Politics & Policy

Point of No Return

Marriage needs a man and a woman. And, an amendment.

I thank Jonathan Rauch for his thoughtful and courteous reply to my two earlier pieces, “Love and Marriage,” and “The Right Balance.” I have long admired Rauch’s command of this issue (and of other issues) and value this opportunity for an exchange.

Rauch, it seems to me, has missed my central point in “Love and Marriage.” It is true that marriage itself, and not merely women and children, domesticates men. But my point is that marriage is only able to do so by building upon the underlying dynamic of male-female sexuality. Marriage does indeed invoke public expectations of fidelity and mutual support through ritual gestures like weddings. But wedding or no, the public will not condemn a man who sleeps around on another man, or who fails to support his male partner financially. A wedding embodies and reinforces already existing public sentiments about a man’s responsibilities to a woman; it cannot create such sentiments out of thin air.

In an elegant little essay, “I Do?” David Blankenhorn, shows us why weddings don’t always do what they used to do. Blankenhorn focuses on the vogue for ceremonies in which couples create their own vows. In the old view, the vow existed prior to the couple, and therefore embodied a set of public standards to which the couple could be held accountable. But in a world of self-created vows, the couple is prior to the promise, which can be made (or withdrawn) at will.

Rauch wants to invent, not merely some vows, but a whole new form of marriage (two actually — gay and lesbian), all the while assuming that the standards and expectations of the most traditional forms of heterosexual marriage will trail along for the ride. But those expectations have been attenuated, even for many heterosexual marriages. And the very same people who now see marriage as a subjective projection, rather than a shared social standard to which to aspire, are the people who favor gay marriage, the idea of which appeals to them precisely as a symbol of the infinite flexibility of social life. Rauch seems to be depending on the Left half of the country to enact gay marriage, while assuming that the Right half will enforce the traditional social expectations on gay couples. Rauch’s intentions are admirable, but this simply will not happen.

Supporters of gay marriage keep telling us that the sky will not fall. What they do not understand is that, when it comes to marriage, the sky has already fallen. It is lying about our feet, and considerable effort will be required even to hoist it back a few yards over our heads. The trouble with gay marriage is that it forecloses that possibility. Personally, I neither seek, nor think possible, a complete restoration of the traditional system — when the expectations for marriage were so powerful that homosexuals felt compelled to wed heterosexually.

But gay marriage is a surpassingly radical attack on the very foundations of marriage itself. It detaches marriage from the distinctive dynamics of heterosexual sexuality, divorces marriage from its intimate connection to the rearing of children, and opens the way to the replacement of marriage by a series of infinitely flexible contractual arrangements (For more on this last point, see my piece in the September 2000 issue of Commentary.) All this can only destroy the finely woven web of social expectations upon which Rauch wishes to depend. As I argued in “Love and Marriage,” for example, once marriage has been divorced from heterosexuality, it will be impossible to induce even a partial restoration of traditional courtship. (And by the way, this subversive effect on the sexual complementarity so integral to marriage will derive every bit as much from lesbian marriages as from gay male marriages.)

For Rauch, our increased tolerance for homosexuality is of but trivial significance — in comparison with the cultural changes of the sixties and seventies — in bringing about the current weakening of marriage. But the point is, our increased tolerance for homosexuality is inextricably bound up with the cultural changes of the sixties — and is by no means trivial in its effects. As the ultimate symbol of the detachment of sexuality from reproduction, homosexuality embodies the sixties ethos of sexual self-fulfillment. That, after all, is why it is such a hot-button issue in the culture wars. So changing social attitudes toward homosexuality cannot help but have a profound effect upon the social and moral significance of sexuality itself.

In the mainstream press, we hear often (and rightly so) from brilliant moderates like Jonathan Rauch. Yet radical gays — the writer Michael Bronski, for example — have argued at length (and correctly) that complete social equivalence between homosexuality and heterosexuality cannot help but undermine social restraints upon sexuality, thus ushering in the final triumph of the sixties ethos. Like Bronski, vast sections of the gay community support gay marriage, not on Rauch’s “conservative” grounds, and not even simply as a road to social acceptance, but out of the entirely justified conviction that gay marriage will be a critical step in the undoing of marriage itself. These writings seldom find their way into the Wall Street Journal, yet they merit our attention.

Rauch claims that the effect of gay marriage on the larger institution is an empirical question. As it happens, we have some very important empirical evidence on the matter — all the more powerful because it was collected by a lesbian sociologist who writes as an advocate of gay marriage. That evidence paints a picture of gay marriage greatly at variance with Rauch’s assurances.

Gretchen Stiers’s 1999 study, From This Day Forward, makes it clear that while exceedingly few of even the most committed gay and lesbian couples believe that marriage will strengthen and stabilize their personal relationships, nearly half of those gays and lesbians who actually disdain traditional marriage (and even gay commitment ceremonies) will nonetheless get married. Why? For “the bennies” — the financial and legal benefits of marriage.

