Marriage, Raising Children, and the Ideal Family

First of all, I thank Adam for sharing his perspective. It is now clear we have a robust debate on this question!  And while I disagree with many of the arguments Adam outlines in his essay, I appreciate his vigorous defense of traditional marriage and his willingness to engage arguments to the contrary.     

I value many aspects of Adam’s argument. His primary concern for the well being of children is evident in his essay, and is something all three contributors to this month’s discussion undoubtedly share. We all want children to grow in loving and nurturing families, though we may disagree on how to achieve this. His thorough analysis of certain facets of my argument was also constructive. While I do not have time to discuss each of his critiques in this response, his comments have enabled me to better reflect upon the various factors that inform my position on this issue. Lastly, the number of outside sources Adam included in his essay is impressive and no doubt helpful for readers who want to read further on this topic. I won’t come close to matching this number of sources in this essay.

In responding to Adam’s argument, I will leave many of the possible legal objections to Julia who has a legal background. My challenges to Adam’s argument come primarily from my interest in public policy. My concerns regarding Adam’s arguments are two-fold: 1) He confounds the goals of marriage with the goals of raising children. They are related but they are not the same and should be treated separately, and 2) he upholds an ideal of family that is unnecessarily exclusive and does not create opportunities for other members of society to love and care for children when this ideal is inevitably unmet. I outline each of these concerns below.    

Promoting Marriage / Raising Children

Adam’s primary argument that same-sex marriage is about raising children reminds of a similar argument that Adam is not making but operates in a similar fashion. In the contemporary debate over police brutality against African-Americans, the discussion often devolves to encompass black on black violence as though it was connected to instances in which police officers may have abused their authority.  While both of these issues require the public’s attention and relate to some of the same conditions, each issue is driven by a different process and societal problem. As a result, each requires its own public policy solution. I view Adam’s argument in much of the same way. Promoting marriage and raising children are two different matters, and should be treated distinctively. 

Marriage is a commitment between two people, in which they share in each other’s lives and rely upon each other for emotional, financial, and spiritual support. Married couples also fulfill each other’s sexual needs.  For Christians, marriage is also an opportunity to intimately understand Christ’s self-sacrifice in the context of a physical human relationship. These relationships necessitate a certain level of legal protections so that couples can pursue this type of commitment. Marriage does not always include children, though children can benefit from a healthy marriage. 

Raising children is about instilling values and moral content into a child as well as providing for his or her immediate needs. The rearing of children does not necessitate marriage, though it is certainly preferred. Even within the context of a marriage commitment, other actors inevitably contribute to raising upright, thoughtful, and well-adjusted children. These actors are found in churches, schools, neighborhoods, communities, and the public sector. While marriage is the most important institution in raising children, it is not the only institution at work.  

My point is that what is required for marriage and what is required for raising children is not always the same, though they share similar characteristics. Moreover, conflating marriage and raising children clouds both our understanding of marriage and parenting. If we assume that a marriage is only fully realized when it results in children, we minimize the powerful role that simply marriage can have in society. I know many married couples that don’t have children, but who are a blessing to those around them, including children. What do we tell these couples if we are using Adam’s definition of marriage? Is their marriage a sham? Do we assume they are being selfish because they don’t have children? 

More importantly, confusing marriage with raising children in effect places all of the challenges of raising children squarely on the institution of marriage. Thus, if a child is struggling, we only look to his or her parents to ‘fix’ the problem. In the process, we ignore the many cultural, economic, and political conditions in society that contribute to a child’s upbringing. In his essay, Adam provides a heartbreaking list of outcomes that follow from children born out of wedlock including poverty, lack of education, incarceration, sexual abuse, drug abuse, and depression. Does he really think that healthy marriages will effectively address all of these conditions? These are larger injustices that must be addressed through community and effective public policy. 

In a bizarre twist, Adam seems to wrap up all of these social ills and cast them in the same lot as same-sex relationships in the quote below:

Same-sex couples did not create that mess. But to create equality between marriage and “same-sex marriage” would require us to break the remaining normative bonds of the only institution capable of fixing the problem.

