The Bad Faith Arguments Against Marriage Defenders

It would be an interesting investigation to reverse the names of every major bill passed by Congress and signed into law by the president, and then see whether that does not better describe the result of the law, if not the intent of the lawmakers. Names, in our day, are advertisements, and advertisements, as we well know, appeal very rarely and only glancingly to reason, but mainly to passions, and among those usually to the most powerful prompts to hasty action, such as lust, fear, avarice, and vanity.

My observation certainly applies to the recently signed Respect for Marriage Act. Our lawmakers, far from taking care of this fundamental social institution, have, since the first flurry of court decisions and liberalizing laws regarding sex, marriage, and divorce 60 years ago, treated it at best with benign but culpable neglect. 

They have long shrugged at the obvious obstacles the welfare state casts in the paths of the poor when it comes to getting young people married and ensuring that children are not conceived out of wedlock; they have cast their lot where money and power are, namely other people’s money, and their own power.

It is in no one’s immediate political interest to see working-class households headed by a reasonably well-paid husband, made solid by marriage whose sound laws would protect against both betrayal and easy dissolution, and made cheerful by innocent children thriving in moral order and security. Such households would be too modest to milk for campaign money, too healthy to fall under the power and control of the welfare state, and, just possibly, too firmly rooted in unalterable moral law to be swayed by the latest fads in mass politics, mass schooling, and mass entertainment—three heads of one infernal dog that can bellow your way into hell and bare his teeth lest you should ever attempt to get back out.

I speak of political interest in the strict sense. No one has a stake in the moral stability and the success of family life; Washington loses by it, and so does every state capital. But I am by no means accusing Joe Biden and those congressmen who have gone along with the biological and anthropological absurdity enshrined in this law, that a man can marry another man or that a woman can marry another woman, with the hatred of marriage that some advocates of the Respect for Marriage Act express, or with contempt for the working class. I make no claims about their feelings whatsoever, except to note that when we are not governed by clear moral law and by reasoning from premises to conclusions, we will find that our feelings line up remarkably well with our own economic and political interests. It is like Adam Smith’s famous “invisible hand,” not adjusting market prices to oil the economic machine, but fiddling in your pocket, jingling the coins of your social status and your self-opinion and making you feel quite good about them.

For the typical question asked of people who oppose the Act, and who defend the liberties of Americans who do not wish to help to celebrate what they consider, I believe correctly, to be gravely immoral, reveals a great deal more about those who ask it than about those called to answer it. This question is whether one could likewise oppose the marriage of a man and a woman of different races, or refuse them any special service, such as catering their wedding or announcing their marriage in a bulletin, and so forth. 

Doubtless, in a nation of 330 million people, there is no form of wickedness that will not find a foothold here or there, and our history of racial bigotry is not a pretty one; though right now, you will find far more supporters of polygamy among the illuminati than, you will find among evangelical and conservative Christians, opponents of interracial marriage, which has become, I am pleased to say, common among them. Yet those who ask the question assume that the cases are analogous, when a moment’s consideration, or but a passing acquaintance with human history, would show that the analogy is embarrassingly bad. 

Not the worst bigot in America at the time doubted that Roy Campanella’s father, an Italian, was married to Roy Campanella’s mother, an African-American. They knew very well that the two could marry; it was an obvious biological and anthropological possibility. They wanted to prevent such marriages, though they did not deny that they were marriages in fact. The definition of marriage was not in play. Nor was the welfare of children, or the raising of boys to become men and of girls to become women, and the expectation that they would be attracted to one another, that they would marry as their parents did, and beget children of their own in turn, in the natural and naturally human way.

The fact that Supreme Court justices, presumably possessed of a fair measure of brains, could suppose for a moment that the cases are alike, suggests that they themselves do not believe that moral judgments prescind rationally from moral premises, which premises are either axiomatic, so that insofar as we deny them we cease to be human at all, or are discoverable by reason, or perhaps both. They assume that opponents act from irrational passion, because that is what, secretly and probably unwittingly, they assume all moral judgments to be, that is, outbursts of feelings and no more. 

It does not occur to them that the passions make for a fine engine but a bad tiller, as it does not occur to them that a man might support or oppose a thing and be right, regardless of whether his passions prompt him or even attempt to thwart him. Change the moral arena from sex to money. I might like the company of gamblers. I might believe that civil punishments against private gambling have often been at once too harsh and ineffective. I might regard the action itself with complaisance, as far as my passions are concerned. And I still might, by the use of my reason, conclude that it is wrong, and that it is evil for the state to encourage it, let alone to profit handsomely by it. To search my soul for the “real” motive is the job of my confessor, perhaps; it is not to the point in moral, legal, or political argument. 

The man who wants to tear down an old building and put up a new one may or may not profit by the change; he may or may not love demolition for its own sake; but his motives for arguing as he does, even if we can know them, are not pertinent.

Let’s ask, finally, why even the justices of the Supreme Court and our representatives in Congress take for granted that expressions of moral judgment are little more than emotional splutters. It will no longer do to say that they have been taught so by bad philosophy in school, or from that all-pervading megaphone, the media. For moral reasoning requires time, patience, intellectual calm, and honesty; and sound political reasoning requires, in addition, broad experience of human affairs, experience that must be fortified by careful reading. And we are not likely to get any of that, not in our time. It is not a click or a shout away.

About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). The recipient of the CIRCE Institute's 2021 Russell Kirk prize "for a lifetime devoted to the cultivation of virtue," Anthony Esolen is professor of humanities and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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