Politics & Policy

Strange Bedfellows

Looking at marriage as all or nothing.

Has Andrew Sullivan abandoned his “conservative case” for gay marriage? Apparently so. I’ve already shown that the Scandinavian experience empirically refutes Sullivan’s “conservative case.” Yet now, instead of arguing that gay marriage will strengthen marriage itself, Sullivan claims that gay marriage cannot harm an institution that is already effectively dead. Sullivan seizes on a piece by “Christian traditionalist” Donald Sensing to make this point.

Sensing argues that, by allowing sex without consequences, the birth-control pill has already killed marriage. Having severed the connection between marriage and childbearing, the pill, says Sensing, ushered in an era of cohabitation, thereby putting an end to the social regulation of sex and procreation. Sensing argues that gay marriage is merely an outgrowth of these earlier trends–a final stage in the unraveling of an institution that has already lost its central function.

It’s true that the pill and its consequences have substantially weakened marriage, yet Sensing is wrong to say that nothing remains of marriage that can or should be saved. Sensing’s traditionalism blinds him to the enormous remaining strengths of contemporary American marriage. How odd and interesting that Andrew Sullivan, for all his many swipes at Christian traditionalists, should ally himself with this all-or-nothing view of marriage.

PARENTING MEANS MARRYING

Here is what Sensing misses: In America, parenthood still means marriage. Despite the problems of the underclass, and despite the prevalence of premarital cohabitation, the vast majority of Americans believe that parents ought to be married. True, divorce has seriously disrupted the connection between marriage and parenthood. Yet a comparison to Scandinavia and the rest of Europe immediately reveals that Americans who wish to become parents marry.

It’s easy for a traditionalist like Sensing to overlook the enormous remaining strength of the connection between marriage and parenthood in America–because traditionalists compare the present to the model of marriage that prevailed in the ’50s. But compare the America of today to what is happening in Scandinavia–or to the utopian visions of the anti-marriage radicals–and the recalcitrant influence of tradition on the present shines clear. For all the hits that marriage has taken, the connection between marriage and parenthood in America is still surprisingly robust.

Let’s turn our gaze from a despairing traditionalist like Sensing to a despairing radical, like American University law professor Nancy Polikoff. (Polikoff is one of the family-law radicals I wrote about in “Beyond Gay Marriage.”) Polikoff would like to see legal marriage abolished. For Polikoff, gay marriage is only acceptable if it serves as a means to that end.

In a 2000 piece in the American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law, Polikoff looks back with nostalgia to the ’60s, and is openly despondent over the tendency of contemporary American mothers to marry:

While rejecting an institution they believed incapable of transformation, for a brief historical moment heterosexual feminists chose not to marry but rather to live with their male partners, and raise children. That moment passed at least twenty years ago. Today, although premarital cohabitation is common, long-term voluntary, non-marital cohabitation, especially if it includes children, is not truly a choice. … I have yet to find one woman who believed she could exercise a choice not to marry. One student … swore she would not marry out of solidarity with lesbians and gay men who could not. A few years after graduation, a colleague of mine received an invitation to her wedding.

DRAWING THE LINE

Polikoff would like nothing more than for American marriage to be replaced by the system of parental cohabitation that now dominates Scandinavia. Her very embrace of that goal shows that, in her mind’s eye, Polikoff understands–in a way Sensing does not–just how strong the relationship between American marriage and parenthood remains.

Sensing is right that the pill has weakened American marriage, but is wrong to treat the link between marriage and parenthood as an all-or-nothing connection that is gone for good. That is why Sensing is wrong about the causal significance of gay marriage: While it’s true that the movement for gay marriage is an effect of the pill–and of the other forces weakening traditional marriage–it is also true that gay marriage would immensely further marital decline, by breaking the remaining (and remarkably powerful) connection between marriage and parenthood. Gay marriage–part and parcel of the radical separation of marriage and parenthood that dominates in Scandinavia–would move us toward that system of parental cohabitation, favored by radicals like Polikoff, yet still thankfully alien to the vast majority of Americans.

