Politics & Policy

The Divorce Thing

A diversion in the marriage debate.

Andrew Sullivan has a new idea. If gay-marriage opponents really cared about marriage, we would propose a constitutional amendment to ban divorce. Logically, of course, this is a complete non sequitur: Don’t do what is possible to protect marriage, try to do what is impossible. Gee, that is a real recipe for progress.

But I have found this argument has a weird appeal for many conservatives, especially those who are unaware of serious ongoing cross-ideological efforts to revive marriage as the normal, usual, and generally reliable way of raising children. (See for example, The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles) Many good people from all political persuasions in the marriage movement are trying to reduce divorce and unmarried childbearing, and end the progressive deterioration in our marriage culture, with some modest, recent signs of success: Unmarried childbearing has leveled off (albeit at high levels); divorce rates have declined modestly (very modestly); recent surveys show the commitment to marital permanence is rising, not falling, among married couples and marital happiness is increasing; marital fertility appears to be up. Polls show young people hate divorce and want lasting marriage. Compared to Europe, where the marriage idea and the population itself are dying out, America has a much stronger commitment to the ideal of marriage, a basis from which to expand social recovery.

But marriage remains an institution obviously in profound structural and cultural crisis. And the crisis revolves precisely around the historic function of marriage not as a celebration of romantic love, but as the forge in which intact families are created and society reproduces itself. The norm that needs boosting in our culture is not “Soul mates should marry” but: “Men and women should get and stay married if they want children, because children need mothers and fathers. Andrew Sullivan needs to explain why this is a good time for a radical social and legal redefinition of marriage as unisex celebration of love. How again is this vast, unprecedented social experiment a conservative idea?

A friend asks: “Think of the divorced couples you know. How would gay marriage have mattered, one way or the other?” This is a version of the argument: How can the marriage of two gays affect anyone else’s marriage? Even as American cultural norms are dramatically reshaped by elites, we seem to deny the power of norms to shape our own lives or the lives of people we know.

I am not sure gay marriage would matter to people who are now married, people whose ideas and values were already formed along the cultural norms of their time. But I am sure unisex marriage will dramatically affect the cultural norms and values of the next generation in ways that will encourage divorce and disconnect marriage further from childbearing. Young people today do not reject marriage, but they are extremely tempted to redefine it in ways the exclude the childbearing dimension. Marriage is about love between two adults. Children? They are another matter entirely.

With legalized gay marriage, idealized portraits of Heather and her two mommies will enter every public-school classroom in America, not to mention media and entertainment. Our sons will be told that they are not necessary in family life. Our daughters will be informed by government authority that children do not necessarily need fathers. How important, then, is it to stick to a marriage so your kids have a father? If two mommies are equally good for a child, why won’t a single mom and her mother do? How can we revive a stronger commitment to the importance of fathers among both men and women if the government tells us fathers are not that important, only commitment is. If any two parents will do, why not just divorce and remarry as often as you like? Your child will have two parents in the home, and that is all that matters, right?

This divorce thing is a lawyer’s trick, a diversion from the question at hand: Will same-sex marriage strengthen or weaken marriage as a social institution? If the answer is that it will weaken marriage at all, we should not do it: It is morally callous and indifferent, given the depth of the marriage crisis we face, the suffering it is causing. If gays and lesbians are facing practical problems in arranging their lives, caring and responsible people will look for solutions other than destabilizing the one critical social institution which protects children from fatherlessness, poverty, pain, and suffering.

According to the Census Bureau, exactly 172,000 same-sex households with children in this country (these children are mostly products of divorced homes by the way). In the Netherlands, just ten percent of same-sex partners have married. If the same proportion holds here, we are redefining marriage to suit the needs of 17,200 same-sex households with children. Meanwhile of the 77 million children in this country, at least half are going to experience broken homes, if we do not succeed in reversing this marriage decline. But what is the one marriage program seriously pushed by Andrew Sullivan, courts, and legal elites? Gay marriage. By what moral calculus do they decide the interests of adults with statistically unusual sexual tastes is the most important thing? To me it is a striking example of a revival of Seventies/”Me-Decade” adult narcissism.

In fact the whole push for gay marriage looks very similar to the push by legal elites for unilateral divorce. The very same arguments are used: inadequate and preliminary social-science data used to “prove” that divorce has no ill effects on children. Critics who warned that redefining divorce as a unilateral right might increase divorce were pooh-poohed. Only bad, unhappy marriages would be affected, we were reassured. After all, how can the divorce of an unhappy couple affect happily married people? Most tellingly, radical transformation of divorce laws were presented as a conservative, modest reform that would actually strengthen marriage.

Do not believe it. It wasn’t true of divorce; it isn’t true of gay marriage.

Maggie Gallagher is the editor of MarriageDebate.com.


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