A Radical or Marginal Change?

The excellent blogger Rod Dreher writes:

I understand the case for same-sex marriage, though I don’t agree with it, but look, if you’re reduced to having to tell the public that they have no right to be consulted about the radical redefinition of a bedrock social and cultural institution, then you have a big, big problem.

Since he’s grappled many times with arguments for and against gay marriage, I haven’t any desire to rehash the whole debate, but I do want to challenge Rod on one small aspect of how he characterizes this issue: Would the legalization of gay marriage really be a “radical redefinition” of the social and cultural institution? Maybe same sex marriage is a radical departure from marriage as understood by orthodox Christians, or people for whom it is primarily a procreative union.

But I submit that a majority of Americans subscribe to a definition that more closely resembles the following: Marriage is the union of people who fall in love with one another, decide that they want to spend the rest of their lives together, and commit to do so monogamously. The definition I’ve offered isn’t merely more commonly accepted among Americans than whatever Rod Dreher would describe, it is perfectly consistent with marriage laws as now written.

Expanding marriage to include gay people doesn’t radically redefine the understanding of marriage that prevails in our culture. As Rod himself writes, “heterosexual America has already conceded the philosophical grounds on which traditional marriage was based.” It is therefore specious for opponents of same sex marriage to invoke as an argument the proposition that “it’s dangerous to radically redefine the status quo.”

Obviously, Rod has other arguments to offer against same sex marriage, but if they want to remain on intellectually solid ground, he and other opponents of same sex marriage must stop using that particular argument. Same sex marriage may be an advantageous or disadvantageous change in our society’s understanding of marriage — I believe it is the former — but it is most definitely a marginal change that flows logically from the institution’s prior evolution, not a radical change.