Review: What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense

The book contrasts two distinct views of marriage, the conjugal view and the revisionist view

This book makes a significant contribution to the literature on this timely subject, and Christians interested in engaging the marriage debates in the public square, and willing to invest the time to read a finely-nuanced book with care, will find this a stimulating study. Yet they may find it more discouraging than encouraging, for its lack of a fully compelling positive argument provides further evidence of just how difficult a time the pro-traditional marriage side is having in making an effective case in contemporary public debates.


Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York: Encounter, 2012), 168 pp., $ 15.99

This book is an expansion of a controversial article in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy in 2011. Given the seemingly inexorable advance of same-sex marriage in the United States in the two years subsequent, and last week’s rulings from the Supreme Court to strike down a law refusing federal benefits to homosexual couples while also refusing to rule on Proposition 8, this book is certainly timely. It argues that current public policy debates are really about the nature of marriage itself, not about homosexuality or even same-sex marriage as such.

The authors admit early on that their argument is complex, and it is difficult to do justice to its nuances in a short review. At its heart the book contrasts two distinct views of marriage, the conjugal view and the revisionist view. The conjugal view, which the authors see as the predominant view across a variety of cultures through most of human history, understands marriage as a “comprehensive union” in which two people unite in mind through consent and unite in body through coitus. This union is ordered to procreation specifically and to family life more broadly, and requires the spouses’ permanent and exclusive commitment to each other. All other kinds of human relationships–whether sexual or non-sexual, whether same-sex or opposite-sex, whether of two people or of more–simply are not marriages.

The revisionist view, on the other hand, which the authors claim has undergirded marriage policy reforms in recent years, sees marriage as essentially an emotional union in which two people commit to a romantic relationship and domestic life. The marriage partners engage in whatever sexual activity is mutually agreeable and stay together as long as their emotional attachment endures. According to the conjugal view, therefore, only a specific kind of heterosexual relationship can be a marriage, while the revisionist view is theoretically open to recognizing any number of kinds of relationships (including homosexual) as marriages.

In chapter one, the authors claim that the conjugal view much more adequately explains why the state has an interest in regulating marriage, why sex is an essential, rather than optional, aspect of marriage, and why marriage ought to be monogamous. They note that defending same-sex marriage as a matter of principle also requires defending non-sexual and multi-partner relationships as marriages by the very same principle.

Chapter two explains and defends the conjugal view of marriage as a comprehensive union. This chapter first defends the idea that marriage involves a true bodily union through sex. Two bodies are united as they act in concert (through coitus) toward a common end encompassing them both (conception). I cannot here describe their defense of this idea in detail, but it is probably the most important link in their positive case for conjugal marriage. The chapter also defends the notion that marriage unites two people in a shared domestic life and explains why marriage, as a comprehensive union of mind and body, requires permanence and exclusivity.

Chapter three argues, against the libertarian Right, that marriage has public value and hence ought to be recognized and regulated by the state. They appeal to social scientific evidence that traditional conjugal marriage has many social benefits. Then, against the Left, the authors argue that marriage is not simply a human creation or convention; because there are constants of human nature, there are objective human goods, and some of these goods can only be attained through conjugal marriage.

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