“What is marriage?”
I. The Traditional View of Marriage, and Why Society Should Protect It
A. What Traditional Marriage Is
It seems to me that there are basically two views of what marriage is. The first is the traditional view. A good working definition comes from the Code of Canon Law, which says that marriage is that institution “by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring” (Can. 1055 §1).
This view of marriage isn't unique to Catholicism, or Christianity, or even religion. Cultures across the world (with all sorts of religious views, or none at all) have understood marriage to be something very near this for as long as marriage has existed. What's fascinating about this is that even with the diversity of marriage customs and norms, much remains the same. Even cultures which permitted or encouraged polygamy recognized that the polygamy was heterosexual, and tied to procreation. A man might have two wives, but he's just committing himself to caring for two families as a result. And even cultures which encouraged homosexual and pedophilic sex (like Ancient Greece) never thought of those sexual and even romantic relationships as marriage-potential.
Perhaps more striking, the thing that gets overlooked is: all of these cultures have marriage. Many of the cultures punished premarital or extramarital sex; others simply declared that premarital sex acted as a marital covenant. If marriage is simply a social construct, it's certainly striking that all of these cultures across the globe, in both the New World and the Old, independently enshrined this construct at the heart of their cultures.
B. The Importance of Family
The reason for this universally-accepted tradition of marriage is obvious: family. Parents are the primary educators of children, and they pass on the culture's values. Children raised in this environment are statistically better citizens: more law-abiding, less violent, and so on. We're born with our own desires. It's largely through education, much of it at the feet of our parents, where we learn how we're supposed to act.
Even animals understand this instinctively. You don't see birds just leaving their chicks to raise themselves, or be raised by some other bird, or by “the village.” A great many species mate for life, and even amongst those which are effectively polygamous, there's a real sense of family tied to the biological parents of the animal youth. Obviously, this isn't true of all animals, but it's remarkable that it's true of any. Now-Secretary Hillary Clinton wrote a book, It Takes a Village. Former-Senator Rick Santorum's response came with a more accurate title: It Takes a Family. Both sociologically and even biologically, he's right.
So “family” is critical to society. And traditional marriage is critical to family. The logic of it is obvious. Our sexual desires are often fleeting, but when we act on them, and a child is conceived, that's a lifelong consequence. In the absence of marriage, women in particular are vulnerable, since they're ones (biologically) who are left to raise the child, if the man splits. By tying heterosexual, potentially-reproductive sex to marriage, society insures that a family is formed.
Given this, it makes absolute sense for society to enshrine traditional marriage into its laws and norms. We want (and even need) a society in which there aren't a lot of children conceived out of wedlock, and that those children conceived out of wedlock are still raised in a family (thus the popularity of "shotgun weddings" and the like). Enforcing this as the norm by law through legal recognition of the institution of marriage, and the thousands of incentives tied to marriage is absolutely sensible. It's a principle that virtually everyone in history has understood (including those who freely engaged in non-reproductive sex outside of marriage).
II. The View of Marriage Behind Gay Marriage
A. The “Romantic” View of Marriage
Almost without exception, those in favor of gay marriage approach the question through the same lens. You can discover this quickly, by asking, "Why should gays be able to marry other gays?" The answer will nearly without exception be that “these two people love each other.” And for about two hundred years in the West, we've really harped on this notion that marriage is the result of romantic love.
Let's be clear a couple of things. First of all, romantic love is ideal: I wish every married couple was romantic towards each other. The biological and spiritual purpose behind eros and romance is to help get through the rough patches in marriage, to make marriage joyful, and to remind us of the incredible love God has for us. But let's be clear about something else: romantic love isn't necessary for marriage. The canon law view calls it a "partnership," and in selecting the word, carefully avoided anything suggesting that romance was necessary for marriage.
