When Words Mean Everything

The homosexual-marriage debate is all about the meaning of the word marriage — and whether courts can change that meaning.

It is easy to forget that words’ meanings matter.

Attempts to redefine words have led to much human suffering — as when white slave owners, communists and Nazis redefined words such as “private property” and “human race.” When it came time to recover the meanings of these words, it took wars and great social upheavals. It proved a gargantuan task to restore the meaning of “all men are created equal” in America, “freedom” in Eastern Europe and “human rights” worldwide.

The homosexual movement now proposes the word marriage needs to be redefined. Traditionally, marriage has meant the lifelong union of a man and woman for the purpose of building a family. Those in favor of homosexual marriage would redefine it to mean something like “a declaration by a person of his romantic sexual love for another.”

Since this new definition includes homosexuals, its supporters think it will right an injustice, giving honor to these real relationships while causing no discernible harm to society except in the minds of those who are “homophobic” for no reason.

But the new definition immediately presents problems. For starters, it's malleable. Here are some of the forms of marriage the definition would allow.

Temporary marriage. No-fault divorce laws have already degraded the meaning of marriage — moving marriage toward a new definition even before the homosexual-marriage movement. But once the possibility of a family is taken out of the definition of marriage altogether, there is no reason for marriage to even attempt permanence. If marriage is simply a romantic sexual arrangement, how can any sexual affairs or periodic cohabitation arrangements be excluded?

Paid marriage. And if marriage isn't permanent, by what logic can it exclude sexual or cohabiting arrangements that are paid for? How do we argue that temporary unions for the sake of citizenship aren't marriages? Why shouldn't these also be recognized by law and respected as marriages?

Group marriage. Once sexual expression rather than family-building is the basis of marriage, what's to prevent bigamy or polygamy? Once marriage is redefined as romance, the courts could no longer rationally claim that marriage is essentially between two people.

The new definition of marriage is endlessly malleable because it is based on a theory of what the world could or should be. The old definition is simple and strong, because it was shaped by the moral code and real experiences of men and women through the ages.

The new definition doesn't discriminate, and so it invites abuse.

The old definition is tethered to a moral principle that is true: Human sexuality is meant to bond a marriage and build a family. Marriage is the way society ratifies and supports the decision of a man and a woman to stay together and raise children. In return, marriage then perpetuates and holds together society.

Much depends on the meaning of marriage. Defined robustly and defended doggedly, it is the basis of civilization. If it is lost, much will be lost — and it will only be recovered through years of pain and difficulty.

Pope John Paul II has said, “Families will be the first victims of the evils that they have done no more than note with indifference.” Also, Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family has recently been issuing dire warnings that the federal marriage amendment is in trouble because Christians and Catholics aren't telling their legislators that they support it. Find out who your representatives are at www.vote-smart.org and then contact them with your concerns.