This is why Sullivan is mistaken to imply that opposition to gay marriage must be motivated by a hatred of homosexuals. Sullivan says he’s “morally troubled” that gay-marriage opponents accept so much of marriage’s weakened state, yet “draw the line” at homosexual unions. It’s true that I see a complete restoration of the family system of the ’50s as neither possible nor desirable. It’s also true that gay marriage is one place at which I “draw the line” against further change. Yet Sullivan is mistaken to imply that I–and other opponents of homosexual unions–”draw the line” only at gay marriage, and not also at a series of other reforms that apply to heterosexuals.

THE DIVORCE QUESTION

I believe that the greatest current threat to American marriage is the worldwide spread of the Scandinavian system, because its expansion would put an end to the remaining and surprisingly healthy connection between American marriage and parenthood. In fact, the American Law Institute has proposed an equalization of cohabitation and marriage along Scandinavian lines, and, as I have said repeatedly, I oppose it. So it is simply wrong to imply that I am only concerned about changes in marriage that apply only to homosexuals: The ALI proposals affect heterosexuals.

But what about divorce? Gay-marriage advocates often bring it up. Shouldn’t someone who wants to strengthen marriage favor a constitutional amendment that would ban divorce? Well, I am not a religious traditionalist in the mold of Donald Sensing. I am very concerned about the implications of divorce for children, but I do not believe that it is either possible or desirable to repeal no-fault divorce. (Nor do I believe that we ought to return to the ’50s view of homosexuality. I long supported the repeal of sodomy laws for that reason.)

Sensing may overlook the existing strengths of American marriage, but he is correct to imply that the traditional system is scarcely workable in the wake of the pill. The real question is whether we can preserve, and perhaps even strengthen, the remaining connection between marriage and parenthood, even if a total return to the ’50s is untenable.

SCORCHED-EARTH MARRIAGE REFORM?

The best way to achieve this middle point (between the ’50s and the ’60s) is to pass an amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman–and to block the equalization of marriage and cohabitation proposed by the American Law Institute. Once that’s achieved, we can concentrate on feasible divorce reform. As I’ve said before, I think a waiting period for divorce for couples with children is the way to go. That “draws the line” where it needs to be drawn–at the connection between marriage and parenthood.

There is something deeply damaging to marriage in the all-or-nothing approaches of both Sensing and Sullivan. I certainly respect the efforts–especially their intellectual consistency–of religious traditionalists to work toward a full restoration of the family system of the ’50s, even if I don’t happen to share that policy. In truth, American marriage would be long gone if not for the efforts of Christian traditionalists, and for that we are all in their debt. Yet the all-or-nothing position can also slip into despair and defeatism in the wake of the innovations Sensing describes. That is the weakness of the traditionalists.

And the all-or-nothing polemic of gay-marriage advocates plays all too easily on the ambivalence of those Americans in the moderate middle ground on family issues. Increasingly, gay-marriage advocates are trying to set up an equation by which acceptance of contraception, no-fault divorce, and premarital cohabitation must inevitably entail acceptance of gay marriage. Logically, that does not follow: We can, and should, draw a line between them.

NOT THE SAME THING

The marriage debate is oddly similar to our divisions over the war on terror. For some Americans, to accept the president’s tough policy on terror would be to repudiate their own earlier dovishness. Can you support the war in Iraq if you opposed the war in Vietnam? Would that mean you had betrayed your earlier pacifism, or would it mean that Vietnam and Iraq are entirely different matters? Likewise, can you oppose gay marriage if you’ve been divorced–or even if you simply don’t want to repeal no-fault divorce? Would protecting traditional marriage be an admission that divorce is unacceptable, or would it be an acknowledgment of the fact that the two issues are not the same?

What Andrew Sullivan’s odd alliance with a (despairing) Christian traditionalist misses is that those middle-ground Americans who oppose gay marriage, yet also oppose a return to the ’50s, are the same Americans who have repudiated traditional attitudes toward homosexuality. Sullivan would have us make a radical choice. According to him, we must either all be Christian traditionalists, or “we must all be sodomites now.” But those are not the only alternatives.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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