Ryan Anderson on Marriage at Stanford University

Last April, Ryan Anderson made the case for traditional marriage at a conference at Stanford University. As far as the non-religious case for marriage goes, this is as good as it gets. The video above has highlights from the speech and subsequent debate with questioners. Below is Anderson’s full presentation followed by the entire Q&A with the audience. Whatever you do, don’t miss the Q&A. (HT: The Daily Signal)

Ryan T. Anderson – What is Marriage?

Ryan T. Anderson – Question & Answer


  • Ryan Davidson

    I would offer a few precautions regarding Anderson’s “non-religious” case.

    First, Anderson’s reasoning relies on New Natural Law (NNL) ethics, that was developed by John Finnis and popularized by Robbie George. I agree that NNL does not employ explicitly religious language. Even so, its underlying presuppositions are undeniably religious, if not undeniably Christian. This is a bit more apparent in Grisez’s work. So, I don’t think we should fool ourselves into thinking that these kinds of arguments will be persuasive culturally. If we want to speak to the mainstream of the culture, we’ll need arguments that are grounded in epistemic idealism and more grounded in epistemic realism. Thomas Reid and Old Princeton is probably a better place to start.

    Second, we Protestants should be a bit wary of promoting NNL. NNL makes a number of assumptions about the doctrine of humanity and the doctrine of the Fall that are squarely at odds with Protestant teaching. In fact, NNL is even at odds with the weight of Catholic theology on these issues. In other words, this is not the “natural law” that Calvin describes in the opening sections of ICR. Nor is it anything akin to what Augustine or Aquinas proposed. Rather, it is Enlightenment individualism repackaged into pre-Enlightenment categories.

    • buddyglass

      I agree with you on the lack of weight given to natural law by the non-religious. To be honest, I’m with them on that account. If I were someone who thinks we’re all just atoms and energy (I’m not) then “natural law” would be meaningless to me.

      To convince such a person without appealing to religion one needs an argument that’s pragmatic. Also, despite the logical consequences of the whole “we’re all just atoms and energy” position, most people functionally operate under a moral framework in which they seek the best for others. That must be basis for any pragmatic argument. One must argue that legally recognizing same-sex unions will have undeniably negative effects on society at large and, by proxy, on millions of individuals. And these negative effects must be such that the listener agrees they’re negative. You couldn’t for instance, argue that legally recognizing same-sex unions would result in more people leaving the Church; your listener might see that as a positive. Moreover, the negative effects must be severe enough to outweigh the negative effects on same-sex couples of declining to recognize same-sex unions.

      But those are harder arguments to make than simply appealing to a nebulous “natural law”. Esp. given that most of the arguments revolve around children. Unmarried same-sex couples can already raise children under the status quo, so an argument premised on the plight of children would need to show both that children suffer when raised by same-sex parents and that recognition of same-sex unions will lead to more children being raised by same-sex couples.

      What irks me, to be honest, is that we’re even considering religious arguments in a discussion of whether the govt. should recognize same-sex unions. Because those arguments aren’t relevant. If the question is whether same-sex couples can ever truly marry in the sense that God considers them “married” then religious arguments are entirely appropriate. Whether the state should grant legal recognition, though, is a completely different question, and its answer doesn’t necessarily flow out of one’s stance on whether same-sex unions are valid in a spiritual sense.

      That is to say, even when one affirms that same-sex couples can never truly marry in the sense that God considers them “married” and even when one affirms that same-sex sexual relationships are inherently sinful one is not then obligated oppose legal recognition of same-sex unions.

      • Ryan Davidson

        I agree regarding pragmatic arguments. If you can’t demonstrate persuasively that the costs of recognizing same-sex marriages outweighs the benefits, you’re not going to get much of a hearing.

        In the past, we were a much less tribal culture. People generally participated in something much more akin to a common culture, which was at least nominally Christian. At that time, any disruption of the common culture was accounted as a cost. So, something like same-sex marriage failed because the costs were too high: Conferring such rights risked breaking up the common culture. But with changing economic and demographic realities, the common culture largely faded. Today, we largely live in tribes of other like-minded, like-educated, and like-monied people. So, disrupting the common culture is no longer charged as a cost. As long as something doesn’t impose substantial harm on non-consenting third parties, it’s likely to prevail (even if it only benefits a small number of people).

        Whether stated as such or not, much of social conservatism amounts to an effort to restore some semblance of the common culture. This is a doomed effort! I don’t cheer that fact. I miss the common culture, and it grieves me that it’s probably gone for good. But no amount of moralistic handwringing is going to bring it back. We have to accept that we now live in a tribal culture. We also have to recognize that our failure to respect tribal boundaries will be judged as a cultural sin. In a way, this fits with our libertarian age.

        It’s not that elites now dominate the culture. They don’t. And they have no interest in dominating the culture. Even so, they certainly prefer the new order to the old one, and will fight to the death to make sure that tribalism continues and that the old order remains banished for good. And they’re probably in a small, but growing majority on this point.

        I evangelicals want to keep their shirts in this new social reality, they’re going to have to accept that tribalism is here to stay and adapt their social practices accordingly. And if we want to engage the culture in a productive way, we’re going to have to do something besides work for the reestablishing of a common culture. We’re going to have to find and embrace the merits of tribalism, and learn to make our way in this new reality. See, e.g., Carl Trueman’s article in the current issue of First Things.

