Monday, April 02, 2007

Does same sex marriage contribute to the “deinstitutionalization” of heterosexual marriage?

During the ongoing debate over same sex marriage we hear repeated warnings that somehow allowing adults of the same sex to unite in matrimony undermines the institution of heterosexual marriage. It is a curious argument that defies logic but apparently is believed by many -- although I suspect there is also an element of demagoguery by those who use the argument to mask bigotry.

David Blankenhorn, the president of the Institute for American Values, is an advocate of the institution of marriage and argues persuasively that people who are married are better off than those who are not married, that children raised in two parent households have advantages over children raised in single parent homes, and that society comes out ahead on both counts.

He has written an interesting piece for the Weekly Standard regarding the above question and states that the cause and effect argument that same sex marriage destroys marriage simply is not provable. That is certainly a bit of refreshing intellectual honesty (particularly for the Weekly Standard) but then proceeds to make an odd argument about the clustering of opinions about the same sex marriage and heterosexual marriage.

He reviews data from international surveys indicating a correlation between support for same sex marriage and lack of support for positions that marriage leads to happiness and is preferable for raising children (and vice versa). He then attempts to make the case that same sex marriage is a factor in deinstitutionalizing marriage. He writes:
… Certain trends in values and attitudes tend to cluster with each other and with certain trends in behavior. A rise in unwed childbearing goes hand in hand with a weakening of the belief that people who want to have children should get married. High divorce rates are encountered where the belief in marital permanence is low. More one-parent homes are found where the belief that children need both a father and a mother is weaker. A rise in nonmarital cohabitation is linked at least partly to the belief that marriage as an institution is outmoded. The legal endorsement of gay marriage occurs where the belief prevails that marriage itself should be redefined as a private personal relationship. And all of these marriage-weakening attitudes and behaviors are linked. Around the world, the surveys show, these things go together.

…Empirically speaking, gay marriage goes along with the erosion, not the shoring up, of the institution of marriage.

These facts have two implications. First, to the degree that it makes any sense to oppose gay marriage, it makes sense only if one also opposes with equal clarity and intensity the other main trends pushing our society toward postinstitutional marriage. After all, the big idea is not to stop gay marriage. The big idea is to stop the erosion of society's most pro-child institution. Gay marriage is only one facet of the larger threat to the institution.

Similarly, it's time to recognize that the beliefs about marriage that correlate with the push for gay marriage do not exist in splendid isolation, unrelated to marriage's overall institutional prospects. Nor do those values have anything to do with strengthening the institution, notwithstanding the much-publicized but undocumented claims to the contrary from those making the "conservative case" for gay marriage.

Instead, the deep logic of same-sex marriage is clearly consistent with what scholars call deinstitutionalization--the overturning or weakening of all of the customary forms of marriage, and the dramatic shrinking of marriage's public meaning and institutional authority. Does deinstitutionalization necessarily require gay marriage? Apparently not. For decades heterosexuals have been doing a fine job on that front all by themselves. But gay marriage clearly presupposes and reinforces deinstitutionalization.

By itself, the "conservative case" for gay marriage might be attractive. It would be gratifying to extend the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples--if gay marriage and marriage renewal somehow fit together. But they do not. As individuals and as a society, we can strive to maintain and strengthen marriage as a primary social institution and society's best welfare plan for children (some would say for men and women too). Or we can strive to implement same-sex marriage. But unless we are prepared to tear down with one hand what we are building up with the other, we cannot do both.
I recommend Dale Carpenter’s posts at The Volokh Conspiracy here and here as the best analysis of Blankenhorn’s entire argument I’ve read so far. I would just add that if there are distinct benefits to being married and these benefits are not only enjoyed by the individuals involved but society at large then how does society come out ahead by denying marriage to a sizable minority of the overall population? The distinction between “marriage’ and “gay marriage” doesn’t make sense. Marriage advocates should welcome the same sex marriage movement and incorporate it rather than be threatened by it. It would seem that arguing that a sizable portion of the population does not need to marry – i.e., enter into a community recognized stable and monogamous relationship -- is starting down a slippery slope marriage advocates would want to avoid.

On a personal note, I should add that David Blankenhorn and I worked together in the early 1980’s for Virginia Action, a statewide coalition of progressive organizations coming together on common issues of concern. He worked out the Roanoke office and I was in the Richmond office. The organization fell apart after a few years and we went out separate ways. Our last communication was several years ago following the death of a common friend. Despite our lack of connection since I still consider him a friend and will vouch for his sincerity and honesty even when he comes to the wrong conclusion.

1 comment:

The Jotter said...

I just can't get with the socio-political arguments against. Societies that tell you who you can love and be with are messed up. Then again, I have two great aunts (one relative/one partner)over 60 who've raised some kids, taken care of my elderly grandma, and been ideal neighbors within their community. Oh, and they vote. Seems to me that's enough socio-political data.
Crawling back into my idealistic cave now...