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Taking Rites Seriously: Political Liberalism and the Problem of Marriage

Political Liberalism, as we know it today, is not even three decades old. It began to develop in the early 1980s in the writings of several well-known philosophers that included Thomas Nagel, Ronald Dworkin, and John Rawls. The purpose of their project was to offer the political culture an intellectually respectable way to sequester the policy goals of the fledgling movement of religious conservatives while at the same time claiming that their project is consistent with an older liberalism that allows for full political participation by all citizens.

The Political Liberal correctly observes that the differences between citizens on the culture-owar issues – e.g., abortion, marriage, euthanasia – stem from their contrary, though reasonable, worldviews or comprehensive doctrines (as Rawls would put it). Rawls concedes that his understanding of “reasonable” is “deliberately loose.”

“We avoid excluding doctrines as unreasonable,” writes Rawls [1], “without strong grounds based on clear aspects of the reasonable itself. Otherwise our account runs the danger of being arbitrary and exclusive. Political liberalism counts many familiar and traditional doctrines – religious, philosophical, and moral – as reasonable, even though we could not seriously entertain them for ourselves. . . .” (Emphasis added)

So, for example, the prolifer opposes abortion because he believes that all human beings, including the unborn, are by nature persons and thus have intrinsic dignity regardless of their size, level of development, environment, or degree of dependency.

The typical prochoicer, on the other hand, maintains that not all human beings are persons, because a person is a being who has the present capacity to exercise certain person-making functions like self-consciousness, rationality, the ability to communicate and have desires, and so forth. Because the fetus for most of its gestation lacks these functions, it is not a person and thus it is permissible to abort it.

Both positions, according to the Political Liberal, are reasonable, for they are derived from reasonable comprehensive doctrines and neither is unassailable. Thus, it would be as equally unjust for the government to coerce a prochoice citizen to carry a pregnancy to term as it would be for it to coerce a prolife citizen to procure an abortion. This is because a citizen cannot be coerced on a matter of fundamental rights based on reasons he is reasonable to reject.

Political Liberalism’s sole purpose, we are told, is to accommodate citizen diversity on these contested questions while nurturing a political culture of respect and tolerance, the latter of which would be reflected in the government’s restraint in coercing and marginalizing citizens based on where they stand on these contested questions.

The question lurking in the debate over whether or not marriage law should recognize same-sex couples seems almost like a paradigm case of the sort of dispute for which Political Liberalism was invented: what is the proper function of our sexual powers and its relationship to the nature of marriage?

How one answers this question is inexorably tied to what one understands to be true about the nature of men and women, the conjugal act, and the permanence of the marital bond. Such understandings, to conscript Rawls, are informed by those “many familiar and traditional doctrines – religious, philosophical, and moral” that Political Liberalism counts “as reasonable.”

Thus, it would seem to be inconsistent with Political Liberalism to allow any government coercion and marginalization of citizens who, as a matter of conscience (often grounded in religious conviction), cannot acquiesce to the legitimacy of same-sex marriage.

Consider just one example. In Massachusetts, soon after the state’s Supreme Judicial Court in 2003 required that the state issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Catholic Charities, which was at the time in the child adoption business, was told by the state that it could no longer exclude same-sex couples as adoptive parents, even though the Catholic Church maintains that same-sex unions are deeply disordered and sinful. Because it could not as a matter of conscience compromise its moral theology, Catholic Charities ceased putting children up for adoption.

Catholic Charities believes that its mission is to find for each child under its care an adequate replacement for her mother and father. This is grounded in the belief that a human child is the sort of being that has by nature a mother and a father, just as it is the sort of being that has the essential property to exercise rational thought (even if it never acquires the ability to exercise it).

Thus, if we have an obligation not to interrupt a child’s ability to exercise rational thought, we also have an obligation not to deny unjustly a child her mother and father. Because Catholic Charities believes it is morally required to treat all children with equal dignity and respect, this means that no child should be denied a mother and a father or a replacement for each if it is in fact possible to do so.

Including same-sex couples as adoptive parents, according to Catholic Charities, violates the equal dignity and respect of the children who have been placed in its care. Although everyone does not share this perspective, it is certainly just the sort of reasonable comprehensive doctrine that Political Liberalism is supposed to protect.

But as we have seen since 2003 [2], everything from public education, to rental law, to employment law, to family law, to government funding and to the tax-exempt status of religious academic institutions falls within the orbit of a state’s interest in making sure that same-sex marriage dissenters are coerced, punished, or marginalized if they refuse to treat same-sex marriage as licit as male-female marriage.

Thus, the Political Liberal, if he wants to remain consistent, should stand in solidarity with those who dissent from same-sex marriage.


Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).