      • Gus Nelson

        If I understand your comment, you are suggesting that only secular ideas are appropriate for governance? So in a republic like the United States, those whose worldview arises from their religious convictions shouldn’t let those convictions determine how they view public policy? Ultimately, you appear to be arguing for a “Christians keep your religion to yourself” kind of mentality, even though “non-religious” people (whatever that might mean) are perfectly within their rights to let their convictions guide them in relation to governance. Maybe I’m misreading your comment.

        • Ryan Davidson


          I don’t think that’s what I’m saying. The same God who speaks in special revelation is the same God who speaks in general revelation. So, it’s not as though general revelation is devoid of God’s voice. Even so, in our pluralistic society, we generally only grant the civil magistrate the authority to make laws on the basis of general revelation, i.e., on the basis of principles that can be known and understood by the governed, whether regenerate or not.

          Frankly, the notion of a “Christian worldview” is largely bunk. It’s a relic of Kant, which, in my view, improperly imposes an idealist epistemology onto the Christian life. Ideas are important, but they are not preeminent. In many instances, they are formed largely in response to certain economic and social factors. Read Peter Leithart’s criticism of worldview epistemology at the following link.


          This is one reason why the Culture Wars have turned out so badly. We assume that better thinking will necessarily lead to better conduct, and therefore fail to account for various social and economic factors may have a greater force on how we live than our ideas. Worldview thinking can be alluring because of its apparent simplicity. For that same reason, it often fails to account for the full complement of forces that shape our culture. As James Davison Hunter noted, if we want to change the world, we’re going to have to wean ourselves off of idealist reasoning and adopt arguments that are a bit more grounded in the stuff of everyday life (i.e., realism). Frankly, we would be a lot more effective in our public engagement if we argued less like Chuck Colson and more like J. Gresham Machen.

        • buddyglass

          I don’t think that’s what I’m saying. At least, not in a general sense. I’m saying that in many cases the faith-derived understanding that something is wrong and sinful shouldn’t necessarily lead to one to support invoking the state to prohibit that thing.

          For instance, as a Christian I consider idolatry and heresy to be sinful. And yet I support the first amendment protections that guarantee one’s right to worship idols and say heretical things. Is that contradictory? Does it mean I’ve kicked my faith to the curb and kept it from influencing my public policy preferences? I don’t think so. In my case it’s my Christian faith that compels me to oppose any attempt on the part of the state to forbid Americans from doing those things, even though I consider them to be sinful.

  • Paul Reed

    Whenever you try to establish morality apart from the Bible, you are dooming yourself to failure. I’m surprised anyone would support this on a supposedly Christian forum. Anyway, we’ll see how many secularists are convinced by his arguments..

    • Ryan Davidson

      Yet you don’t seem to see that your view itself is contrary to what Scripture teaches.

      On the one hand, this view wrongly rejects the value of God’s general revelation. In that sense, it overstates the effects of the Fall by assuming that God’s general revelation is an insufficient basis upon which to build a relatively ordered society.

      You seek to correct this first theological error by understating the effects of the Fall regarding human efforts to interpret and apply special revelation. Surely if the effects of the Fall are so thorough as to render general revelation utterly unusable, then surely that same corruption must necessarily infect our human efforts to interpret and apply Scripture.

  • Curt Day

    If gov’t made laws solely based on the optimal situation and as long as the Church in America and Society shared the exact same values, then what Anderson says makes sense. But that is where part of his argument falls apart. In addition, the downplaying of the adult relationship needs actually hurts his argument when it comes to no-fault divorce. For what is a major cause of abandonment, abuse, and adultery? And what is the harm that comes to children where there is significant deprivation in the adult relationship needs of the parents are not met?

    In addition, his slippery slope argument is very selective. The mere existence of alternate definitions of marriage does not result in a further change in the definition of marriage. This is true even when one focuses the definition of marriage around raising children while minimizing the adult needs of the parents. In addition, he neglects to mention the gov’t’s concern for marriage because of the division of property after divorce.

    Finally, his mention of the gov’t stepping in to force businesses to provide services for same-sex weddings is also selective. He forgets that in an economy where the private sector provides services and goods, a business’s denial services because of the sexual orientation of the couple or the wedding provides a precedence for other businesses to do the same. He is forgetting that with his scheme, those wishing to participate in a same sex wedding ceremony can suffer reduced or total availability of services. And lest he thinks that is hypothetical, where was his mentioning of the Jim Crow type laws being proposed around the country to deny goods and services to not just same-sex ceremonies but to couples and individuals too? There are other problems here too but one can get the drift.

    But going back to the first paragraph, his logic makes sense when the Church has privilege in determining societal values, which, of course, provides for the violation of the freedom of religion. Add to that his selectivity in discussing pertinent issues and in application makes his argument appealing to those opposing society’s acceptance of same-sex marriage but rather obvious to all others.

  • Jackie Parrot

    So, as I interpreted the short version… The logic here is: “I assume you all are in agreement that denying poly groups marriage is a good thing. How in the world can you make that argument and yet make the argument that same sex marriage is a good thing? In effect, how can you discriminate against one group of people and not another? Because we all know that love and commitment can legitimately occur between men and women, men and men, women and women, in couples, triads quads or more.”

    100% true. So, of course, the solution is not to discriminate MORE and limit marriage to an arbitrary number and gender criteria based on the majority occurrence, but to discriminate LESS, and recognize the right of marriage for all regardless of gender or number of people involved.

    You cannot use the unwillingness of society as a whole to discriminate against one group of people to choose to discriminate against another. Denying same sex marriages because they might lead to poly group marriages is as blatantly wrong as denying mixed race marriages because they might lead to same sex marriages.

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