immature for long periods of time and who therefore depend on the love and support of both of the parents who brought them into existence.”

So how does same-sex marriage fit into all this? First, it must be said that Blankenhorn is not unsympathetic to the arguments of homosexuals wanting marriage rights. He believes that basic human rights are important, and that all people must be treated with dignity. But he still believes that marriage is not something that can be redefined to include same-sex relationships.

His arguments against homosexual marriage are quite compelling. He argues that homosexual marriage fundamentally means transforming the institution of marriage. Even the various international human rights documents of today speak of the right to participate in the institution of marriage, but they do not “recognise the right to turn marriage into another word for any private adult relationship of choice”.

And given the intimate link between marriage and parenting, to change the institution of marriage is to change parenthood itself. Changing marriage changes marriage for everyone, and it will change parenthood for everyone. But as the research keeps telling us, that will be bad news for children. Says Blankenhorn, every child in the world has a right to a name, a nationality, and a mother and father.

In addition to the deinstitutionalisation of marriage, same-sex marriage would “require us in both law and culture to deny the double origin of the child.” Says Blankenhorn, “I can hardly imagine or more serious violation”.

Blankenhorn then goes on to list some 23 possible positive consequences of legalising same-sex unions, then lists 24 possible negative outcomes. He also offers 12 possible neutral outcomes. A major reason for all this is to demonstrate that this idea being proposed is a very big one indeed, with profound consequences.

As but one example, if we accept the logic of same-sex marriage, how can we possibly oppose the logic of, say, bisexual, polyamorous marriage? If we can redefine marriage in terms of sexual orientation, “why not permit a bisexual woman to marry one man and one woman?”

The consequences of such a revolutionary change will be far-reaching, and at this point, perhaps unmeasurable. But the changes will be monumental. Thus we need to be very careful about how we proceed here.

Blankenhorn concludes by offering some recommendations as to how we might strengthen the institution of marriage. He acknowledges that the future of marriage is shaky at best. But it has never been equalled. The message of this important book is that we dare not play fast and loose with the world’s first, and most important, social institution.