The fight to renew marriage in America is reaching a crisis point. We are losing. If national leaders and advocates for marriage continue their current course, the loss will become a rout. But if they change strategy, there are unique opportunities for a new kind of victory.

Most marriage advocates today build their main arguments around one of two major themes. The most common approach involves philosophical arguments growing out of the natural law tradition. Those who don’t follow this approach typically fall back on explicit appeals to Christianity, sometimes softened by references to “Judeo-Christian tradition.” And of course some use both themes.

I believe in both Christianity and also natural law philosophy. Both of them will always be critical components of the fight for marriage. In particular, we who call ourselves Christians must do all in obedience to Christ and for the love of his kingdom.

But those are not the places to start when making the case for marriage, and they should not form the center of our message. Natural law arguments, while true and important, can’t remedy the deepest and most powerful cultural changes undermining marriage. Those changes are non-rational and won’t respond to rational arguments. And “because it’s Christian” is not the right reason for the civil law to institutionalize marriage. In fact, it won’t even help convince people to value and reinforce marriage outside the realm of the law, since American culture doesn’t feel responsible to reproduce Christianity. Christians can be called to fight for marriage as their way of serving Christ without holding that Christianity is the reason law and culture should value marriage.

Post-Christendom Challenge

As America’s transition to post-Christendom has become more widely appreciated in the last generation, the natural law approach has displaced Christianity as the dominant theme among marriage advocates. The crowning culmination of this transition is the new book What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense by Sherif Gergis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George. It is a majestic expression of the natural law case for marriage—dense and elaborate but clear and cogent. It has been widely and accurately hailed as the best rational argument for the civil institution of marriage available.

The authors rightly focus attention on the central question of marriage: what is it? Our answer to that question more or less settles all the other questions. Is marriage just a meaningless piece of paper, as American law has declared for the last two generations? Or does it have a root in human nature?

I actually think What Is Marriage? would persuade anyone who read it with a basic willingness to accept its first premise. That is, the premise that marriage is something specific (not just “whatever we say it is”) and that human reason can discern what it is. Unfortunately, this premise is precisely what has been called into question.

Natural law advocates are attempting to reason about sexuality with people who fervently and fundamentally believe reasoning has nothing to do with sexuality. If they don’t want to reason, you can’t reach them with arguments. As Aristotle wrote at the beginning of his Ethics, people exercise their reason only to the extent that their rational capacities are nurtured, trained, and formed (mostly in childhood) by means other than reasoning. Most Americans today have received little such formation. The claim that marriage is something and we can know what it is comes to them as a completely novel and foreign idea, and they’re not much inclined to do the hard work of understanding it. The natural law case is gibberish to them.

Moreover, the natural law advocates’ description of marriage makes no sense to ordinary Americans today because of its political reductionism. Natural law advocates almost always restrict their account of marriage to the aspects that can be recognized by the law and public policy. This leaves them describing the nature and purpose of marriage solely in terms of reproduction.

It’s true that reproduction is the main reason it is legitimate for the state to institutionalize marriage. But when Americans hear marriage described as an institution that exists for reproduction, that bears no resemblance to their self-understandings and daily experiences of marriage. People don’t recognize themselves in this mirror. And they understandably cringe to hear their marriages described as tools for accomplishing the public good.

Just watch the debate at Harvard a month ago between Gergis and Andrew Koppelman. Interestingly, Koppelman devotes only a minority of his time to the logical merits of Gergis’s argument. He spends most of his time explaining why people today just don’t even understand what Gergis is claiming, and why Gergis’s mode of argument ensures there’s nothing he can do about it. Koppelman’s arguments on the merits of the marriage issue are half-baked and poorly organized, but his reasoning on why Gergis’s approach can’t reach people is well thought out, lucid, and (in my opinion) profoundly right.

As Koppelman explains, all of Gergis’s talk about “conjugal union,” “coitus,” “reproduction,” and “the common good” comes across as obscure, irrelevant, and alienating. Koppelman shrewdly devotes chunks of his time to reading passages from Gergis’s book; he knows its descriptions of sexuality and marriage come across to the audience as bizarre. Even though the arguments are true—indeed, they are ironclad and unanswerable to anyone who accepts their initial premise—they are nonetheless driving people away from Gergis’s position rather than towards it.

To me, “conjugal union” sounds like some kind of cosmic phenomenon from Star Trek: “When the positronic wave signatures of the isotropic energy fields are aligned, they achieve a state of conjugal union.” “Spock, I’m a doctor, not a particle physicist!” Every time the leading advocates of marriage use this alien terminology, another young American goes over to the other side.

Backlash Forming

So a backlash is forming against natural law. Some marriage advocates are returning to scriptural arguments. They rarely appeal to the severe commands and condemnations of Scripture; more often, they frame their case in terms of broader Christian themes. Douglas Wilson, for example, draws on scriptural images and narratives in order to convey the beauty of the Christian view of marriage. Others emphasize Christianity’s historic role in moving marriage away from its ancient basis in property management and the subjugation of women toward a more humane, civilizing institution.

To see why these approaches fail, consider Peter Leithart’s recent comments on a debate between Wilson and Andrew Sullivan. The objection from religious freedom and cultural pluralism is by itself sufficient to defeat Wilson’s arguments. The debate about marriage is a debate about public policy and the shared American culture, not theology or Christian ethics. “People have to be convinced that social institutions should participate in and reflect some sort of cosmic order,” Leithart observes. “Who believes that these days?”

But at an even deeper level, the audience doesn’t even understand Wilson’s claims, in the same way it doesn’t understand natural law. Like Gergis, Wilson is talking gibberish. Those who grew up in the mainstream cultural environment of the past half-century lack the mental reference points to interpret scriptural and theological language. “Does the vocabulary we have make any sense to the public at large?” Leithart asks.

Because these strategies aren’t working, more and more people are turning pessimistic about the future of marriage. Even the once-unflappable Maggie Gallagher titled her final syndicated column “A Farewell to Optimism.” Leithart opens his post with this cheerful thought: “It will take nothing short of a cultural revolution for biblical arguments to be heard, much less to become persuasive.” By the time he closes, he is flirting with despair:

In the end, these dilemmas may not matter. Perhaps Christians are called to do no more than speak the truth without worrying about persuasiveness. Perhaps we have entered a phase in which God has closed ears, so that whatever we say sounds like so much gibberish. We can depend on the Spirit to give ears as he pleases.

The turn to pessimism is wrong. Neither God’s sovereignty nor the failure of our current strategies is an excuse for fatalism. God is still at work in the world, and despair is a sin—it denies God’s providence.

The institutions of human civilization are God’s instruments. Our job is to play those instruments. If we’re not making the right music, we shouldn’t blame the instruments. We should figure out a better way to play. We’ll explore the better way of playing in my second article on the new fight for marriage.