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Notes on the Institution of Marriage

Nelson Hultberg | In today’s rapidly disintegrating, “do-your-own-thing” culture, our pundits, professors, and judges are in desperate need of some powerful doses of rationality. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the conflict over the institution of marriage and what its definition is to be. What follows are several insights that hopefully will clear up some egregiously warped notions being bandied about by America’s “intelligentsia.”

In a free and ordered society (which is what those of us on the political right maintain as the ideal) the defining of marriage cannot be left up to individual whim. It must be defined by the predominant institution of authority in society, which in our day is the state while in earlier times it was the church.

Why is this so? Because if adult individuals were allowed to freely define marriage as they see fit, polygamy and the building of harems would soon become part of the cultural landscape, various besotted hippies would be requesting licenses to mate with their pet dogs or horses, and certain sicko men would demand to hook up with their 18-year old nubile daughters.

MarriageContrary to what Rousseau’s modern progeny believe about the “innate goodness and rationality of man,” there are millions of innately crude and animalistic humans in this world, and there always will be. In the absence of a government definition of marriage as an institution (on the state level), these distasteful humans would instinctively seek to flaunt their egos especially in today’s culture of rampant moral relativism.

History and the intractabilities of human nature tell us it is not possible to make marriage a purely voluntary endeavor devoid of authoritative definition and licensing. A rational society enshrines rules to define its fundamental institutions; it does not allow human whim to dictate their structure. These rules, society’s intellectuals glean from a synthesis of reason, experience, and intuition down through the centuries. We call this synthesis “right reason,” i.e., the practical wisdom that society’s foremost thinkers hand down to us. If our thinkers do their job right, they teach the people what these rules are, which then manifests in a free and ordered society via democratic vote and federalism.

Many libertarians will object to the above reasoning, for they espouse the right of individuals to partake in whatever is peaceful and does not infringe upon the rights of others. Thus they maintain that individuals should be allowed to define marriage as they see fit. But do these same libertarians object to the state prohibiting close relatives from marrying? I know of none who do, even though such a marriage act is “peaceful.” Thus wise men and women conclude that prohibitive marital definition on the part of society is sane and logical. Under our system of “Lockean federalism” the states need to define what a marriage is.

Freedom of Association

As for the present brouhaha over same-sex marriages instigated by today’s gay and lesbian community, it would not be an issue in a truly free society in which government was properly (i.e., constitutionally) limited – in other words where individuals were free to associate or not to associate. It is only because gays and lesbians have gained the power through the courts to force their acceptance in the various social interactions of humans that they are now demanding to have “same-sex unions” equated legally with “heterosexual marriage.” In a society that was free to voluntarily accept and reject its associations, homosexual citizens would no longer have the ability to mandate their acceptance (i.e., sledgehammer their lifestyle into social approval). Consequently, they would have to become sexually discreet again. Their demand to equate same-sex unions with heterosexual marriage would dissipate in face of the more important need to get along in a society that had the right to freely approve or disapprove.

This is a perfect example of why the right to “freedom of association” is so important in the maintenance of a free and ordered society. Once any group – be it racial minorities, females, or homosexuals – gains the ability to legally mandate its automatic acceptance by everyone else (i.e., overrule the right to freedom of association), then there is no longer an adequate check on the customs, practices, and lifestyles permitted in that society. Whatever humans can dream up and descend into will then develop among the members of that society, and they will relentlessly push for its inclusion into what is accepted by the dominant authorities of the culture. This is the nature of humans. They have a tendency to partake in whatever will not incur disapproval from their fellow humans. The freedom not to associate is one of society’s forms of disapproval. Liberals denounce it and legislate against it, but it is a very natural and needed disapproval in the preservation of cultural order.

Today’s chaos of values is primarily the result of the moral relativism that has seeped into the teachings of our intellectuals over the past 90 years. But to a certain degree, it is also the result of our abandonment of the fundamental right to “freedom of association” in society. This abandonment has created open season for any and all lifestyles, no matter how bizarre and irrational, to manifest themselves.

Does this mean that gays and lesbians are second-class citizens and can be treated with contempt? Of course not. They are humans with the same rights as heterosexuals, and they deserve to be treated with the same respect and civility that one conveys to all other human beings. But they do not have the right to legislatively mandate their acceptance. Whatever acceptance in society they are to gain must come voluntarily through reason and persuasion.