I can only gather that Adam believes that gays and lesbians cannot or are not interested in helping solve the social problems above as parents, citizens, or Christians. This assertion is terribly unfair to gays and lesbians or needs much more clarification. Close to this point in his essay, Adam pleads with both Julia and me for another solution to these problems besides traditional marriage. I have only one response to sin—Jesus. Thankfully, we can see the redemption power of Jesus at work through marriage as well as churches, communities, various organizations, and government.   

The Ideal Family

Adam bases much of his argument for traditional marriage on the natural parental rights of the mother and father. Take for example, the quote below:

To make “same-sex marriage” equal to marriage in law would require undermining the rights of natural parents and children, and would entail the elimination of the legal incidents of natural parentage.

In using this basis for marriage, he adopts the ideal family structure. Such a framework assumes it is possible and preferable for all couples to conceive and to rear this child together. However, our world is far from ideal. While this ideal is often the case, countless individuals, couples, and children face a different reality that Adam does not acknowledge. As a result, Adam’s conceptualization excludes many other instances of a loving and supportive family. For instance, my wife and I have not been able to conceive and are currently in the process of adoption. In reading Adam’s essay, I couldn’t help but feel a bit inferior (I know this was not his intent). We are not the ideal, but we will deeply cherish the child we ultimately adopt. I could imagine other untraditional family structures that embrace children who long for a loving home. 

To simply base families on God’s original design of procreation precludes all of the wonderful and unexpected things God can reveal through other non-natal relationships and the broader community. The Bible is full of accounts of unorthodox or unconventional families that God used to bring His people closer to Him. Narrowly defining family as natural parental rights denies us the full richness and possibilities of God’s creation. Using this definition also makes it easy to forget the role of extended family members, churches, and various forms of community in building strong families. I am thankful that when I have children, I will have a supportive community to lean on and God will use many of these people to touch and shape the life of my child. 

In raising this concern, I am certainly not denying the rightful natural legal rights of both parents. Whether or not these unconventional family arrangements extend to same-sex couples is a position I am not prepared to defend. I believe this is a separate discussion. My point is much broader. By insisting on this ideal family structure, we are likely neglecting members of our community that are marginalized, forgotten, oppressed, or wounded. The Christian faith is transformative in these latter cases. In these moments, we are challenged to awkwardly and stubbornly love others, not out of some sort of biological attachment, but out of our understanding of God.  

3 replies
  1. adammacleod
    adammacleod says:

    Thanks to Michael for his essay, which is helpful in many respects. He provides a definition of marriage and an explanation why he thinks it is not essentially connected to procreation and parentage. That is a large step toward achieving reasoned disagreement (if nothing else). I hope to find some time in the next couple of weeks to explore the implications of his claims.

    Michael also avoids ad hominem and sticks with reasoned discourse, which is a rare feat these days among proponents of his position, and I thank him for it. The tone of Michael’s essay is (mostly) charitable, and it appears that he made a genuine, good faith effort to understand my argument.

    Yet to observe that he neither accurately characterized my argument nor replied to its premises would be to understate the matter. In the space allotted I could only summarize, and perhaps too much of the argument dropped out of the translation. As I mentioned in my essay, I have written longer, more detailed versions of the argument elsewhere, including a full scholarly article. I provided a link to an early draft of that article in my essay. Given other commitments, I do not have time to reproduce that argument here at present. For now it must suffice to direct interested readers to that link and the many other resources that I linked in my original essay.

    Nevertheless, I must comment on one thing right away lest it color how others read my words. Michael attributes to me an assertion that does not appear in my essay and could not be farther from my mind or my own beliefs. He says,

    "In a bizarre twist, Adam seems to wrap up all of these social ills and cast them in the same lot as same-sex relationships in the quote below:
    'Same-sex couples did not create that mess. But to create equality between marriage and “same-sex marriage” would require us to break the remaining normative bonds of the only institution capable of fixing the problem.'
    "I can only gather that Adam believes that gays and lesbians cannot or are not interested in helping solve the social problems above as parents, citizens, or Christians. This assertion is terribly unfair to gays and lesbians or needs much more clarification."

    That certainly would be a “bizarre twist” and unfair, but it is not my bizarre twist. I did not write it, I did not imply it, I did not even entertain the thought. I do not believe it to be true. I am simply at a loss to understand how Michael could find that assertion in what I wrote.

