The Blog

"Beyond Gay Marriage"

The stated goal of these prominent gay activists is no longer merely the freedom to live as they want.

12:00 AM, Aug 17, 2006 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

POLYGAMY? POLYAMORY? The end of marriage as we know it? For the past few years, and with increased frequency in recent months, defenders of marriage have been sounding the alarm as to the real goals of the so-called gay "marriage" movement. In response, gay marriage's "conservative" proponents have countered that the model of opposite-sex marriage, with its norms of monogamy, exclusivity, and permanence, could apply just as well to same-sex partners. That everything which makes a marital relationship worthwhile to heterosexual spouses, to their children, and to the state would apply to gay couples as well. Essentially, that same-sex partners want the exact same things as straight couples. And that basic fairness requires recognition of their relationships by the government.

Defenders of marriage saw through this. Scholars like Hadley Arkes and Robert P. George noted that by rejecting the grounding foundation of marriage--the unique psychosomatic unity possible only between one man and one woman in conjugal sex--the state would lose the principled basis for refusing to recognize polygamous (one man to multiple women) or even polyamorous (multiple men to multiple women, i.e. group) marriages. For pointing this out, they were called slippery-slope reasoners, scaremongers, and bigots. After all, it was said, no one seriously argues in favor of state-sanctioned polygamy or polyamory; George and Arkes were just slandering the good name and intentions of same-sex marriage activists.

It turns out that George and Arkes's points were not slanderous, but prophetic. For now, a distinguished group of scholars, civic leaders, and LGBT activists has grasped the full implications of a retreat from the conjugal conception of marriage--and has publicly embraced those implications. These gay-rights leaders have explicitly endorsed relationships consisting of multiple (more than two) sexual partners, and have even argued that justice requires both state recognition and universal acceptance of such relationships.

Their statement, "Beyond Gay Marriage," was released recently as a full-page ad in the New York Times. Full of candor, the statement's mission is "to offer friends and colleagues everywhere a new vision for securing governmental and private institutional recognition of diverse kinds of partnerships, households, kinship relationships and families." The statement lists several examples of such relationships, among them "committed, loving households in which there is more than one conjugal partner"--that is, polygamy and polyamory. But this is mild compared to what follows: demand for the legal recognition of "queer couples who decide to jointly create and raise a child with another queer person or couple, in two households." The language is breathtaking. Queer couples (plural) who jointly create a child? And intentionally raise the child in two (queer) households? Of course, no reference is made to the child's interests or welfare under such an arrangement--only to the fulfillment of adult desires by suitable "creations."

Put simply, the logic of "Beyond Gay Marriage" would result in the abolition of marriage as we know it. The authors tellingly write:

Marriage is not the only worthy form of family or relationship, and it should not be legally and economically privileged above all others. While we honor those for whom marriage is the most meaningful personal--for some, also a deeply spiritual--choice, we believe that many other kinds of kinship relationships, households, and families must also be accorded recognition.

The stated goal of these prominent gay activists is no longer merely the freedom to live as they want. Rather, it is to force you, your family, and the state to recognize and respect their myriad choices. The result of meeting these demands will be a culture, a legal system, and a government that considers a monogamous, exclusive, permanent sexual relationship of child-bearing and child-rearing nothing more than one among many lifestyle choices. The claim that marriage is normative for the flourishing of spouses, children, and society--not to mention any attempt to enshrine in law this unique human good--would be considered bigotry. In other words, marriage as a social institution would be destroyed.

The "Beyond Gay Marriage" statement should not be taken lightly, for its signatories are by no means drawn exclusively from the "radical" periphery of the gay movement. They are in many cases the mainstream voices. As Professor George then noted on the First Things website:

The people putting out this statement are not fringe figures. The more than 300 signatories include feminist icon Gloria Steinem, NYU sociologist Judith Stacey, Columbia University anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli, Georgetown law professors Robin West and Chai Feldblum, the Rev. Cecil Charles Prescod of Love Makes a Family, Inc., Yale law professor Kenji Yoshino, Princeton religion professor Cornel West, writer Barbara Ehrenreich, and Pat Clark, former executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

And these leaders have done no more than to affirm the logical implications of abandoning the conjugal conception of marriage as the exclusive union of sexually complementary spouses. There is no middle way between their demands and the conjugal conception of marriage. Either every consensual sexual and familial relationship is of equal value and thus merits equal legal recognition, or else conjugal marriage represents a unique human good and thus merits state recognition and support.

