“Government doesn’t define marriage, government recognizes marriage,” is not some facile trope to fall back on when challenged by a libertarian demanding government get out of the “marriage business.” It explains the truth of marriage’s pre-political, or apolitical, foundation in the natural order. Government didn’t define marriage in the first place, so how can it redefine marriage? All government should do is facilitate social reality by formally recognizing it.
It can redefine marriage, of course, if it completely slips its constitutional moorings and asserts creative—nay, divine—authority over nature. C. C. Pecknold writes at National Review:
When the state recognizes the nature of marriage as something prior to itself, it secures its own limits. When we acknowledge and recognize that by nature we are both social and political, we suddenly change the nature of politics. Our government no longer is tempted to define the whole of reality.
Why would a constitutional republic want to legislate everything? Conversely, why wouldn’t a totalitarian state want to legislate everything? Under Leviathan, everything is political, especially the personal. There is no part of human life it dares not touch. It’s motivation is in Adam and Eve’s original sin, that man knows better than God who created him who man is and what man is. Marriage, along with everything else, is remade to suit a whim, whatever artifice those in power fancy themselves living under instead of the created order.
As I’ve written before, a state that thinks it commands nature is destined for a hard fall. Reality is not up for debate, and only a delicate infrastructure of interconnected lies can keep the pretense up. Even then, the truth beats on it like a hurricane on a beach house: relentlessly, eroding the foundation, until the structure collapses. Because the lie cannot win on an even playing field, totalitarians must suppress the truth (for example, calling it “bigotry”).
The redefinition of marriage has been underway for some time, as many have noted. But we often miss the political significance of redefining marriage. What has happened is that the conjugal union is no longer posited as being prior to the political union, as it was for Aristotle, and even more strongly in the later development of the Western tradition. We have been witnessing the steady erasure of pre-political limits.
Marriage has been severed from nature as such, and it has certainly been severed from any notion that marriage is for the propagation of the next generation of a society. We may think of the cultural transformation happening organically, but everything from contraception to no-fault divorce to abortion has been enforced by the government—most often at the highest level of the judiciary. But we should ask ourselves: Who stands to benefit from these erosions of marriage? One reason why a state might enforce a legal redefinition of marriage is that the conjugal definition reminds us that there’s something natural on which the state depends.
All the branches of our government stand to win a temporary increase in power from the erosion of marriage. The state will not resist any cultural attacks on conjugal marriage because such attacks further erase any notion of a social nature prior to the state.
To put it bluntly, the reason why we have seen so much power behind redefining marriage is not because it serves 1.8 percent of the population. It is because it serves Leviathan—the Hobbesian vision of an absolutely sovereign state with ever-expansive control over every aspect of our lives.
No matter what hubristic nonsense erupts out of the Roberts court by month’s end, this will be as true then as now, as true as it has ever been.