And as Stiers shows, many radical gays and lesbians who actually yearn to see marriage abolished (and multiple sexual unions legitimized) intend to marry, not only as a way of securing benefits, but as part of a self-conscious attempt to subvert the institution of marriage from within.

Stiers’s study was focused on the very most committed gay couples. Yet even in a sample artificially weighted with nearly every gay male couple in Massachusetts who had gone through a commitment ceremony (and Stiers had to go out of her research protocol just to find enough male couples to balance out the committed lesbian couples) nearly 20 percent of the men questioned did not practice monogamy. Obviously, in a truly representative sample of gay male couples, that number would be vastly higher. More significantly, a mere 10 percent of even these most committed gay men mentioned monogamy as an important aspect of commitment (necessarily meaning that even many of those men in the sample who had undergone “union ceremonies” failed to identify fidelity with commitment). And these, the very most committed gay male couples, are theoretically the people who will be enforcing marital norms on their gay male peers, and exemplifying modern marriage for the nation. So concerns about the effects of gay marriage on the social ideal of marital monogamy seem more than justified.

Rauch seems to think that if his cost-free portrait of gay marriage turns out to be mistaken, we can simply call off the experiment. But by then it will surely be too late. Such effects take years to play out, decades more to measure, and even when measured, agreement on the meaning of such data is nearly impossible to achieve. Just think of the battle over the effects of day care. There is no such thing as an experiment in gay marriage. Once legalized, the damage will have been done, and reversal, if possible at all, would take decades.

Rauch persists in identifying federalism with variable practices among the states. But federalism is actually a careful balancing of national unity with state diversity. And as I argued in “The Right Balance,” federalism has always demanded national commonality in the fundamental definition of marriage. The legal history of marriage demonstrates what should in any case be obvious, that traveling across country and finding out that you are no longer married is an entirely different matter than working up a will or taking a state bar exam. Imagine a married couple, where one spouse is hospitalized after a car accident in another state, losing visiting rights or the right to make medical decisions, because their marriage isn’t recognized in that state. If even what was once experienced as the horror of miscegenation could not stand against that, how can we expect judges to sit still for it now?

Rauch appears to have abandoned his own and Andrew Sullivan’s legal arguments and now rests his assurances on the matter of nationally imposed gay marriage upon a strictly political judgment. Naturally, at the moment, the Supreme Court would be loathe to impose gay marriage. But just wait until the practice is legalized in some state, or states, and the social and political chaos begins. At that point, the Court will take the case, and could easily go either way. (And that’s just this Supreme Court. Remember, we’re talking about future Supreme Courts as well.) At the time, the conventional wisdom was that the Supreme Court would turn Bush v. Gore back to Florida. But the specter of a national crisis goaded the Court into action.

So far as I can tell, Jonathan Rauch and Andrew Sullivan have welcomed the imposition of civil unions upon the Vermont state legislature by the Vermont state supreme court. Yet that action, which pretended to find a mandate for gay marriage buried in the state’s constitution, was surely one of the most egregious violations of the principles of judicial restraint in this country’s history.

The Federal Marriage Amendment not only guards against the nationalization of gay marriage by judicial fiat, it also guards against a state judiciary that has cast all democratic restraint to the wind and has taken the right to define and regulate marriage out of the hands of the people. Having broken faith with the principles of democracy, the nation’s judiciary has left the public with little recourse.

The decision in Vermont was a direct result of a national campaign by gay rights activists to make an end run around legislatures and impose gay marriage upon the country through the courts. So far as I can tell, “conservative” advocates of gay marriage have been acting in concert with that campaign, not calling it to account for its undemocratic excesses. And now we are told to make DOMA constitutional, which would do nothing to prevent judicial usurpations of democracy such as we saw in Vermont.

Anyone awake to this issue understands that there is already a national culture war over the issue of gay marriage. The Federal Marriage Amendment did not start this war. Judicial arrogance in Vermont did that. But as I have argued, the Federal Marriage Amendment, by balancing a national definition of marriage with at least the possibility of differential state-by-state benefits packages, might lead to a workable, if imperfect, solution to this intractable problem.

Despite my differences with both Jonathan Rauch and Andrew Sullivan, I greatly admire them both for the brilliance, honor, and tenacity of their fight to legalize same-sex marriage. As I have said publicly, I personally do not see homosexuality as sinful, and do not wish to see a return to the fifties. This battle has an element of tragedy about it, for while I do not believe gay marriage will succeed in domesticating gay men, or even in entirely removing the stigma of homosexuality, I do believe that gay marriage would be received by a stigmatized group as a welcome sign of social approval. But I also believe that the price of that sign is too high — that gay marriage will be a major step in the further unstringing of our most fundamental — and most fundamentally threatened — social institution. And in the end, because we are all children first, gay marriage will hurt all of us far more than it will help.


The Latest

Overturn <i>Roe</i>

Overturn Roe

A majority of the Court knows that the 1973 decision is nonsense. It is past time for the justices to say so.