The Natural Order

Historically the conflict of values between hetero and homosexual humans has always been solved through the practice of discreetness. Homosexuality is tolerated in a civil society as long as it is not flaunted and does not attempt to establish “alternative lifestyle” status via judicial coercion. Quite simply, gay and lesbian sexuality is different from straight sexuality. It is not an alternative; it is an unnatural form of sex because it does not, in the words of legal philosopher Robert P. George, fulfill the “two-in-one-flesh communion of persons that is consummated and actualized by acts that are reproductive in type, whether or not they are reproductive in effect (or are motivated, even in part, by a desire to reproduce).”

This is the defining characteristic of marriage validated by the wisdom that has been handed down through thousands of years of human history: Marriage is a merging of two persons consummated by reproductive type acts. Gay and lesbian sexuality does not engage in reproductive type acts. Thus it is not an equal union to that of man and woman and therefore not a marriage. It goes back to Aristotle’s famous Law of Identity: A is A, B is B. A thing is what it is because of its nature. A rock can never be an orchid. And a “gay union” can never be a “heterosexual marriage.”

There is a natural order in existence, and government should not be used to coerce people into accepting a disorder or a lie. For example, the Federal Reserve’s fiat paper money can never achieve parity with a gold dollar. Government’s legal tender laws mandating that paper money must be considered the same as gold are an attempt to codify a lie into fact. Such self-deception can only bring decay and derision throughout society. The same applies to a government mandating that homosexual unions must be considered the same as heterosexual marriages by the country’s citizens. A deviation from the norm can never have parity with the norm.

Obviously gays and lesbians have a right to equality under the law, but this means only that they have the same right as all other citizens in society to form a “contractual union” and have it upheld by the law. It does not mean they have the right to coerce their fellowman by judicial decree into accepting such a union as a “marriage.” Marriage has, for thousands of years and for very sound reasons, been legally defined as between opposite sexes. Judges do not have the right to change this; only the people do.

We must understand that much of legality is dictated by “cultural mores” manifesting in majority approval. Both conservatives and libertarians are very concerned with the concept of “individual rights” as a foundation of our laws, but conservatives understand that individual rights do not dictate all laws in society.

For example, the freedom of citizens to form contractual unions is dictated by the concept of individual rights. But the legal definition of such contractual unions is dictated by our cultural mores manifesting in a vote of the people. Thus judges cannot dictate which unions are to be defined as marriages, for individual rights are not involved. Our cultural mores will decide this via right reason and majority vote. In other words, there is no such thing as a legal right to have one’s associations defined in a specific way. Our culture will determine who is to be defined as “married,” not our courts.

Moreover, if gay men and lesbian women are allowed to codify their unions into “marriages” because of feelings for each other, then so also should straight men with each other and straight women with each other. Why should not any pair of friends be allowed to “legally marry?” But as a society we don’t legalize this. The institution of marriage is, by the laws of nature, a union of a man and a woman. To extend it to every conceivable pairing of humans desecrates its spiritual link, its rational purpose, and its practical necessity. Such obtuse egalitarianism is insane.

We as a people must come to grips with what Jefferson termed the “natural aristocracy” that is inherent in human existence, i.e., the hierarchy of disparate achievement that individuals will bring about when left free. Life’s earnings, relations, status levels, economic results, and positions of power cannot be “equalized” in society. We all have imperfections that we must learn to live with. My imperfect mug can never have parity with Cary Grant’s; I must accept this and build my life voluntarily in accord with the Constitution and the traditional mores of civilization discerned by “right reason.” Gays and lesbians must do likewise with their imperfect sexual orientation. Freedom mandates this. To blank out on such a truth, as our reigning pundits and professors are doing today, is to destroy the vital spiritual-ideological glue that cements the infinite variations of humanity into a free and cohesive society.

[This article is based upon an excerpt from Nelson Hultberg’s book, The Golden Mean: Libertarian Politics, Conservative Values.]

Nelson Hultberg is a freelance scholar/writer in Dallas, Texas and the Director of Americans for a Free Republic His articles have appeared over the past 20 years in such publications as The Dallas Morning News, American Conservative, Insight, Liberty, The Freeman, and The Social Critic, as well as on numerous Internet sites such as Capitol Hill Outsider, Conservative Action Alerts, Daily Paul, Canada Free Press, and The Daily Bell. Email him at:

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