The Logical Fallacy Gay-Marriage Opponents Depend Upon

Arguing against the policy, Rick Santorum begs the question and willfully ignores the other side's arguments.

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In the United States, there is legal debate over whether state constitutions require that marriage rights be extended to gays and lesbians, and a policy debate over the wisdom of legal same-sex unions. Presidential candidate Rick Santorum is a leading opponent of gay marriage. But rather than marshaling logically sound arguments, he constantly commits the fallacy of begging the question. His inability or unwillingness to do better helps explain why social conservatives are losing the debate -- and the support of America's next generation of voters. He's adept at signalling solidarity with those who share his position, but totally unable to persuade.

His faulty logic is most clearly on display on Ricochet, the right-leaning Web site for political conversation, where he recently posted his extended thoughts on abortion and same sex marriage. His article telegraphs the fallacy at its heart in the title: it's called "We Hold These Truths," as if the correctness of his assertions are self-evident, a claim he makes explicit in his conclusion.

In fact, his assertions are deeply controversial.

Proponents of permitting gays and lesbians to marry believe that the definition of civil marriage can be expanded to include same-sex unions without fundamentally changing the institution. That the legal definition can be changed is fact: it has already been changed in some jurisdictions. Gay-marriage advocates cannot prove that this change won't weaken the institution. But there are various reasons they cite for their belief that straight unions won't be weakened.

Here's a partial rundown of those reasons:

  1. If same-sex unions are legalized, neither existing straight marriages nor future straight marriages will be affected by the legal changes. The rules governing how a man marries a woman, and the legal terms of that marriage, will be unchanged in civil marriages. The religious sacrament of marriage will be unchanged too -- and since religious authorities have long distinguished between civil and sacramental marriage among their flocks, doing so is clearly possible.   
  2. Although gay couples won't be able to conceive children together -- something traditionalists regard as a core purpose of marriage -- even the current legal regime permits marriages among people who cannot conceive children. Sterile people and folks who marry past childbearing age are two examples. (That there is no interest in prohibiting such unions makes gay-marriage proponents suspicious that inability to conceive in fact drives the controversy). 
  3. When gay-marriage proponents think about their own marriages, or the future marriages they hope to enter into, the legality or illegality of same-sex unions doesn't affect how they conceive of the institution, with the single exception of straight people who are boycotting marriage until gays can marry, a case in which legalizing gay marriage would strengthen it among straights.
  4. One never encounters a gay-marriage opponent who'll consider their own marriage vows less valid, the marriages performed by their church less sanctified, or their relationship with their spouse weaker, if gays are permitted to marry.
  5. Same-sex marriage opponents can offer no specific mechanism by which permitting gays to marry will undermine civil marriage as it currently exists; and when they make vague claims about how the institution will be weakened, they often misrepresent reality -- that is to say, instead of arguing that the institution of civil marriage as it currently exists will be weakened, they proceed with their argument as if they're protecting something that has been around for thousands of years. But marriage as it was understood thousands of years ago and civil marriage as it is codified in law today (even before same-sex marriage) are radically different institutions. For example, a man takes one wife, not several; marriages are typically not arranged, and are often entered into by individuals rather than families; civil rather than religious officials often perform the ceremony; there is no-fault divorce; there are no longer dowries; the age of consent is different; there are spousal-rape laws on the books; and serial marriage is common. Given all these changes, permitting same-sex unions is arguably not the most significant change in the institution of marriage over the centuries, especially since it applies to a very small percentage of the population. 

The aforementioned arguments help explain Gallup's May 20, 2011, finding that for the first time, a majority of Americans favors legalized same-sex unions. Among 18 to 34-year-olds, 70 percent think gay marriage should be legal! What does Santorum, the politician now being touted most heavily by gay-marriage opponents, have to say in favor of his increasingly unpopular position? Nothing much, which is characteristic among pols who take his traditionalist position.

Notice how many inaccurate statements and weasel words he employs to make his case. "We know that some truths are bigger than the next election and should not shift with political consultants' advice," he writes. "And among those great, enduring, and foundational truths, I believe, are life and marriage." So right off the bat he's got something wrong: it isn't political consultants making the case for gay marriage, it's gays, lesbians, and their many allies -- seven in 10 people age 18-to-34! -- responding to cultural changes, including a decline in bigotry toward homosexuals and the desire of more gays and lesbians to participate in mainstream institutions.

