Marriage, civil rights and republican democracy


One cannot make a philosophical or political position — be it drug legalization, the right to own handguns, or the redefinition of marriage — into a “civil rights” cause simply by declaring it to be one.

Nor can one win an argument by pinning derisive labels, such as “bigot,” on one’s political opponents. The fact is that the dispute over the nature, definition, and proper understanding of marriage (like the debates over drug legalization and gun rights) is a deep philosophical debate on which serious arguments can be advanced, and have been advanced, on the competing sides. Reasonable people of goodwill find themselves in deep disagreement.

In a regime of self-government and republican liberty, we resolve such debates at the level of public policy by the constitutionally prescribed procedures of democratic deliberation. We deliberate as a people — either acting directly through the referendum process or indirectly through our elected representatives — and then we vote.

There is no other way that is consistent with our shared fundamental commitment to republican democracy. After all, what are the alternatives? In the very first Federalist paper, Alexander Hamilton laid them out. We can let great questions of public significance be resolved by “accident and force” or we can insist that they be resolved by “reflection and choice.”

Gov. Christie, in the spirit of Hamilton, is saying: Let’s resolve the dispute by reflection and choice. What is critical, since the issue is of profound moral significance from both sides points of view, is that everyone, without discrimination, be permitted to participate fully in the process of deciding whether marriage is, as it historically has been understood to be, a conjugal partnership uniting husband and wife, or whether we should revise the historical understanding and opt for marriage defined as a romantic domestic partnership in which reproductive complementarity is of no relevance.

Equal participation in decision-making on matters of great public importance is the true civil rights principle on which everyone should agree.

Professor Robert George is director, James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University. (Affiliation for identification purposes)