The Future of Marriage

The campaign to re-define marriage scored its biggest win in years last Friday night, when New York’s legislature voted to recognize same-sex marriages.  As the New York Times notes, “New York is now the sixth and largest state in the country where gay couples will be able to wed legally; when the state’s law goes into effect in late July, twice as many Americans will live in jurisdictions where same-sex marriage is permitted.”

The Times goes on to observe that the future of the gay marriage movement is a bit cloudy, despite this big win, because the state-by-state approach is rapidly approaching stalemate:  “Officials at several gay-rights organizations said they would seek to move quickly in Maryland, where legislation to legalize same-sex marriage was shelved in February by Democratic leaders concerned that it lacked the support to pass.”  After that, they can fight to restore the same-sex marriage law knocked down by voters in Maine, perhaps win tough fights in Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania… and then what?

Gay marriage proponents hope the big win in New York will shift public attitudes across the nation in their direction, although it could also energize opposition in some areas.  Whether you agree with a big social transformation or not, it’s logical to foresee a point at which incremental change meets determined resistance from those who sincerely believe in the existing traditions. 

The New York vote has been widely hailed as a better path for gay marriage advocates to follow than imposing their preferences through judicial fiat.  That’s unquestionably true.  The air is thick with fiats these days.  It’s refreshing to watch representative government address an important matter with an orderly and legal vote.

Such votes are unlikely to bring the new definition of marriage to more than half the states, give or take a few.  What happens when that deadlock is reached?  If gay marriage is, to quote the rhetoric of its most fervent supporters, a “human right” akin to liberation from slavery, then how can half the states be allowed to continue opposing it?

For that matter, how can religious exemptions, such as those included in the New York bill, be allowed to stand?  No religious belief can be allowed to trump a basic human right for very long.  Already Catholic Charities, among the oldest adoption agencies in the country, has been forced out of the adoption business due to its refusal to place children with same-sex couples in Massachusetts. 

The Human Rights Campaign, one of the gay-rights organizations celebrating the passage of New York’s same-sex marriage law, denounced the Church’s opposition to adoption by gay couples as “putting an ugly political agenda before the needs of very vulnerable children” – an agenda that is “shameful, wrong, and has nothing to do whatsoever with faith.”

This is an unpleasant truth that comes up again and again, as “enlightened” government power is used to “transform” an unwilling population: transformation is coercive.  No one can dispute the traditional definition of marriage is the existing condition that must be transformed, so its defenders will inevitably find themselves on the receiving end of the coercion.  Not only are the religious beliefs of Catholic Charities dismissed as irrelevant before the goals of the State, but the bishops even have to listen to lectures about how poorly they understand their own faith. 

One hears a great deal of such talk from gay marriage advocates.  Christianity is about love and tolerance; anyone who opposes the redefinition of marriage is hateful and intolerant; therefore such people cannot be good Christians.  A subset of this line of thinking holds that only religious zealots care about the traditional definition of marriage.  It is always wise to be skeptical of aggressive social movements that insist honest disagreement with their agenda by rational people is completely impossible. 

The state-by-state strategy to re-define marriage, while better than transformation through judicial decree, is still disingenuous.  It’s not really a “state’s rights” issue, because the changes implemented by certain states will inevitably affect the others, as they are required – through law or lawsuit – to recognize the new marriages.  Marriage doesn’t seem like something that can be defined one way in New York, and another in South Carolina.  Without knowing which side will ultimately prevail, it’s safe to predict that such conditions cannot endure forever.

Should something as fundamental as the definition of marriage be up for grabs through a parliamentary maneuver?  New York instituted gay marriage because of a “decision by 4 Republicans to join 29 Democrats to push the measure through the 62-seat Senate,” as the New York Times puts it.  Both supporters and opponents of the new law agree that its passage was achieved through a virtuoso performance by Governor Andrew Cuomo, and pressure from big-money Republican donors in New York.  Is that really the right way to change one of the basic pillars of civilization?

The gay marriage position is frequently advanced by asserting that marriage really isn’t that important after all.  It is portrayed as a tattered old thing, not well cared-for by the divorce-happy straight men and women who have been charged with preserving it through the Twentieth Century.  In order to assert that the defense of marriage is an act of spite or bigotry, it is necessary to maintain that traditional marriage itself has no great intrinsic value, which leads to the assertion that no rational person devoid of religious fervor would defend it.

I’m not religious myself, and with all due respect to the earnest belief of those who are, I have entirely secular reasons for defending the institution of marriage.  I have not a shred of animosity toward homosexuals, and I’m not lacking in respect for long-term same-sex relationships.  I think consenting adults should be allowed to enter into binding legal arrangements, and find various legal impediments thrown at gay partnerships (such as the denial of hospital visitation rights) to be ridiculous. 

Here’s the thing: in order to survive, every society needs a large number of natural-born children, raised in stable homes.  A replacement birth rate of 2.1 children means a very large number of women must have two children, and quite a few must have three or more.  Why should women in such great numbers accept all that sacrifice and responsibility, without an honored commitment from the father of their children, to stay with them for life?  Why should men not be revered for making such a commitment?

A half-century of bitter Great Society experience has taught us that both men and women must be involved in raising most of these children.  This is not the same thing as saying single-parent or same-sex households cannot raise children well.  It’s a numbers game, projected across a population of millions.  The forensic evidence of what happens to a large population when most children are not raised by both men and women is, sadly, not hard to come by.

Even in the absence of children, men and women need each other.  Neither affluence nor technology has dissolved this need.  The bond between husbands and wives has been crucial in building civilization, and I’m not sanguine about the results of an experiment to see if modern civilization can endure without its ancient foundation.  According special significance to that bond is not an insult to gay couples, any more than it’s an insult to unmarried straight people. 

Because I think marriage is so powerful, I don’t think the process of re-defining it can be halted partway, with much of the country still standing by the “old” definition.  The campaign to change it one state at a time will hit a stalemate soon.  I suspect all talk of “state’s rights” from gay marriage advocates will end shortly thereafter.  It might even come during the 2012 presidential campaign, when President Obama’s highly ambiguous view of gay marriage abruptly completes its “evolution” at a politically opportune moment.

Even as I oppose their goal, I won’t blame the advocates of gay marriage for abandoning the state strategy and going national, because it would be illogical for them to leave the project they have embarked upon half-completed.  To get where they want to go, it will be necessary to create an unchallenged national consensus that two men, or two women, can form the exact same type of bond as men and women do.  I don’t believe any contempt toward long and honorable same-sex relationships is necessary to maintain that is obviously not true.  It won’t be the first obviously untrue thing Americans have been required to believe.