I’ve followed quite a few exchanges over the issue of same-sex marriage lately–and been a party to more than a few. One thing I’ve noticed is that aside from the “equality” meme, one of the most common questions asked of traditional marriage supporters by both same-sex marriage advocates and advocates of “marriage privatization” alike is, “Don’t you see that same-sex marriage won’t affect you? So, what’s it matter to you?”
Leaving to one side the fact that this betrays a commitment to a philosophy of radical individualism that is problematic in its own right, this supposed trump card doesn’t grasp the deeper issue at stake in this debate, and therefore fails. In today’s post, I’d like to take a few minutes and explain why.
Ultimately, this debate is less about gay rights and more about two fundamentally different and incompatible understandings of the purpose of marriage: One which makes marriage first about procreation (following the lead of Robert George, Ryan Anderson, and Sherif Girgis, we’ll call this the “conjugal view”) and one which makes marriage about an emotional bond (again following the lead of the forenamed, we’ll call this the “revisionist view”).
The thing is, proponents of the conjugal view aren’t driven by some sort of irrational animus toward gays (despite the propaganda to the contrary), but more by a realization of the dire consequences likely to follow state recognition of same-sex marriages. Such recognition would bring us one step closer to consummating the work of overthrowing the conjugal view begun in the late 1960’s. And the result would be, not the strengthening of the institution of marriage, but its weakening, followed by an expansion in the size and scope of government.
This country has really been “a house divided” with respect to marriage and family policy since the enactment of no-fault divorce laws. It was then that the belief that marriage is fundamentally about romantic feeling first gained traction; advocates of same-sex marriage are just following that logic consistently. Those same individuals realize that for forty-plus years, we’ve lived with a half-hearted acceptance of the idea that marriage is about an emotional bond, and are now calling on us to quit “limping between two positions.” But it must be remembered that same-sex marriage is just one outworking of an initial acceptance of the revisionist view of marriage four decades ago.
But does all this really matter? Absolutely. As George, et al., put it, “Since emotions can be inconstant, viewing marriage essentially as an emotional union would tend to decrease marital stability…” The upshot is this: Accepting the revisionist view leads to a higher divorce rate. It did when that view was endorsed following the adoption of no-fault divorce; why would it not if given further endorsement through recognition of same-sex marriage?
Still, why should that be of any concern to the state? Couldn’t someone argue that, while divorce is perhaps tragic, it’s a private concern and therefore not properly an issue calling for the attention of government? There are two problems with this line of thinking, I believe:
First, as pointed out in the Witherspoon Institute’s 2008 paper “Marriage and the Public Good,” there are public consequences resulting from the breakdown of marriage. Social pathologies of all sorts (crime rates, substance abuse, teen pregnancies, poverty, etc.) have greatly increased over the last forty years, which has resulted in a proliferation of government programs designed to combat them. The authors go on to say:
Strong, intact families stabilize the state and decrease the need for costly and intrusive bureaucratic social agencies. Families provide for their vulnerable members, produce new citizens with virtues such as loyalty and generosity, and engender concern for the common good. When families break down, crime and social disorder soar; the state must expand to reassert social control with intrusive policing, a sprawling prison system, coercive child-support enforcement, and court-directed family life. Without stable families, personal liberty is thus imperiled as the state tries to fulfill through coercion those functions that families, at their best, fulfill through covenantal devotion [italics mine].
So, strong families are essential to a free society, high divorce rates weaken families, accepting the revisionist understanding of marriage leads to high divorce rates, same-sex marriage is (like no-fault divorce) an outworking of that revisionist understanding; therefore, legal recognition of same-sex marriage would harm a free society and should be opposed.
Second, public policy can have a significant impact on public attitudes. George, et al., argue:
No one deliberates or acts in a vacuum. We all take cues (including cues as to what marriage is and what it requires of us) from cultural norms, which are shaped in part by the law [italics mine]. Indeed, revisionists themselves implicitly concede this point. Why else would they be dissatisfied with civil unions for same-sex couples? Like us, they understand that the state’s favored conception of marriage matters because it affects society’s understanding of that institution.
In redefining marriage, the law would teach that marriage is fundamentally about adults’ emotional unions, not bodily union or children, with which marital norms are tightly intertwined…
Yes, social and legal developments have already worn the ties that bind spouses to something beyond themselves and thus more securely to each other. But recognizing same-sex unions would mean cutting the last remaining threads [italics mine].
Lest this point be disputed, consider the impact of 1960’s Civil Rights legislation and landmark Supreme Court rulings like Brown v. Board of Education: While racist attitudes persist today, there can be no doubt that the government’s policies have helped mainstream the public’s now largely favorable disposition toward racial tolerance and equality. This, of course, is an example of public policy shaping public attitudes for the better; public policy endorsing marriage revisionism–as in no-fault divorce legislation–has influenced public attitudes toward marriage, too, and in a way generally detrimental to the institution. Legal recognition of same-sex marriages, by providing further endorsement of marriage revisionism, would just further influence the public attitude in the same harmful way.
Far from being of merely private concern, then, legal recognition of same-sex marriages would have a ripple effect in the larger culture. Any arguments that fail to reckon with that fact are not only trite, but superficial nonsense, as well.