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Judge Vaughn Walker's decision to overturn California's Proposition 8 poured gasoline on an already raging debate about whether the state should recognize permanent, monogamous gay and lesbian relationships as marriage.

Yet at the very end of 2010, the conversation about gay marriage took a very different turn. In early December, three philosophers—Sherif Girgis, Robert George, and Ryan Anderson published one of the most important efforts in recent years to defend traditional marriage from a purely philosophical standpoint. Though the paper, published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, was obviously less visible than Judge Walker's decision, it has momentarily managed to reframe the public discourse around a single nagging question: what is marriage?

The philosophers' own answer to this question is that marriage is fundamentally not a legal or social construction, but rather is a "a comprehensive interpersonal union that is consummated and renewed by acts of organic bodily union and oriented to the bearing and rearing of children." It's a meaty definition, but they examine and defend it with a patience and care that unlike many technical philosophical works is accessible.

Yet while laboriously and patiently constructed, their case for tradition marriage fits uneasily with popular evangelical notions of ethics. There are two points of discomfort.

First, the authors are adamant—and correct—that the case is not a religious one. Neither the premises nor the logic need special revelation for their support. Yet evangelicals have been wary of natural law arguments. As heirs of the Reformation, most evangelical ethicists have argued that the brokenness of human reason makes it insufficient to successfully ...

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March 2011

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