Ryan Anderson’s Powerful Case for Marriage

Senior Editor’s note: The 2015 Synod on the Family may be winding down, but the tensions in Paul VI Hall are continuing, as Robert Royal (@RobertSRoyal) writes in his most recent dispatch from Rome. Dr. Royal also notes that solid majorities of Synod Fathers seem to favor the Church’s constant teaching on marriage and sexuality – something to remember as we near the publication of the final report of the Synod. Click here to read Bob’s latest report, “Separating the Wheat from the Chaff”. – Brad Miner (@ABradfordMiner)

In Plato’s Laches, dealing with “courage,” it is offered early on that courage will require a knowledge of the grounds of “fear and hope.” But that could involve the art of a soothsayer, and that sense of things is eventually supplanted: the one who risks his life, in a courageous act, must know something of the moral ends that justify the sacrifice.

Ryan Anderson has taken it as his mission to make the case for marriage as the “one flesh” union of a man and woman, exclusive and enduring, a framework of lawfulness to envelop the begetting and nurturing of children. In making that his mission, he has exposed himself to derision and hatefulness, unending. The only way to explain what makes him persist is his serene confidence in the truth of the moral case for marriage – and as he puts it, “our right to live in accordance with the truth.”

In his new book he makes that case in all of its dimensions: Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom. He makes the moral case for the one-flesh union, but he also explores the wreckage that comes with the eroding respect for marriage – the wreckage we have already seen and the deeper wreckage now portended as the Supreme Court has installed same-sex marriage.

As he has illuminated this fuller landscape he has indeed given us both “the grounds of fear and hope.” The fear comes with the intentions now made brutally frank by the activists for same-sex marriage. And so Masha Gessen writes, in 2012:

It’s a no-brainer that [same-sex couples] should have the right to marry, but I also think equally that it’s a no-brainer that the institution of marriage should not exist. . . .Fighting for gay marriage generally involves lying about what we are going to do with marriage when we get there.

And what they wanted to do was dismantle it – as one activist put it, “to expose and denaturalize the historical construction of gender at the heart of marriage.” The object was not to bring the blessings of marriage to more people, but to wean people away from their moral misgivings about the homosexual life.


At the same time, Anderson has brought forth the testimonies that reveal the “grounds of hope.” He draws here on essays he has run under his editorship of the web journal The Public Discourse – cries of the heart from men and women who were raised by gay or lesbian parents. They feel over time the absence of the fathers and mothers who begot them – not absences caused by death, but by marriages constituted in principle to avoid the presence of that parent of the other sex.

One woman notes “only now, as I watch my children loving and being loved by their father each day, that I can see the beauty and wisdom in traditional marriage and parenting.” She could see, that is, what is distinct to a father’s love – e.g., in the man tussling with his son on the floor, but teaching him self-control, not to play rough.

And of course the men raised by other men somehow discover that they are missing something distinctly feminine in a mother’s love. But how do they come to sense that? Could it be something – pardon the expression – “natural”? And if it is, might that give us the sense that the understanding of natural marriage will not be extinguished, precisely because it is grounded in something enduring that will not be effaced, even as the law sets it powers on the side of denying it.

On that point, Anderson suffers no illusions; he looks plainly at what is before us. With the “logic of morals,” the partisans of same-sex marriage think that marriage is rightful and those who oppose it are wrongful. Whether they have small businesses or merely make their sentiments known, they should be fined and punished, or lose their jobs, and made to confess their wrongness.

Could we invoke a plea for religious tolerance? Chai Feldblum, a gay activist, descended from a line of rabbis, brushes away with a breezy contempt the claim for religious tolerance here, for it would stand in opposition to things she regards as commandingly rightful.

This argument can be met then only by an argument showing why it cannot be wrongful to confine marriage to a man and a woman. It can be met, that is, only by an argument that takes up precisely the question of “What is Marriage?,” the question that Anderson has pursued in this book, and in his book of that title with Robert George and Sherif Girgis.

And yet none of our favorite conservative justices on the Supreme Court has drawn on those arguments in any of the key cases. They prefer to argue that there is no mention of “marriage” in the Constitution and therefore no ground on which to declare a “constitutional” right of same-sex marriage. But there was no mention of marriage in the Constitution when the Court struck down the laws barring interracial marriage. If the conservative judges can be jolted out of their doctrinal slumber, they will have to engage the other side by facing the substantive question of what marriage is.

Ryan Anderson has given them the text to their opinion – if they can ever bring the question back to a Court that can get it right.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.