The Magazine

Marriage Defeatists

From the December 15, 2003 issue: Federalism is a poor excuse for abandoning a core social institution.

Dec 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 14 • By MAGGIE GALLAGHER
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High rates of divorce and unmarried childbearing reinforce each other, connected as they are by the cultural idea that marriage is expendable for children. If marriage is primarily about adult intimacy, safe haven, and connection, then there is no good reason to get married when you want to have a child, or find you have unexpectedly conceived one. If marriage is mainly about adult yearnings, there is no good reason to work at a struggling marriage when it ceases to be satisfying or particularly intimate. Trade in your spouse as many times as you need to, if satisfaction with your spouse is the purpose of marriage.

THE SOCIAL NORM that needs reinforcing, in the law and in the culture, is not: Soul mates should marry. It is: Children need fathers and mothers. This norm alone can sustain marriage as the primary source of support for mothers and their children, in lieu of government. Court-imposed gay marriage is not an expansion of individual liberty, but part of a highly successful strategy of certain elites to use the law to impose their values on the American people, reshaping social norms and institutions in the process.

What we see emerging is a new sort of society where educated elites use the soft power of the state to reengineer people's values as they will. The ordinary limits of governmental power cannot stop them, since the new values will be defined as "basic rights"--in whose name even libertarians will support a vast new intrusion of government into the lives of individuals. After redefining marriage, the next act is to redefine parenthood to accommodate two-mother families, two-father families, and whatever else people's yearnings for connection may produce. Perhaps libertarians will hail all this as an advance. When the new day dawns, courts--once bound by the idea that motherhood and fatherhood sprang from nature--will be free to define family relationships and distribute parental powers as they see fit.

Because marriage is a public, not a private, act, everyone will be forced to acknowledge the new social values. Public authorities will have to accord equal respect to whatever family forms adults choose, as they exercise their new basic right. Schools will become messengers of the new values; with time, radio stations may discover that they have failed to promote the "public good" if they object too strenuously to the new morality. This will all be done in the name of individual liberty, but the new liberty will consist of government's punitively reshaping social institutions to make them purveyors of the moral values of narrow elites. Federalism--whose whole purpose is the dispersal of power--will have been exploited to give power to those who wish to revamp social norms. Limited government is exactly what is under sustained attack.

Meanwhile, if same-sex marriage proceeds apace, all the promising recent improvements in the culture of marriage will be halted in their tracks. Marriage will no longer be about producing and protecting the next generation, or about getting mothers and fathers for children. In the new regime, marriage will be about legally affirming the sexual and emotional lifestyles of adults in the governing class. What are the likely consequences for marriage?

If family systems are to function in a highly mobile society, there must be core values that are public and shared. This common definition is what allows families, churches, and communities to sustain a marriage culture, within which children--who will someday go out and marry biological strangers, from different families, churches, and communities--are reared to be good husbands and wives. One of the insights gleaned from experiments with capitalism in post-Communist Russia is the importance of cultural values in making economic freedom work. Could the economy function if each state had a fundamentally different notion of property? Can marriage survive as an institution in a society where it means one thing in Massachusetts and something radically different in South Carolina? Or where Massachusetts marriages are not recognized in other states?

Large, complex societies can easily forget that they need to reproduce if they are going to survive. European countries are in a population decline so severe that in a hundred years or so, some of them appear poised to become majority Islamic societies. The Japanese health minister recently issued a warning that, if childbearing rates don't increase, the Japanese people are going to become extinct.

Getting men and women to channel erotic energy into the narrow but immensely fruitful union we call marriage is not easy. The things adults have to do consistently in order to give their children a stable, married mother-father home are hard. The public celebration and legal validation of marriage are intended to help define the importance of this task. That is the only real justification government has for interfering in peoples' personal lives.

If marriage is only about intimacy, connection, and safe haven, as the Goodridge majority maintains, then government has no business in it. Maybe the advocates of family diversity are right: Maybe the idea that children need mothers and fathers, and that society needs babies, are outdated, dispensable notions. If you believe that, then permitting social experimentation across the states may be just the way to go.

But if you believe that marriage is one of a small number of social institutions (like democracy and property) that make limited government possible, then there is nothing at all anomalous about defining it in the Constitution. To so protect it amounts to saying again, as our forefathers said to Utah polygamists in the 19th century: The social system of our country, to which all our states subscribe, entails a shared respect for the republican form of government, for property rights, for free expression--and for marriage.

Maggie Gallagher is the president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy in Washington, D.C.