Defining Marriage in Politics

Tomorrow is a big day for marriage in North Carolina. The statewide primary election includes a vote on a referendum seeking to place a constitutional amendment on the books defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. This would, in effect, place a ban on same-sex marriages in the state. Heavy hitters from both sides of the spectrum have weighed in to the discussion including Billy Graham supporting the amendment and Bill Clinton speaking against it.

The May 8 vote in North Carolina comes on the heels of other politicos expressing their views on same-sex marriage. Over the weekend, Vice President Joe Biden declared that he is “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage. Biden’s comments stirred quite a bit of controversy among White House staffers since President Obama has yet to make any definitive statement regarding his own position. He has said that his views are still evolving. This morning, Education Secretary Arne Duncan also affirmed his support for gay marriage.

Both the marriage amendment vote and the statements by Biden and Duncan bring to the forefront the discussion of the definition of marriage. In all of these circumstances, marriage is being defined in political and legal terms. In his “Meet the Press” interview, Biden said:

I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.

Biden claims that marriage is about civil rights. These civil rights include inheritance rights, the ability to file joint tax returns, property rights, etc. This line of reasoning identifies the marriage debate as one similar to the civil rights debate of the 1960’s.

The NC marriage amendment reads as follows:

Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.

This views marriage as a legal contract recognized by the state. It is interesting to note that the amendment allows for other avenues to address property rights of individuals who want to enter contracts that are outside the legally recognized status of marriage.

What neither of these political definitions address is one of the most foundational roles of marriage—the rearing of children. Both theologically and biologically, one of the main ends of marriage is procreation and the rearing of children. In fact, this is a very real public good accomplished through marriage.

In Genesis 1:28, we see that God commands the first man and woman to be fruitful and multiply. In this very first command, we have the institution of one of the ends of marriage—procreation. By implication in that command is the idea that the couple will nurture their own children to maturity until the children can form marriages of their own and repeat the process.

Biologically, we recognize that heterosexual marriages are the only types of marriages that can reproduce their own biological offspring. Thus, homosexual marriages are cut off from accomplishing the task of rearing their own children.

Of course, we must admit that not all marriages include children and not all marriages that do include children are successful at rearing them. However, this does not invalidate this aspect of the argument against same-sex marriage. The biological potentiality of reproduction in heterosexual marriage points to the societal good accomplished by fathers and mothers in committed marriages.

The civil rights argument for same-sex marriage must institute a false limit to prevent the same argument from being used for polygamous, polyamorous, and incestuous marriages. True fidelity to the civil rights argument, by necessity, must include those forms of marriage in the definition. However, most proponents of homosexual marriage desire to stop short of that definition—claiming monogamy is still the ideal.

As we consider the political definitions of marriage thrust upon the public square by referendum and talking heads, we must recognize that there is more to the definition of marriage than just a contractual arrangement between a man and a woman. I have just attempted to demonstrate one aspect of the traditional definition of marriage neglected in recent political attempts to define marriage. A full discussion of a well-rounded definition of marriage is reserved for another time.

Let us not be sidetracked in our understanding of marriage to limit it simply to a domestic legal union recognized by the state. Certainly that is part of the contemporary context of marriage, but there is more to it than that.


John Frank, “Final poll gives marriage amendment clear advantage,” News and Observer, May 7, 2012.

Obama Cabinet member Arne Duncan backs gay marriage, one day after Biden comments,” Fox News, May 7, 2012.