What should liberals think about marriage?

Andrew is right, classical liberalism does not immediately supply a compelling reason to reject ‘gay marriage’, … except in necessarily narrow and unconvincing terms. This is because it is a political theory, not a moral philosophy.

Thus, while classical liberals can gesture toward love, as Andrew does, they cannot speak to what most couples, certainly all religious couples, and most societies know about marriage: the biological, emotional and sacramental realities merely secular critiques too often ignore. Classical liberals say ‘marriage’ but they mean something else. What they really describe is more precisely a registry office event – one where the witnesses, and indeed the law, are blind to the genitals, hearts and (too often) children (including in potentia) of the parties involved.

John Heard in responding to my critique of his objections to gay marriage.

Indeed, from the liberal state’s perspective a church wedding is just a registry office with stained glass windows, and the priest just a celebrant wearing strange clothes. That’s how it has to be in a society in which religion has lost its hold over the population, with 60% of marriages now performed by celebrants – and with many of the people who do get married in a church making a rare appearance there to do so. Marriage can have ‘sacramental realities’, but like children and even sex these are optional extras. The law does not require any of them, even though children ‘in potentia’ (or these days, watching mum and dad get married) are used as a reason for distinguishing gay from straight relationships.

But why in a liberal society should the law have anything to do with this aspect of people’s private lives? Why isn’t ‘marriage’ just a particularly intense form of friendship, in which the parties get to make up their own rules without any outside interference or involvement? Or why, as David Boaz from Cato has suggested, shouldn’t marriage just be another private contract, enforceable by the state, but according to terms decided by the parties rather than by the template provided in the law of marriage and (more importantly, in practice) divorce?
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