Defending Marriage

Book Review of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense

What Is Marriage?

Man and Woman: A Defense

By Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George and Ryan T. Anderson

Encounter Books, 2012

168 pages, $15.99

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The U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions on Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act mark the first time that the nation’s highest court will rule on same-sex “marriage.” But that’s unlikely to settle the debate for the nation.

In marriage debates that have defined recent decades, much of the arguing has revolved around who can get married.

Yet What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense by Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George and Ryan T. Anderson seeks to reframe the debate.

In What Is Marriage? the authors argue that we are overlooking a fundamental question. Rather than devoting so much time arguing about whom to let marry (i.e., homosexual vs. heterosexual couples), they want a discussion on the prior and more fundamental question of what the institution of marriage is all about.

This book offers two contrasting understandings of marriage: the conjugal view and the revisionist view.

The conjugal view is the long-held understanding of marriage as “a bodily as well as emotional spiritual bond, distinguished by its comprehensiveness.” The revisionist view, as proposed by advocates of same-sex “marriage,” is defined by “an emotional bond, one distinguished by its intensity — a bond that points mainly inward, in which fidelity is ultimately subject to one’s own feeling.”

The conjugal understanding of marriage unites man and wife in a union of mind and body alike and is both exclusive and permanent. The revisionist view fails to offer permanence or exclusivity, as it is rooted in emotions.

For Girgis, George and Anderson, if marriage is redefined to include same-sex partners, this will create a fundamental misunderstanding of marriage for all of society. These far-reaching consequences will jeopardize the well-being of spouses and children, other friendships, limited government and religious liberty. 

In considering arguments of equality and justice, these authors are wise to note that every marriage policy leaves some arrangements out, and they caution us not to act arbitrarily in determining where to draw these lines in defining marriage.

While the arguments offered throughout What Is Marriage? are sophisticated, this does not limit their accessibility.

In mounting their defense of traditional marriage, the authors appeal broadly to philosophy and practical reason rather than to religious authority. As such, the book has already received support from Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant religious leaders alike, as well as those of no particular faith tradition who are concerned about the future of marriage and family life.

The marriage debate has divided families, friends and religious communities and is likely to remain contentious well into the future. Thus, perhaps the greatest contribution of these authors is their example of unrivaled charity toward their opponents. While their arguments confront the defenders of revisionist marriage head-on, they offer a model of respectful and winsome responses.

At the heart of What Is Marriage? is a deep concern for human flourishing, and that desire has yielded this well-reasoned, robust defense of marriage as a fruitful, permanent and faithful union of a man and a woman.

 Christopher White writes from New York.