"Marriage is, and has always been through human history, a union of a man and woman," he writes, neglecting to mention the times when it has been the unions of a man and various women -- and the times when the most relevant thing about a marriage was its unification of families or clans or tribes or fiefdoms, not the stability it afforded a possibly procreative relationship. And did human history end in April 2001? That's when the Netherlands legalized gay marriage. Today gay marriage is legal in 10 countries, as well as specific jurisdictions in the U.S., Mexico, and Brazil. This is all very recent, but it isn't as if these laws are likely to be repealed. Today's 10-year-olds have never known a world without gay marriage, and if Rick Santorum is elected this year and in 2016, those kids will start voting before the end of his second term. Put another way, the strongest argument the anti-gay marriage folks have will evaporate in a generation.

And if you missed it, that "marriage is... a union of a man and a woman" is the blatant logical fallacy, which Santorum repeats in various iterations. At best, the statement is begging the question. At worst and in fact, it is demonstrably incorrect. See the definition of marriage in New York, Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, and elsewhere.

Other empirically false statements follow. Writes Santorum:


A husband is a man who commits to a woman, to her and any children she may give him. He commits to his wife without any reservations, to share with her all his worldly goods and to exclude all others from this intimate communion of life. From this vow of marriage comes a wonderful and unique good: any children their union creates will have a mom and a dad united in love, in one family.
That's a vision of sacramental marriage, but it ain't civil marriage in these United States. In civil marriage, prenuptial agreements are permitted, so the man hardly shares all his worldly goods, and plenty of people marry with reservations, and without violating the law when they do so. People write their own vows too. Sometimes they say them in Vulcan! Sometimes they don't include sexual fidelity, and if they cheat or sleep around with or sans permission they are hardly compelled to divorce. The state keeps on viewing them as being married. Alternatively, it'll permit them to divorce and marry other people, even if they have kids. So much for "one united family."

"That's the special work of marriage in law -- to connect things that otherwise fray and fragment: love, life, money, moms, and dads," Santorum says. Interestingly, gay people are sometimes moms and dads, and the ones who want to marry typically seek material and emotional security -- just like straight people, they're trying to prevent love and money from fraying.

He goes on:

A man who does not seek to do this -- who doesn't choose to give himself to a woman and any children they may have together in this unique and special way -- may well be a very good man and have wonderful other kinds of relationships, but he isn't seeking to be a husband.
Again, he is mistaking his vision of The World As It Ought to Be for reality. In fact, the law already recognizes all sorts of men as husbands even though they fall outside the standards Santorum articulates. And insofar as I know, he has never attempted a legislative remedy in their cases.

"We can't redefine reality to accommodate politically fashionable wishes," Santorum says -- but legislators are empowered to redefine what civil marriage means at any time, in some states they've done so, and Congress could do so through Constitutional amendment. "Words matter because they capture enduring and timeless truths about human nature and about the common good," he writes, but as argued, the word "marriage" has referred to an institution that has changed in countless ways over the centuries.

He concludes:

Marriage is a society's life blood. Not everybody can or will marry, but all of us (married or not) depend on marriage in a unique way. Marriage is foundational: it creates and sustains not only children but civilization itself. This is an institution which protects our liberty.

And it is Santorum, not his opponents, who want to prohibit some people from getting married. It is gay-marriage proponents who seek to help more people to participate in this wonderful institution. If Santorum believes his own definition of what marriage is, one he calls self-evident, though it seems to many of us wrongheaded and in any case does not comport with how the law currently defines marriage, he ought to write a civil-marriage law that prohibits divorce and mixing families and restricts the institution to folks who have kids together.

He could put his "marriage for procreative purposes and no divorce" idea to a vote. It would fail. Instead he focuses on gay marriage, because although lots of folks fall outside his ideal vision of marriage and violate the religious precepts in which his ideas are grounded, only one relatively unpopular minority group falls outside it. It isn't that gays and lesbians represent the biggest threat to Santorum's conception of marriage. No-fault divorce and prenuptial agreements and serial marriages are a much bigger deal. Gays are just 5 percent of the population.

But the most common and corrosive departures from the Santorum marriage ideal are widely regarded as rightly legal, even among Republicans, and thus they are politically untouchable. I don't doubt that Santorum earnestly thinks gays should be prohibited from marrying, despite the weakness of his arguments. But so many aspects of current marriage law and practice deviate from his idea of what the institution "self-evidently" "must" be; and among those deviations, he targets gay marriage, for he is as much a sophist and a political opportunist as a man doing all he can to save marriage from what he thinks is ruining it. Other politicians are no different.

When even the most socially conservative politicians are unwilling to run on the legal codification of traditional marriage, the importance of which supposedly justifies gay and lesbian inequality, surely the case for prohibiting same-sex marriage is very significantly weakened.

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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