The conjugal conception of marriage is brilliantly defended in a short book released earlier this summer by the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, New Jersey. The document, titled Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles, addresses the unique importance of conjugal marriage for individuals and societies from the perspective of varied academic disciplines: sociology, psychology, biology, history, economics, moral and political philosophy, and law. Unlike "Beyond Gay Marriage," a mere collection of assertions, Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles is a heavily researched, meticulously detailed scholarly document citing the best, most recent academic findings on marriage, family structure, and spousal and child well-being.

Now commonly referred to as the Princeton Principles, the document has already made significant contributions to the public debate on marriage. In a White House meeting of civic leaders convened to discuss marriage this past June, Princeton University's Professor George handed President Bush a copy of the just-published book. Senator Sam Brownback later quoted from the statement during Senate debate of the Federal Marriage Amendment. Bush and Brownback took note of the Principles because they are endorsed by an all-star list of over sixty scholars, including James Q. Wilson of Pepperdine University, Paul McHugh of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, Hadley Arkes of Amherst College, Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School, Leon R. Kass and Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago, Jeremy Rabkin of Cornell University, Stephen Nock of the University of Virginia, and Daniel N. Robinson of Oxford University.

According to the drafters, the document seemed necessary for two reasons. First, because the very idea that the public has an interest in "a socially supported normative understanding of marriage" is under attack, especially in the academy. To make matters worse, "too often, the rational case for marriage is not made at all or not made very well." Defending marriage would thus "require confronting these attacks, assessing their arguments, and correcting them where necessary." The Principles do just this, concluding with a statement as bold for the academy as it is commonsensical to most Americans: "We are persuaded that the case for marriage can be made and won at the level of reason."

Second, the authors--almost all of whom are professors--thought that they owed this report to their students: "On behalf of our students, we need to make this statement, since marriage is above all a choice for the young: they need arguments to counterbalance the dominant arguments now attacking marriage as unjust and undesirable, and they need to know what marriage is in order to sustain their own marriages and raise their own children."

The authors of the Princeton Principles demonstrate how and why the demands of "Beyond Gay Marriage" lead to the detriment of spouses, children, and civil society. After providing a concise list of principles to guide civic leaders in their thinking about marriage and public life, the book launches into the best currently-available, one-stop scholarly resource of social science and philosophical reflection on marriage. The authors first examine the well-being of children in relation to marriage, family structure, and the different contributions mothers and fathers make to the parenting enterprise. They then look to the well-being of adults in various sexual relationships. Finally, they assess the public consequences of marital breakdown, its disproportionate effects on the poor, and the overreaching, intrusive state emerging from the social disintegration.

Although initial reactions focused almost exclusively on the report's position on same-sex marriage, the Principles are concerned with much more. The authors highlight several threats to marriage: a culture of divorce (afflicting even low-conflict marriages), widespread cohabitation, out-of-wedlock births, same-sex marriage, and the unregulated fertility industry. While in the past, threats to marriage were understood as failures of an enduring institution, today there is a coordinated effort, as "Beyond Gay Marriage" demonstrates, to fundamentally redefine the institution's nature and purpose. Today's attack seeks to recreate marriage in a way that ignores and devalues the sexual complementarity of men and women, the interpersonal union spouses form in marital sex, their procreative potential, and child's need for--and right to--his biological mother and father. In other words, all of the "alternative family choices" that "Beyond Gay Marriage" celebrates, the Princeton Principles decry as irreparably damaging the health of the body social.

