Today is wedding day in Massachusetts. Thousands of gay couples are expected to flock to courthouses, claim their marriage licenses, and smooch for the cameras. Gay activists will likely stage bold victory parties to mark the milestone. And hordes of journalists will be on hand to dutifully document the wedded bliss.
But behind these highly publicized marriages lies a very privatized understanding of marriage. That understanding emerged long before gay activists and activist judges paired up to remake matrimony in their own image. It came to fruition amid the sexual revolution, and manifested itself in rising rates of illegitimacy, divorce, single parenthood, and cohabitation. Today, we are seeing yet another logical consequence of our illogical decision to make marriage a private affair.
Not so long ago–before the birth-control pill, the sexual revolution, and no-fault divorce–couples who chose to marry assumed that procreation and lifelong fidelity were part of the deal. Their families, faith communities, and the courts assumed the same. When men and women vowed to love and honor each other for life–for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health–they did so publicly, in the context of a culture that expected them to make good on their contract and covenant.
Today, that expectation is gone. Traditional marriage, once generally considered the only socially acceptable way for American men and women to share sexual intimacy and a household, is now just one option among many. Serial marriages, “trial” marriages, intentionally childless marriages, common-law marriages, and same-sex marriages are now regarded by many Americans as equally valid options–and equally deserving of public support.
Consider the severed link between marriage and the baby carriage. America’s birth rate now hovers around two births per woman, slightly less than the number needed to replace our population. A third of those births are to unmarried women, and nearly a third of American children live with only one parent. Married couples with children–a group that constituted 40 percent of the population just three decades ago–now make up only a quarter of American households.
The marital promise of lifelong fidelity is no longer a norm either. With every other marriage ending in divorce, some 5.5 million Americans are choosing cohabitation instead. That’s an increase of 72 percent from the number of couples living together in 1990.
The public and communal character of marriage is also eroding. Today, many couples write their own vows and design their own ceremonies, based not on ancient religious rites but on quirky tastes and conditional commitment. Rather than promising to cherish a spouse forever, they pledge to stick around “as long as love lasts.” Instead of consenting publicly to the awesome responsibility of raising children together, they offer to–in the words of some real-life couples quoted on a popular wedding website–”laugh with you” or “encourage each other’s music and writing.”
Such vague sentimentality is not the stuff of lifelong commitment. And it has paved the way for same-sex marriages. After all, if marriage is only a temporary union of people who share a sexual relationship, how can its benefits be denied to homosexual couples or to heterosexual couples who live as if they are married? And if the meaning of marriage is defined exclusively by individual couples, how can its benefits even be confined to those in a sexual relationship? If marriage is truly a private affair, then any couple or group of people could lay claim to its benefits, and it could benefit anyone.
Except, of course, for those whose welfare has always depended on the special support society gives to traditional marriage, those whose interests are so rarely heard above the din of adults clamoring for their rights. Statistics consistently show that children raised by married mothers and fathers are less likely to be poor, less likely to engage in risky behaviors like premarital sex and drug abuse, and more likely to succeed in school.
Perhaps the children of America should flock to our courthouse doors and demand that we start respecting their rights.
–Colleen Carroll Campbell is a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush and author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.