This Fourth of July, American Catholics might feel that they no longer fit so comfortably within America. After all, Catholics hold that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, but the Supreme Court has just ruled that it is unconstitutional for this view to be embedded in the law. Nevertheless, Catholics should realize that in arguing for the traditional definition of marriage, they are not seeking to impose an alien view on America, but are instead seeking to preserve the view that informed the thinking of the founders of America. On the question of the meaning of marriage, Catholics stand squarely with the American founders. I was reminded of this while reading Chief Justice John Roberts’s dissent in the marriage case, in which he notes some of the sources that shaped and reflected the founders’ thinking on this question.
Who was the most important philosophic influence on the American founding? That would be John Locke. Here is Locke’s account of marriage, taken from his famous Second Treatise of Government:
Sec. 78. Conjugal society is made by a voluntary compact between man and
woman; and tho’ it consist chiefly in such a communion and right in one
another’s bodies as is necessary to its chief end, procreation; yet it draws
with it mutual support and assistance, and a communion of interests too, as
necessary not only to unite their care and affection, but also necessary to
their common off-spring, who have a right to be nourished, and maintained by
them, till they are able to provide for themselves.
Who was the most important legal influence on the founders? That would be William Blackstone, author of a massive commentary on the laws of England that almost all founding era lawyers studied. Here’s Blackstone’s statement on marriage:
The second private relation of persons is that of husband and wife; arising from marriage, which our law regards in no other light than as a civil contract.
What was the most important religious influence on the founders? That would be the Bible. They were overwhelmingly Protestant. The Bible, of course, teaches in unambiguous language (both in the words of Jesus and in the book of Genesis) that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. All of these influences can be seen in the definition of marriage in Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language:
MAR’RIAGE, noun [Latin mas, maris.] The act of uniting a man and woman for life; wedlock; the legal union of a man and woman for life. marriage is a contract both civil and religious, by which the parties engage to live together in mutual affection and fidelity, till death shall separate them. marriage was instituted by God himself for the purpose of preventing the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, for promoting domestic felicity, and for securing the maintenance and education of children.
Those advocating same-sex marriage have often compared their quest to the civil rights movement. But there is this important difference. The civil rights movement was conservative in the sense that it could understand itself as an appeal back to the country’s founding principles. The founders, after all, knew that all men are created equal and understood that slavery and tyranny over African Americans was contrary to natural justice (even though they inherited a country in which slavery existed). There is no sense in which the redefinition of marriage is a return to the founding. It is pure innovation.