The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 26, 2023 - 5:22:54

Confusions of the day in the SSM debate

Katie van Schaijik, May 23, 2012

NRO has an article by Kevin Williamson today that exhibits some basic confusions in the SSM debate.

He begins with a bit of Eisenhower lore.

One of my favorite political fables concerns Dwight D. Eisenhower and his tenure as president of Columbia University. The campus was undergoing an expansion, and Ike was presented with two very different plans for laying out new sidewalks. The architects were irreconcilable, each insisting that his plan was the only way to go and that the other guy had it all wrong. Ike, sensible fellow that he was, had grass planted instead, telling the architects to wait a year and see where the students trod paths in the turf, and then to put the sidewalks there. It is a story that, as they say, is true, and may even have happened.

The suggestion is that we should make our laws according to the way people tend.  What he overlooks is that in the case of sidewalks, we are dealing with a question of practical efficiency, whereas in the case of marriage, we are dealing with a question of fundamental moral principle.   When it comes to fundamental moral questions, to "go with the flow" is to devolve toward chaos.  Good laws, grounded in basic moral truths are what safeguard our cherished freedoms.  

Without laws to protect them, those freedoms are imperiled.  This is the vision of the American founding.  "Confirm thy soul in self-control thy liberty in law."  Because we are fallen, we need to be checked.  And just as in our personal lives, we need to check ourselves to flourish, we need checks in our common life.  Checks on the lust for power; checks on the lawless.

One way to check power is to minimize the reach of government.  This involves maximizing the strength of non-governmental institutions, such as the Church and the family.

Williamson makes another error.

I am in agreement with the position, articulated by many conservatives, that marriage is not legitimately the property of the state and not subject to redefinition by the state according to political truths “arrived at yesterday at the voting booth,” as a wise man once put it, and that the redefiners here are the political aggressors. I accept also Archbishop Dolan’s argument that the state, properly understood, has neither the authority nor the competence to redefine such institutions.

But if the state lacks the competence to redefine marriage, it also lacks the competence to define marriage, as we have demanded that it do for a long time, and as Archbishop Dolan and others continue to demand it to do.

In fact, the claim of Cardinal Dolan and others who agree with him is that government lacks the authority to redefined marriage because marriage is something.  It's not something we make; it's not "a social construct"; it's a natural institution given in the design of the human person as male and female.  What we want is not to "define marriage", but to secure the truth about marriage against the aggressions of those who resent its reality.