The Defense of Marriage Act took a big hit at the Supreme Court this week. We really should be promoting marriage, not just defending it. But traditional marriage has been on the defensive for a long time, and it’s not just because of the same-sex marriage crusade. Marriage began looking weak long before anyone thought gay marriage had a chance of obtaining widespread legal sanction. In fact, gay marriage supporters sometimes wonder why anyone bothers to fight for traditional marriage at all, given the divorce rates, and the growing indifference of young people toward the institution. Why make gay couples feel humiliated or excluded by denying them access to something straight people aren’t taking seriously any more? How does allowing same-sex marriages devalue opposite-sex marriages, particularly when their value is at an all-time low?
It’s increasingly difficult to argue for marriage when you begin on the defensive, with a challenge to prove you’re not a hate-filled bigot or mindless religious fanatic before you say another word. That’s rough terrain to make a stand upon, but it’s where Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy insisted we must hold the debate, insisting in his majority opinion that only the darkest of motives could have driven the authors of the Defense of Marriage Act. Some of those authors obtained instant absolution by changing their declared position on gay marriage, including the President who signed DOMA, Bill Clinton. Just abandon your beliefs and all is forgiven! When those are the terms of surrender, why does any reasonable person resist?
If all we’re going to do is “defend” marriage from judgment by an increasingly hostile public jury, the cause will eventually be lost. It will probably take much longer than energetic proponents of same-sex marriage currently predict, but given the polls showing strong support for gay marriage among young people, it’s no more than a generation away. Personally, I don’t support traditional marriage out of a desire to make anyone feel pointlessly angry or uncomfortable, so if society isn’t going to get behind traditional marriage in a positive way, there’s not much appeal in a long, bitter, doomed struggle. I say that with all due respect for the religious beliefs of many traditional marriage supporters. This is not the only area in which the interests of the “general will,” and the politicians who claim to act as its executor, inexorably crowd out religious liberty. And clearly the appeal to religious authority is not going to cut much ice with people who don’t recognize that authority.
Maybe if the devoted religious supporters of traditional marriage gathered their electoral strength in certain states, and states’ rights are duly respected, a redoubt for marriage could be created… but I wouldn’t bet the bank on that respect for federalism. That was a shade raised briefly to cut down the Defense of Marriage Act; it will now return to its grave. At any rate, what’s the social good in creating electoral fortresses? If you believe traditional marriage is truly important to society, it’s not a treasure to be hoarded.
There is a difference between hanging on to something, and embracing it. Not to sound alarmist, but without great enthusiasm for the stable marriage of men and women, civilization is doomed. I don’t think marriage is a quaint artifact of a bygone era. I don’t even think it’s merely one of many positive social forces. It’s uniquely important. It’s indispensable.
Let’s put everything else aside, and talk numbers. Population stability requires a large number of families to raise two or more children. In fact, quite a few of them must have more than two kids. They’ve got to come from somewhere, and they need somewhere to go. On a large scale, there is no substitute for a married man and women raising their own children together. Very few sociological concepts have as much supporting documentation. Later in life, the intact family becomes a vital source of true independence, providing its members with emotional and financial support in countless ways. Every stage of a young life is much easier with Mom and Dad’s help, and married couples benefit greatly from shared wealth – owning a house together, for example. It is not necessary for everyone to follow this path to marriage and children… but a very large number of people must. It might be fair to say that “most” people must. This is not a fundamentally moral judgment, but it’s not surprising that if people accept the logical need for marriage and families, they tend to attach moral and traditional significance to them as well.
We’re not far removed from an age when most people would have read the preceding paragraph and wondered why I bothered writing something so obvious. But for decades, American society has convinced itself to ignore those truths. To borrow the language of the times, we have explored “alternative lifestyles” ranging from sex without commitment, to pregnancy without marriage. We have used both social energy and medical techniques (some of them quite grim) to separate sex from child-rearing, and therefore sex from marriage.
Recent polls have told us young people regard having children as something that can be done at a young age, while marriage should be put off until career success is assured, and a lengthy shopping expedition for the “perfect” partner is concluded. That’s exactly backward. It’s dangerously backward. A civilization that internalizes such beliefs is doomed to die, from both the collapse of its population, and the social-welfare needs of those who remain.
Again, I’m not passing judgment on individual behavior here. I’m talking about the behavior of millions. Which means we’re talking about the sanction of society. Every society has ways of expressing what it wants, and what it disdains. Government power is a blunt instrument for making those preferences painfully clear. Look at those polls about young attitudes towards marriage again. Society is clearly not transmitting a strong message about the importance of men and women marrying each other before they have children… or about the importance of getting married so they can have children.
That latter imperative sounds awfully old-fashioned, doesn’t it? Not so many generations ago, it was common for a certain degree of social stigma to be directed at people who reached an advanced age without marrying. There was a sense that marrying and having children was a duty to family and community. I’m not calling for a return to the days when neighborhood gossips would disparage the “spinster” down the street. But I would note that those old-fashioned customs were not senseless. There was reason behind the ideals, if not always the execution. The prosperity of family and community really does depend upon marriage and children. A healthy society finds ways to express its priorities.
I would also point out that the old view of marriage and lineage is still quite healthy in the upper echelons of American society. Marriage is becoming a valuable resource hoarded by the rich, who still understand its importance. “Well, of course they do,” you might say. “They’ve got huge estates on the line!” Yes, and so should you. Not as huge as the millionaire’s, perhaps… but shouldn’t middle-class America also be filled with families who have valuable property they can nourish, and leave to their children? What better way for the struggling mother and father to give their children a chance at a better life, which is the deep desire of loving parents at every income level?
Is it impossible to bring marriage back to communities and generations that no longer appreciate its value? I don’t think so. People change. Culture changes. It can change for the better. The good kind of change is always tough, because it involves asking people to look beyond immediate personal gratification. We could start by showing young men and women just how gratifying an enduring marriage can be. They also need to understand that much is expected from husbands and wives.
Ah, but here I am, beginning the tale of civilization all over again, repeating the accumulated wisdom of centuries, and I’ve got to wrap this up. The question I imagine thoughtful gay marriage supporters might conclude with is, “Why should same-sex marriage get in the way of all this? Can’t you bring traditional marriage back without restricting it to men and women?”
I would grant it’s possible, but more difficult. We’re not about to legally require men and women to marry in certain numbers, with that crude blunt instrument of government power. Society must express its preference for marriage in other ways, by encouraging it. That means treating the institution as something special, something unique, and honoring those who participate in it… without the presumption that we are denigrating those who don’t.
It would be wonderful if a fraction of the cultural influence used to bring same-sex marriage so far, so quickly, were dedicated to bringing marriage between men and women back into fashion in a big way. Speaking for myself, I have not the slightest interest in making gay people feel bad about themselves. I don’t want to make lifelong bachelors feel bad about themselves, either. But I think we need to make married men and women feel glorious, because we’re counting on them, and their children, to build the future.