Plenty of married couples find the spark dimmed or dead, and marriage can be rough-going sometimes. When you swear your allegiance to another human being "for better or for worse" for the rest of your life, you're knowingly pledging that even though marriage might seem awful, you'll stick to it. If marriage wasn't hard sometimes, so bad you wanted to quit, you wouldn't need to promise you wouldn't quit. No one has to pledge to keep doing something they're obviously going to do, and enjoy doing, like eating or relaxing. They'll just do those things without provocation.
So the problem with gay marriage is actually something distinct from the problem with homosexuality. Homosexuality is wrong because it perverts sex from something reproductive into something non-reproductive. But homosexual marriage goes a step further, and turns the bedrock of society, marriage and family, into something fleeting and pointless.
Here's what I mean. If romance is the critical factor in marriage, just consider that married couples often don't feel romantic towards each other, even if they did at the outset. It's easy to love the other person on your wedding day. It's harder when they've let themselves go physically, there's a screaming baby, and the house is a mess. Meanwhile, there may be someone else - a co-worker, a friend, whoever - who you do feel that "spark" with. The New York Times caused a minor controversy in December when it ran in its marriage section "Vows," a blurb spotlighting a couple who met while married to other people. The story was told as if it was romantic to do the forbidden, and abandon your families for a new fling. But this is absolutely consistent with this view of marriage. So is the sky-high divorce rate in America, and the massive amount of infidelity, homosexuality, and premarital sex. We're a culture taught to follow our hearts and our hormones, and those are fickle things.
B. Peering Over the Precipice
So here's my point. Because the heart is fickle, don't condition marriage on romance. If you're serious about being open to having children with this person, and working with them to raise children, and staying together until death, whether things are great or awful, great. If not, wait to marry until you get to that point with someone. Marriage is one of the single most important decisions most people will make in their lives, and it rarely gets the serious treatment it deserves.
More importantly, even if individuals want to stupidly declare, in a fit of romantic passion, that they'll be together for better or worse (while closing their eyes tightly to what "worse" might mean), as a society, we need not indulge that madness. Society has a huge vested interest in family, and by extension, traditional marriage. Society has no interest whatsoever in just-romantic marriage without a connection to family.
Interestingly, even many gay marriage advocates recognize this. Alan Dershowitz at Harvard argued that the solution to the gay marriage debate is to end governmental recognition of marriage altogether. Time Magazine agreed, arguing that marriage is just a religious or spiritual practice. This is the sort of end-point of the campaign to redefine marriage: leave "marriage" something so vague and meaningless, an idea whose meaning is unique to the person declaring him- or herself "married," that it ceases to be a protectable institution at all. Of course, the consequence of trying to become the first society without marriage are ones that we can't even fathom.
The point is clear. Society, including the state, has a clear interest in protecting marriage, if marriage means what it always has meant. But if "marriage" becomes an amorphous and individualistic romantic concept, what role could society possibly have in regulating or promoting that? So the end point of the gay marriage debate is necessary the implosion and unraveling of the institution of marriage, even if individuals still declare themselves "married" in non-recognized ceremonies.
Understanding this clash of visions explains nearly everything. When opponents of gay marriage say that it destroys the sanctity of marriage, what they mean is that gay marriage is incapable of being marriage, as that term has been traditionally understood for thousands of years. So a government that embraces gay "marriage" is a government that discards marriage (as traditionally understood) in favor of something much more volatile and dangerous. Likewise, if the government started to declare business merges "marriages," the term marriage would be deprived of its meaning until it meant something vague and sort of meaningless.
To imagine that a culture that drains "marriage" of its meaning, or tries to substitute (in its place, or in addition) something foreign as a new form of legally-sanctioned "marriage" can do so without it having far-ranging unintended consequence is naivety to an astonishing degree.
My point is that gay marriage is a sort of "point of no return" in a much broader fight that most Americans have somewhat disconnected from. Rather than viewing this as a battle over "gay rights" or anything else, this needs to be understood as a battle of the definition of what "marriage" actually means, and whether marriage is a thing that society and government can and should fight for.