The changing definition of marriage

by Ryan Streeter on April 6, 2013. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Ross Douthat has done a remarkable job assessing the core issue in the debate over marriage today: the separation of procreation from the legal and cultural understanding of marriage.

His NYT column on the issue is here, followed by three posts responding to Kevin Drum’s critique of of his column here, here, and here.

Viewed against the long arc of history, the widely accepted view that marriage is only a contractual arrangement between two adults has evolved rapidly. As Douthat points out, it is not at all uncommon today to hear people ridiculing as reactionary the view that marriage and procreation are fundamentally interrelated. Marriage as an arrangement between two consenting adults is largely accepted as the norm. It’s not only proponents of gay marriage who hold this view, but many people who also self-identify as conservative or Republican or both.

Douthat does the debate a service by reflecting on how this shift in the view on marriage has defined the current debate. He points out just how rapidly this has occurred by reminding us of how what is now called “traditional marriage” was held by people who were by no means what we would call conservative.

He writes:

You don’t have to look very hard to find quotes (like the ones collected in this Heritage Foundation brief) from jurists, scholars, anthropologists and others, writing in historical contexts entirely removed from the gay marriage debate, making the case that “the first purpose of matrimony, by the laws of nature and society, is procreation” (that’s a California Supreme Court ruling in 1859), describing the institution of marriage as one “founded in nature, but modified by civil society: the one directing man to continue and multiply his species, the other prescribing the manner in which that natural impulse must be confined and regulated” (that’s William Blackstone), and acknowledging that “it is through children alone that sexual relations become important to society, and worthy to be taken cognizance of by a legal institution” (that’s the well-known reactionary Bertrand Russell).

The Heritage brief he cites is really worth reading to help understand how legally and culturally we have long understood the relationship between marriage and having children. Scroll down to the quotes from Claude Levi-Strauss and G. Robina Quale for some added perspective.