The Principles further argue that in marriage, spouses pledge to give themselves entirely to each other, to share all aspects of their lives, to truly live as one. On the subject where "Beyond Gay Marriage" is most surprisingly silent, the Principles are explicit: marriage is critically important for providing children with the care and protection they need. For it is marriage that brings together men and women as husbands and wives to raise children as fathers and mothers. And make no mistake, the Principles assert: children do need both a mother and a father.

Many noted think tanks and sociologists, regardless of political persuasion, have affirmed the findings of the scholars who contributed to the Principles. The Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and the left-of-center Brookings Institution, for example, confirmed the Principles' claims regarding child well-being. In a 2005 issue of their jointly produced journal, The Future of Children, titled, "Marriage and Child Wellbeing," the editors write in their introduction, "The articles in this volume confirm that children benefit from growing up with two married biological parents." Likewise, the left-leaning research organization Child Trends echoed these conclusions in a research brief summing up the scholarly consensus:

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.

Of course, this conclusion flies in the face of the claims of "Beyond Gay Marriage." As the Principles make clear, the breakdown of marriage has been disastrous for many Americans. Consider spouses abandoned through avoidable divorce. Consider adults who suffer fleeting flings rather than the protection, resources, and care of a spouse. Consider, above all, children hurt by their parents' divorce, born without the protection and love of a father, or, perhaps most appalling, artificially conceived (more accurately, produced) without the commitment of both parents merely to satisfy adult desires. As the authors note, "Marriage is losing its preeminent status as the social institution that directs and organizes reproduction, childrearing, and adult life."

Marriage policy is a particularly important social and political issue because the health of marriage as a social institution has a disproportionately large effect on the wellbeing of children, the poor, and minority populations. Hence, building a culture in which marriage can flourish is a matter of social justice. Yet cultural elites who purport to have compassion for the marginalized have for the most part looked the other way--or worse. The Principles point out:

The products of Madison Avenue and Hollywood often appear indifferent to, if not hostile towards, the norms that sustain decent family life. . . . The nation's retreat from marriage has been particularly consequential for our society's most vulnerable communities. Out-of-wedlock birth, divorce, and single motherhood are much more common among lower-income African Americans and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic Americans, in large part because they often do not have as many material, social, and personal resources to resist the deinstitutionalization of marriage. The latest social scientific research on marriage indicates that minorities and the poor pay a disproportionately heavy price when marriage declines in their communities, meaning that the breakdown of the family only compounds the suffering of those citizens who already suffer the most.

Our nation's cultural elites, as evidenced most recently by "Beyond Gay Marriage," promote institutions that are hostile to the advancement of underprivileged Americans. To counter this, the Princeton Principles present a holistic understanding of the importance of marriage as a social-justice institution, and closes with five principles to guide marriage policy and legislation.

Legislation, however, though important, is not the primary means of reform. In the words of the statement: "Creating a marriage culture is not the job for government. Families, religious communities, and civic institutions--along with intellectual, moral, religious, and artistic leaders--point the way. But law and public policy will either reinforce and support these goals or undermine them. We call upon our nation's leaders, and our fellow citizens, to support public policies that strengthen marriage as a social institution."

And they are careful to note that marriages cannot survive on their own, for no man--or marriage--is an island: "But a marriage culture cannot flourish in a society whose primary institutions--universities, courts, legislatures, religions--not only fail to defend marriage but actually undermine it both conceptually and in practice."

The vision described in "Beyond Gay Marriage" is not supported by the majority of Americans. Yet our cultural elites--wielding considerable political influence--disagree. Thus, it is imperative that every candidate for elected office declare if he supports the vision of family life set forth in "Beyond Gay Marriage"--polygamous and polyamorous "marriages" and the creation of children raised by multiple queer households--or the model defended in the Princeton Principles--one man and one woman coming together exclusively and permanently as husband and wife to become father and mother to any children their marital love may bring. This is the question at the heart of the modern marriage debate. And voters need to know where their elected officials stand.

You can read the entire statement of the Princeton Principles here.

Ryan T. Anderson is a Junior Fellow at First Things. Previously he was the executive director of the Witherspoon Institute.