    I was invited to write an essay about how marriage should be defined in law. That is what my essay is about. I approached that question by examining what the redefinition of marriage in law to eliminate the conjugality predicate necessarily does to the laws—rights, duties, presumptions, obligations, privileges—of marriage and family. I think it is reasonable to think (I did not have space to demonstrate this, but I have elsewhere, as have many others) that laws affect choices and actions, and that eliminating those laws that connect marriage to parentage is likely to disconnect parentage from marriage in the choices and actions of people who have children. As I took pains to emphasize in my essay, this is not a comment on anyone’s motivations, and I also expressly assumed that my interlocutors care about the well-being of children.

    My essay is about what is entailed in redefining laws. Perhaps Michael was misled by my use of the term “normative bonds.” A more precise term might have been jural relations—rights and duties. I was trying to convey two points at once for the sake of efficiency—both that redefining marriage requires eliminating those jural relations and that those jural relations are what bind a child to her mother and father.

  2. adammacleod
    adammacleod says:

    On to the merits of what *was* written. Michael has so thoroughly mischaracterized my essay that I do not think my time would be well spent to bridge the gap between what I wrote and his critique of what he attributed to me. Instead, I’ll briefly restate the argument I did make, and then offer some observations about Michael’s proffered definition of marriage.

    I did not argue for any ideal type or “ideal family structure.” I described the law. I distinguished between the new privilege of “same-sex marriage,” whatever that is, and the fundamental law of marriage, which has always been grounded in the pre-political, common-law jural relations of mother-father-child and remains grounded in those fundamental jural relations in all fifty states, even states such as Massachusetts and New York that redefined marriage years ago. And I summarized an argument that I have made elsewhere, demonstrating that states cannot make man-man “marriage” and woman-woman “marriage” equal to real marriage without eliminating those jural relations. Producing “marriage equality” would therefore necessarily destroy the right of each child to have legal connection to her mother and father, and that is perhaps why no state has produced equality between “same-sex marriage” and natural marriage.

    Nor did I “conflate marriage and raising children.” The fundamental liberty (not a claim-right to official recognition, as Michael seems to assume) of the natural family is grounded in the jural relations of the biological family in the sense that those jural relations provide its justification. But the liberty itself protects a natural marriage whether or not that marriage results in children. The law does not inquire into fertility when assessing the validity of a natural marriage; it is content to note that a natural marriage—man-woman union—is the only kind of social relation capable of producing children naturally.

    Michael’s definition of marriage seems something like what would be necessary to support his position. Like all definitions it discriminates against those whom it excludes. Unlike the definition of marriage as man-woman, it appears to discriminate without any rational basis.

    For example, Michael states that marriage is a commitment in which the participants “share in each other’s lives and rely upon each other for emotional, financial, and spiritual support.” But he also states, “Married couples also fulfill each other’s sexual needs.” Yet if marriage is not inherently a sexually-complementary union of man and woman who together form a one-flesh unity when united in coitus, why must it involve sex? His definition discriminates against couples who share each other’s lives and rely upon each other for support without sex—bachelor brothers or spinster sisters, an adult caring for an elderly parent, long-time roommates, etc. Is there any reason for this discrimination?

    And why only two people? Michael’s definition discriminates against throuples, quartets, polyamorous households, and other groups. But such groups also “share in each other’s lives and rely upon each other for emotional, financial, and spiritual support.” Some of those groups even share sex, satisfying Michael’s other element. If marriage is not a real, one-flesh union of one man and one woman then the number two seems arbitrary.

  3. Mikael Pelz
    Mikael Pelz says:

    I thank Adam for his follow-ups to my essay. I don't see much common ground between our positions. My essay sought to examine the broader public policy implications of Adam's legal arguments. And I honestly sought to understand Adam's perspective in drawing these wider implications.

    However, a discussion is not very fruitful if one party believes he or she is being misrepresented. I apologize to Adam for mischaracterizing his position or implying too much from his essay. A 3,000-word essay is limiting, especially for a topic this expansive. Discussions between two very different perspectives often require a lot grace to find common ground, and I ask for Adam's grace in this instance. I do sincerely hope the conversation can continue.


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