Marriage and Nihilism


Over at Public Discourse I have an article contending that it is hard to see how we can redefine marriage, as our fellow citizens on the left are urging us to do, without pulling the rug out from under ourselves, so to speak.  That is, I argue that we can’t redefine marriage without effectively cutting ourselves off from our past as a civilization, and that this is to enter into a sphere in which there are no solid standards of judgment about right and wrong.

Our society, like any society, is dependent on tradition for its very identity.  We can’t reinvent ourselves all the time.  Yet it is hard to see how you redefine marriage, which has been understood as a union between man and woman time out of mind, without denying the authority of tradition.  Of course, America has never been defined only by tradition.  But when we look to the other sources of American identity, it seems that we reject those, too, when we choose to redefine marriage.


America has been deeply influenced by biblical revelation.  Alexis de Tocqueville, that unmatched observer and analyst of American culture, called protestant Christianity, and particularly Puritanism, the point of departure for American democracy, the seed from which everything else grew.  Yet it is as clear as anything can be the bible understands marriage as a union between man and woman.

It will be responded, and reasonably, that America has never depended entirely on the Bible for its sense of justice and morality, and that it need not do so going forward.  We also have the natural rights tradition coming out of the thought of John Locke and expressed in the Declaration of Independence.  Let us leave aside the fact that Locke defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman and understands all of its natural purposes in light of that union’s propensity to produce children.  Whether we go into all that or not, I think that it is not possible to take nature seriously as a standard for human conduct and at the same time say that nature says nothing about what marriage is.  The differentiation of the human species into male and female, and the tendency of sexual unions between male and female to produce offspring that need to be reared, are among the most obvious natural phenomena we can observe.  If they are irrelevant to how we organize our social institutions, it is hard to see why anything else in nature should be relevant.  Or, if we can ignore nature here, why not ignore it everywhere?

I don’t think these kinds of arguments will mean much to contemporary liberals, who have already gone far down the path of actually wanting liberation from tradtion, the Bible, and nature as it was understood by the philosophic tradition that informed the American founders.  But I hope they will at least be given a hearing by those “conservatives”  — economics-only conservatives, we should perhaps call them — who think the conservative movement should drop opposition to same-sex marriage and instead focus only on questions of economic freedom.  My message to them is that if you can redefine marriage, you can redefine just about anything, including property, economic freedom, contracts, and whatever else economic conservatives think is worth preserving.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press), The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing), and All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (Spence Publishing), and the editor of a collection of essays entitled Magnanimity and Statesmanship (Lexington Books). His articles have appeared in the Review of Politics, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Perspectives on Political Science, and First Things. He is a regular contributor to the online journal The Public Discourse. Holloway was a 2005-06 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 1998.

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