Sen. Dennis Damon and others advocating the radical step of legalizing homosexual marriage claim that what they propose only affects “civil marriage,” saying that there will be no impact on “religious marriage.” But in terms of the damage to society, the reality is that there is no such distinction. There is, and can only be, one definition of marriage in any society.
This is because marriage is a fundamental social institution. Social institutions are the web of core values, understandings and meanings shared by all members of a society. They shape individual’s social development, behavior and aspirations. Other social institutions include government, money and property.
Changing the shared values, understandings and meanings that constitute a social institution inevitably changes the behaviors and aspirations that it instills in the members of that society.
There is no social institution of “religious marriage” and another of “civil marriage” in Maine or anywhere else. There is only the social institution of marriage. In Maine, for example, all legal marriages are defined by law. The state must grant a license, spouses must be of a certain age, be of the opposite sex, neither can currently be married to someone else, etc. Clergy must be specifically authorized by the state to perform marriages. Regardless of whether the marriage is performed in a church or by a civil official, the exact same laws governing this social institution apply.
It is clear then that the social institution of marriage cannot mean the union of a man and a woman, as it does now and has throughout human history, and at the same time mean the union of any two people regardless of their sex. One definition inevitably would replace the other. When it is the government backing one of these definitions with the force of law, as would happen if homosexual marriage were legalized, there is no question that the genderless marriage institution definition would quickly replace the current social understanding of marriage. And there is nothing to stop further redefining of the institution as other groups want their choices recognized as well. One only has to think back to the national debate over polygamy in the late 1800s.
Would that matter? Absolutely. Man-woman marriage has been an essential social institution throughout human history because it provides multiple benefits to society that cannot be provided as well, if at all, by any other institution. Its primary benefits relate to the bearing and rearing of the children, the future of any society. In recent decades, social science research has proven scientifically the importance and value of the man-woman marriage institution. It has found that children do best by far when raised by their married biological parents. That alone makes it essential for societies. There is no assurance that the radically different institution of genderless marriage Sen. Damon and others advocate would provide the same benefits.
Currently, most Mainers and most Americans believe that the best place for children to be born and raised is in a family headed by their married mother and father. This is evidence of the power of the social institution of man-woman marriage to dictate behavior and aspirations, even if the reality is that more children are being raised in other, less favorable situations. In fact, it is precisely the breakdown of the traditional family, with the consequent economic and social costs we are increasingly seeing that is one of the strongest arguments against radically redefining marriage. Doing so would inevitably reduce its importance in society.
It is understandable why Sen. Damon and his co-sponsors would try to perpetuate the myth that “religious marriage” would not be affected. But Mainers should not be deceived. What they are proposing is a radical and risky social experiment.
Bob Emrich is the pastor of Emmanuel Bible Baptist Church in Plymouth. He also is the founder and director of the Maine Jeremiah Project and a co-founder of the Maine Marriage Alliance. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.