In the debate over marriage, man-woman marriage is often referred to as “traditional marriage” by both liberals and conservatives alike. For example, it’s very common to hear conservatives speak of the need to “preserve traditional marriage.” Our use of language concerns me. What we call something, and how we refer to something reveals a lot about the way we think of that thing. In this case, the way we refer to marriage reveals a lot about the way we think of marriage, and the way we are arguing for our viewpoint. I submit to you that part of the reason we are losing the battle over marriage is the fact that we are grounding marriage in tradition rather than biology; in social norms rather than human nature – as evidenced by the way we speak of and describe man-woman marriage. I propose that instead of speaking of traditional marriage, we should start speaking in terms of natural marriage.
To describe man-woman marriage as traditional marriage connotes that marriage is defined by society, particularly society’s traditions. It puts the emphasis on social practice rather than the nature of marriage itself. “Traditional marriage” suggests that we are arguing for a particular form of marriage, based solely (or primarily) on the fact that this is the way it’s always been. But as detractors rightly point out, why should we ascribe such authority to tradition? Traditions change over time, so why can’t this tradition change too? Perhaps the time has come to dispense with tradition. Indeed, they argue that we need to dispense with this particular tradition because it results in discrimination.
If our only argument is that “marriage has always been defined as a man-woman union, so we need to keep it that way,” then I agree with our cultural and intellectual opponents that we don’t have a leg to stand on. But that’s not our argument – and I hope it’s not yours. Our argument is about the nature of marriage itself, not social practice. We argue that marriage has an intrinsic nature based in human nature and human biology, and cannot be changed by the whims or preferences of culture. Marriage is not a social construction that can be defined or redefined by society at will. Marriage is a comprehensive unity of two sexual opposites into a single sexual whole through the act of intercourse – an act which is inherently ordered to procreation, and hence family life. As such, marriage is a pre-political, biologically-based, natural institution that humans recognize for what it is. We describe it; we don’t define it or invent it. The phrase “traditional marriage” does not accurately describe the concept of marriage we hold to. It obscures it, and even capitulates to the notion that marriage is just a social creation and social tradition. “Natural marriage” is a much more apt term to describe our view of marriage.
The marriage debate is not about tradition (or love, equality, and the like). This debate is about whether we will continue to recognize the natural institution of marriage for what it is, or if we will ignore that natural institution in favor of a socially constructed institution that has no objective standard, and can be defined and redefined by society at will. Conservatives argue that we should continue to recognize the natural institution of marriage as one that is rooted in our shared human nature, and thus inalterable. We are opposed to those who want to pretend that other kinds of unions are marriages, or can be called “marriages,” when in fact they are not of the marital sort. While it’s possible to redefine a cat as a dog, the fact remains that it’s still a cat, and always will be.
I support natural marriage, not traditional marriage. I hope you will too.