Politics & Policy

Defining Marriage Down

We need to protect marriage.

As the United States Senate debates the wisdom of a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman and protects against judicially-mandated same-sex unions, it is important to keep in mind the costs that we face as a society if we fail to protect traditional marriage.

Proponents of same-sex unions have pointed to a recent study showing federal revenues increasing by upwards of $1 billion a year as a result of redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships. Ironically, most of the increased revenue would result from the still-existing marriage penalty in the tax code, which taxes married couples at higher rates than individuals. Pro-family groups have been trying to eliminate the marriage penalty for years.

Some supporters of homosexual marriage have even cited a projected boon to the wedding industry as an argument for the economic benefits of mandating same-sex marriage.

But these shortsighted arguments miss the point entirely. The costs to our society should rogue federal judges force the states to recognize the legal equivalence of same-sex unions would be significant–even devastating–when measured in terms of the effects on our central social institution, the family.

Marriage is at the center of the family, and the family is the basis of society itself. The government’s interest in the marriage bond–and the reason it treats heterosexual unions in a manner unlike all other relationships–is closely related to the welfare of children. Government registers and endorses marriage between a man and a woman in order to ensure a stable environment for the raising and nurturing of children.

Social science on this matter is conclusive: Children need both a mom and a dad. Study after study has shown that children do best in a home with a married, biological mother and father. And the government has a special responsibility to safeguard the needs of children; the social costs of not doing so are tremendous. As Child Trends, a mainstream child-welfare organization, has noted, “research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage. Children in single-parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in stepfamilies or cohabiting relationships face higher risks of poor outcomes… There is thus value for children in promoting strong, stable marriages between biological parents.”

Giving public sanction to homosexual “marriage” would violate this government responsibility to safeguard the needs of children by placing individual adult desires above the best interests of children. There is no reliable social-scientific data demonstrating that children raised by same-sex couples (or groups) do as well as children raised by married, heterosexual parents. Redefining marriage is certain to harm children and the broader social good if that redefinition weakens government’s legitimate goal of encouraging men and women who intend to have children to get married.

If the experience of the last 40 years tells us anything, it is that the consequences of weakening the institution of marriage are tragic for society at large. The movement away from traditional moral conventions left us with soaring divorce and out-of-wedlock birthrates, family breakdown on an unprecedented scale, and devastating consequences for children. Social science tells us that child poverty, child abuse, and child developmental problems increase with the decline of marriage. It also tells us that the children of intact, traditional marriages are much healthier in body, spirit, and mind, more successful in school and life, and much less likely to use illegal drugs, abuse alcohol, or engage in crime than are children from homes without a mother and a father. This is not to say that good children cannot be raised in other family settings. Many healthy children are raised in difficult circumstances and many single parents struggle heroically to raise good children. Still, the social science is clear. The best place for a child is with a mom and a dad. Both are needed.

Traditional marriage is a social good because it dramatically reduces the social costs associated with dysfunctional behavior: Supporting and strengthening marriage significantly diminishes public expenditure on welfare, raises government revenues, and produces a more engaged, responsible citizenry.

There is a real question about the future of societies that do not uphold traditional marriage. Once a society loses sight of the central importance of marriage in raising children, the institution can go into a tailspin. If marriage begins to be viewed as the way two adults make known their love for each other, there is no reason to marry before children are born rather than after. And if it is immaterial whether a couple should be married before the birth of a child, then why should they marry at all? In Europe, many parents have stopped marrying altogether because they no longer view marriage as having anything to do with parenthood or children. The legalization of same-sex marriage has been instrumental in fostering this change in perspective, leading most to think of marriage as simply the expression of mutual affection between two consenting adults. As a result, couples are marrying later and later after children are born, or simply foregoing marriage altogether. Rates of parental cohabitation have skyrocketed, and family dissolution has become endemic.

The experience of other nations demonstrates that the imposition of same-sex “marriage” and civil unions leads to a weakening of marriage. As scholar Stanley Kurtz has shown, in Scandinavia, the system of marriage-like same-sex registered partnerships established in the late 1980s has contributed significantly to the ongoing decline of marriage in that region. In the Netherlands, same-sex marriage has increased the cultural separation of marriage from parenthood, resulting in a soaring out-of-wedlock birthrate. Kurtz warns that same-sex “marriage” could widen the separation between marriage and parenthood here in the United States, and perhaps undo the progress we have made in arresting the once seemingly inexorable trend towards higher rates of illegitimacy among some communities in the United States.

The experience of Europe also shows that the decline of the institution of marriage goes hand in hand with a decline in married fertility, and a corresponding decline in population. Because of the birth dearth in Europe, many countries find themselves faced with the prospect of aging (soon to be shrinking) populations and an impending collapse of their social-welfare systems because of a declining ratio of workers to retirees. Two proposed means of keeping the social and economic systems of these countries afloat–enormous tax hikes and importing vastly increased numbers of laborers–are widely viewed as infeasible. Whatever might be said in favor of mandating homosexual marriage, it certainly cannot be argued that it would increase the married fertility rate.

Traditional marriage is a boon to society in a variety of ways, and government has a vital interest in encouraging and providing the conditions to maintain as many traditional marriages as possible. Marriage has economic benefits not only for the spouses but for the economy at large. Even in advanced industrial societies such as ours, economists tell us that the uncounted but real value of home activities such as child care, senior care, home carpentry, and food preparation is still almost as large as the “official” economy. Not least of the reasons heterosexual marriage is a positive social good is the fact that, in a married state, adults of both sexes are vastly healthier, happier, safer, and wealthier, and live longer lives.

It is ironic, then, that the very governments that stand to benefit in so many ways from intact, traditional unions have, in recent years, seemed determined to follow policies that have the effect of weakening marriage.

If the movement for civil unions and same-sex marriage succeeds, we may well be dealing a fatal blow to an already vulnerable institution. It is possible to lose the institution of marriage in America. And that is precisely the hidden agenda of many in this cultural battle: To do away entirely with the traditional definition of the family. An influential organization of lawyers and judges, the American Law Institute, has already recommended sweeping changes in family law that would equalize marriage and cohabitation, extending rights and benefits now reserved for married couples to cohabiting domestic partners, both heterosexual and homosexual.

Once the process of “defining marriage down” begins, it is but a short step to the dissolution of marriage as a vital institution.

The Honorable Sam Brownback is a Republican senator from Kansas.

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


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