Marriage vs. marriage (or, What is marriage?)

Yesterday morning there was quite a bit of activity in and near the Supreme Court of the United States. You may have heard about that. Citizens who wish to uphold the traditional understanding of marriage as an institution built around sexual complementarity marched to the Supreme Court where they encountered people who wish to reform that understanding to include same-sex couples.

It was an opportunity for reporters to let their snark fly on Twitter, as Will Saletan of Slate did when he wrote derisively of marriage traditionalists:

Let me get this straight: The guys marching across from the Supreme Court in plaid skirts and puffy hats are AGAINST gay marriage?

A comment like that speaks volumes about the state and quality of media discourse on the topic. But another tweet really got me thinking. It comes from New York Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein. She writes:

Supreme Court surrounded today by marchers for marriage and their opponents, marchers for marriage.

I love it. Funny but also incisive. That both sides argue they are advocating "marriage" when they are directly opposed to each other reveals a truth that has been obscured through ignorance and/or activism in media coverage. What's being fought about is what marriage is.

This is not to say that the media should pick sides about which definition is right (although they clearly have) but, rather, that the media should explain the different understandings of marriage and explore the societal ramifications of adopting differing views. We know that an understanding of marriage as an institution built around sexual complementarity has, for instance, the ramification of excluding same-sex couples. That's been highly explored by the media.

But what about all the ramifications of changing that understanding? What will happen to our understanding of marital norms, if anything, and why? What will happen to our understanding of gender?

There are smart takes on this from both sides of the marriage debate (and, to blow your mind here, there are actually more than two sides to this debate) but in case I'm not being clear, here's how some traditionalists arguing from natural law explain the two approaches to marriage:

Conjugal View: Marriage is the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together. The spouses seal (consummate) and renew their union by conjugal acts—acts that constitute the behavioral part of the process of reproduction, thus uniting them as a reproductive unit. Marriage is valuable in itself, but its inherent orientation to the bearing and rearing of children contributes to its distinctive structure, including norms of monogamy and fidelity. This link to the welfare of children also helps explain why marriage is important to the common good and why the state should recognize and regulate it.

Revisionist View: Marriage is the union of two people (whether of the same sex or of opposite sexes) who commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life. It is essentially a union of hearts and minds, enhanced by whatever forms of sexual intimacy both partners find agreeable. The state should recognize and regulate marriage because it has an interest in stable romantic partnerships and in the concrete needs of spouses and any children they may choose to rear.

The authors of that particular piece go on to argue that only the conjugal view of marriage offers a principled basis for marital norms and that a departure from this norm in favor of the revisionist view will damage the long-term health of society. Norms that have been traditionally associated with marriage -- such as monogamy -- and other rules -- such as limiting it to two people -- make less sense if the understanding of marriage changes and so on and so forth. And whether you agree with that or not (and the media surely do not), that is the crux of the debate. So why not talk about that? Why do we waste all this media coverage on meaningless angles that don't get to the heart of the matter?

It's almost impossible to have any meaningful conversation about whether to change marriage law to include same-sex couples without first talking about what marriage is. But if you do get your cards on the table about what marriage is, you can have much more interesting and fruitful journalistic explorations.

It's almost painful to watch the journalism that happens when people don't understand -- as Goodstein pointed out in her tweet -- that the debate hinges on what various groups say the legal definition of marriage is or should be.

Instead, this Onion article ignoring arguments against changing marriage law reads like it's not satire at all. It reads exactly like much of the mainstream media has treated an issue of vast importance.

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