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Does the dawn of nationwide marriage equality herald the triumph of a fundamentally conservative institution, or does it signal that institution’s erosion?
The answer, according to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, is both. In his Sunday column, the Gray Lady’s resident social conservative identifies a great cultural irony: “[W]hile the conservative case for same-sex marriage triumphed in politics,” culminating in last week’s Supreme Court ruling for marriage equality, “the liberationist case against marriage’s centrality to human flourishing was winning in the wider culture,” Douthat writes. Without the latter development, he posits, the former would not have been possible.
Douthat’s argument — familiar to followers of social conservative thought — goes like this:
The traditional understanding [of marriage], which rested on sex difference, procreation, and real permanence, went into crisis in the 1960s and 1970s. But in the 1990s, when The Atlantic informed readers that “Dan Quayle Was Right” about unwed motherhood and today’s Democratic front-runner fretted about the costs of no-fault divorce, there were reasons to think that a kind of neo-traditionalism might still have purchase in America.
Not so today. Since the ’90s, approval of divorce, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock childbearing have climbed steadily. and the belief that children are “very important” to marriage has collapsed. Kennedy’s ruling argues that the right to marry is essential, in part, because the institution “safeguards children and families.” But the changing cultural attitudes that justify his jurisprudence increasingly treat this safeguard as inessential, a potentially nice but hardly necessary thing.
What Douthat is attempting here is a polite, respectable critique of same-sex marriage; while he can’t expect to sway the Times’ liberal readership to his view, he at least hopes to demonstrate that there’s an intellectual, non-bigoted case to be made against same-sex marriage. Of course, pining for marriage “rested on sex difference [and] procreation” isn’t particularly conducive to his project; that’s just a slightly more sophisticated way of saying, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
But Douthat raises serious points about divorce and the decoupling of childbirth from marriage — points we would do well
to consider. Unfortunately for Douthat, a closer look at these topics does nothing to bolster his case against marriage equality.
Let’s first dispense with the easily dispensed — specifically, one of the two pillars of Douthat’s argument. The columnist makes no bones about aligning himself with conservatives who believe that the combination of increasing support for marriage equality and an overall decline in the so-called marriage culture “isn’t a coincidence.” Instead, he contends, “support for same-sex marriage and the decline of straight marital norms exist in a kind of feedback loop.” Here, Douthat implies — but tellingly refuses to state flatly — is that seeing gay couples wed will somehow convince straight people to give birth out of wedlock, cohabitate and/or divorce. This is far too fatuous to merit a response.
That leaves us with one pillar. Even if gay marriage does not cause straight people to harbor increasingly lax attitudes about marriage, is it possible that the loosening of marital norms helped pave the way for same-sex marriage? Insofar as we’ve moved away from a social order in which marriage was based purely on commonalities of class, social status, and religion — and toward a marriage culture that prizes shared affection and interests, there is an undeniable link. If you conceptualize marriage as the union of two partners who care deeply about each other and wish to have their mutual commitment recognized by the state, why not allow two persons of the same gender to enter such an arrangement?
But Douthat goes further. He would have us believe that divorce, declining marriage rates, and out-of-wedlock births are also part of the “feedback loop” that enabled same-sex marriage. Again, Douthat feels no need to demonstrate causality; he simply notes coexisting phenomena, and because a causal link between the phenomena meshes well with his ideological priors, it must be more than a matter of coincidence. But while conservatives would tell you that the decline in marriage reflects the very cultural libertinism that also brought gay people out of the shadows, the decline in marriage is the result of well-established economic patterns.