The Magazine

Defining Marriage Down . . .

is no way to save it.

Apr 2, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 28 • By DAVID BLANKENHORN
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Inevitably, the pattern discernible in the statistics is borne out in the statements of the activists. Many of those who most vigorously champion same-sex marriage say that they do so precisely in the hope of dethroning once and for all the traditional "conjugal institution."

That phrase comes from Judith Stacey, professor of sociology at New York University and a major expert witness testifying in courts and elsewhere for gay marriage. She views the fight for same-sex marriage as the "vanguard site" for rebuilding family forms. The author of journal articles like "Good Riddance to 'The Family,'" she argues forthrightly that "if we begin to value the meaning and quality of intimate bonds over their customary forms, there are few limits to the kinds of marriage and kinship patterns people might wish to devise."

Similarly, David L. Chambers, a law professor at the University of Michigan widely published on family issues, favors gay marriage for itself but also because it would likely "make society receptive to the further evolution of the law." What kind of evolution? He writes, "If the deeply entrenched paradigm we are challenging is the romantically linked man-woman couple, we should respect the similar claims made against the hegemony of the two-person unit and against the romantic foundations of marriage."

Examples could be multiplied--the recently deceased Ellen Willis, professor of journalism at NYU and head of its Center for Cultural Reporting and Criticism, expressed the hope that gay marriage would "introduce an implicit revolt against the institution into its very heart, further promoting the democratization and secularization of personal and sexual life"--but they can only illustrate the point already established by the large-scale international comparisons: Empirically speaking, gay marriage goes along with the erosion, not the shoring up, of the institution of marriage.

These facts have two implications. First, to the degree that it makes any sense to oppose gay marriage, it makes sense only if one also opposes with equal clarity and intensity the other main trends pushing our society toward postinstitutional marriage. After all, the big idea is not to stop gay marriage. The big idea is to stop the erosion of society's most pro-child institution. Gay marriage is only one facet of the larger threat to the institution.

Similarly, it's time to recognize that the beliefs about marriage that correlate with the push for gay marriage do not exist in splendid isolation, unrelated to marriage's overall institutional prospects. Nor do those values have anything to do with strengthening the institution, notwithstanding the much-publicized but undocumented claims to the contrary from those making the "conservative case" for gay marriage.

Instead, the deep logic of same-sex marriage is clearly consistent with what scholars call deinstitutionalization--the overturning or weakening of all of the customary forms of marriage, and the dramatic shrinking of marriage's public meaning and institutional authority. Does deinstitutionalization necessarily require gay marriage? Apparently not. For decades heterosexuals have been doing a fine job on that front all by themselves. But gay marriage clearly presupposes and reinforces deinstitutionalization.

By itself, the "conservative case" for gay marriage might be attractive. It would be gratifying to extend the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples--if gay marriage and marriage renewal somehow fit together. But they do not. As individuals and as a society, we can strive to maintain and strengthen marriage as a primary social institution and society's best welfare plan for children (some would say for men and women too). Or we can strive to implement same-sex marriage. But unless we are prepared to tear down with one hand what we are building up with the other, we cannot do both.

David Blankenhorn is president of the New York-based Institute for American Values and the author of The Future of Marriage (Encounter Books).