Issue #5, Summer 2007

Family Reunion

The case against the case against gay marriage.

Blankenhorn is saying that only one of these two cultural bundles can sustain marriage as a child-centered public institution. But it is the whole bundle, not just gay marriage, that determines marriage’s fate. With exemplary integrity, Blankenhorn acknowledges as much. “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 post-institutional marriage” (his italics). So the important question isn’t only gay marriage, or even marriage. Just as important is what else is in these bundles.

Here is one clue. Countries in his data set that recognize same-sex marriage nationally are relatively few and are concentrated in Western Europe, plus Canada and South Africa. Countries that do not recognize same-sex unions, on the other hand, form a larger and more heterogeneous group, including a few Western countries, but also, for instance, Bangladesh, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Uganda, and Ukraine. It would certainly be surprising if the latter countries did not take a more traditional view of marriage–and very much else.

And so they do. Using data from the World Values Survey–the larger and, as we both agree, more representative of Blankenhorn’s two sources–I looked at how countries with and without same-sex marriage felt on some matters other than marriage. As Blankenhorn points out, countries without same-sex marriage do indeed take more traditional attitudes toward marriage, parenthood, and divorce. But–prepare to be shocked–what correlates most starkly with the absence of gay marriage is intolerance of homosexuals. Meanwhile, people in countries with same-sex marriage are more supportive of teaching children to be independent and tolerant; they are more supportive of women’s equality in work and politics; and they are less insistent that women must be mothers to be fulfilled. They are also more secular and are marginally more supportive of democracy. As it turns out, they also report higher satisfaction with life and feel they have more freedom of choice and control over their lives. If you had to live in a random country chosen from one of these two lists, which list would you choose? As a homosexual American, I can tell you my own answer, and not just because of gay marriage.

Blankenhorn has painted himself into a corner, one where the American public will never join him. If, as he insists, we cannot sustainably mix and match values and policies–combine adult individualism with devoted parenthood, for example, or conjoin same-sex marriage with measures to reduce divorce–then we must choose whether to move in the direction of the Netherlands or Saudi Arabia. I have no doubt which way the public would go. And should.

n fact, however, the public will reject the choice Blankenhorn offers as a false one; and, again, the public will be right. A look at Blankenhorn’s own data shows that the publics of gay-marriage countries have not rejected marriage; on six out of the eight questions he uses as indicators, they agree with non-gay-marriage countries, just by less decisive margins. People in countries recognizing same-sex unions are more accepting of co-habitation and single parenthood than Blankenhorn and I would prefer; but their project is not to reject marriage, except perhaps on Blankenhorn’s reductionist account of it, but to blend and balance it with other values of liberal individualism.

Blankenhorn may think this project futile. He is right to sound cautionary notes. But in recent years, as he points out, U.S. divorce rates have dropped a little and teen-pregnancy rates have dropped a lot, while “rates of marital happiness have stabilized and may be increasing.” States are experimenting with reforms to strengthen marriage and reduce unnecessary divorce, and the proportion of African-American children living in two-parent, married-couple homes has stabilized or increased. Those modest but heartening improvements come at precisely the time when gay Americans in the millions–the ordinary folks, not the academicians–have discovered and embraced marriage and family after years of alienation from both.

Blankenhorn and I could argue all day about whether gay marriage is part of the solution or part of the problem. But I feel I have learned a couple of things recently. From giving all those speeches, I have learned that the public takes a more individualistic view of marriage than either Blankenhorn or I would prefer. From his new book, I’ve learned that the public’s view of both marriage and society is nonetheless richer, wiser, and more humane than David Blankenhorn’s–and possibly, for that matter, than my own. Which gives me hope that, whatever the experts say the real purpose of marriage is or is not, the public can ultimately get it right.


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Issue #5, Summer 2007
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Nowhere in this review do I read arguments about whether national governments should concern themselves with "marriage." Until the rise of the national state, marriage was a private institution, and the entire debate about gay marriage could be completely sidestepped by returning marriage to its private roots, and leaving governments to regulate only civil unions, gay, straight, non-romantic, etc. Government doesn't turn our religious feelings into statutes; it should do the same with our love lives. No one in this debate seems to stop and ask why does the state compel two individuals to state their love for each other before granting them a license to form a union. Any two individuals should be granted a civil union license, something that would have all the romance of getting a driving license or a property title, and leave the "till death do us part" stuff to religion, where it belongs.

Jun 11, 2007, 6:44 AM

Well said.

Jun 12, 2007, 8:32 AM

The day marriage is privatized is the day the culture war over gay marriage will end.

Jun 13, 2007, 2:02 AM

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