Politics & Policy

The Stakes

Why we need marriage.

Ramesh Ponnuru (writing in the July 28, 2003 issue of National Review) is right about several things: We are poised to lose the gay-marriage battle badly. Arguments about a slippery slope to polygamy are not untrue, but ineffectual, signs of a profound weakness in our culture of marriage. Polygamy is not worse than gay marriage, it is better. At least polygamy, for all its ugly defects, is an attempt to secure stable mother-father families for children.

What is missing from this and many other analyses on this issue is a declaration of the stakes. Gay marriage is not some sideline issue, it is the marriage debate. Losing it (as John O’Sullivan makes abundantly clear) means losing marriage as a social institution, a shared public norm. Marriage will become (as it is in Sweden) a religious rite, with little public or social significance. As a legal institution, marriage will lose its coherence. By embracing gay marriage the legal establishment will have declared that the public purposes of marriage no longer include anything to do with making babies, or giving children mothers and fathers. Legitimating same-sex marriage amounts to an official declaration that, as Evan Wolfson put it in a debate with me in a just-released book Marriage and Same-Sex Unions: A Debate: “What counts is not family structure, but the quality of dedication, commitment, self-sacrifice, and love in the household.” Family structure does not count. Marriage in this view is merely expressive personal conduct, a declaration of love between two adults. As such there is no reason for the state to be involved in preferring marriage as a family form.

The question is not whether this is a battle we can win, but whether it is a battle we can afford to lose.

The fantasy of certain (not all) libertarians is that we can privatize marriage and the result will be a utopia of religiously created social order. But if marriage is just a religious rite, then it cannot also be a key social institution in a secular, pluralist nation. We do not depend on faith communities to ensure the education of children or the maintenance of private property because we understand that society needs educated citizens and a stable realm of property in order to prosper. The question is: Do we also need marriage?

The answer to this question is, I think, abundantly clear from 40 years of experimentation both here and in Europe. The consequences of our current retreat from marriage is not a flourishing libertarian social order, but a gigantic expansion of state power and a vast increase in social disorder and human suffering. The results of the marriage retreat are not merely personal or religious. When men and women fail to form stable marriages, the first result is a vast expansion of government attempts to cope with the terrible social needs that result. There is scarcely a dollar that state and federal government spends on social programs that is not driven in large part by family fragmentation: crime, poverty, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, school failure, mental and physical health problems. Even Medicare spending is inflated, as elderly singles spend more of their years in nursing homes.

The conservative project of limited government depends on recovering marriage as the normal, usual, and generally reliable way to raise children. The good news is that a marriage recovery appears to be on its way: Rates of divorce have dropped, illegitimacy is leveling off, marital fertility is on the rise, adult commitment to marital permanence is increasing, and the next generation’s dislike of divorce is rising; the consensus that children do better when parents get and stay married is now broad, if shallow.

The bad news is that gay marriage will gut this marriage movement, and reverse these gains. Marriage will no longer be a carrier of the message that children need mothers and fathers. Instead the law will legitimate the principle of family diversity: that adults get to form the families they choose and children will resiliently adjust. Or not, but who cares? If the law embraces this message, government will become its carrier and promoter. School textbooks, teen-pregnancy programs, and abstinence education (to mention just a few venues) will all be forced to carry this new unisex marriage vision. Religious people and social conservatives (not to mention marriage advocates in general) unwilling to champion this message, will retreat from the public square. Will a society that is unwilling to abandon unilateral divorce legally enforce Catholic marriage contracts, as John O’Sullivan suggests? Dream on. A nascent and promising movement for social recovery will be strangled at birth.

What will happen to American civilization then? Marriage is a universal human institution. We do not know of any culture that has survived without a reasonably functional marriage system. Perhaps stray reproduction by single moms plus immigration can sustain America over the long haul. A look at Europe, however, does not make one sanguine. The attempt to substitute the state for the family leads not only to gargantuan government, but to miniscule families: If marriage and children are just one of many private lifestyle choices, people stop getting married and they stop having children in numbers large enough to replace the population. (One child is enough to make you a mother. When marriage is unreliable, just how foolhardy do you expect women to be?). The U.N. is now issuing urgent warnings about European depopulation.

The future belongs to people who do the hard things necessary to reproduce not only themselves, but their civilization. Marriage is not an option, it is a precondition for social survival. Not everyone lives up to the marriage ideal in this or any civilization. But when a society abandons the marriage idea altogether as a shared public norm, do not expect private individuals to be able to sustain marriage.

Winning the gay-marriage debate may be hard, but to those of us who witnessed the fall of Communism, despair is inexcusable and irresponsible. Losing this battle means losing the idea that children need mothers and fathers. It means losing the marriage debate. It means losing limited government. It means losing American civilization. It means losing, period.

Maggie Gallagher is the editor of MarriageDebate.com which debuts July 21.


The Latest