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Another Summary of the Changes in Marriage

June 23, 2012

A while back, you may have seen my post on traditional marriage being dead. Yesterday, David Blankenhorn, founder and president of the Institute for American Values, wrote a New York Times opinion piece describing his evolution on gay marriage. In said piece, he was clear to mention that there were some positions that he wasn’t changing his mind about:

I opposed gay marriage believing that children have the right, insofar as society makes it possible, to know and to be cared for by the two parents who brought them into this world. I didn’t just dream up this notion: the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force in 1990, guarantees children this right.

Marriage is how society recognizes and protects this right. Marriage is the planet’s only institution whose core purpose is to unite the biological, social and legal components of parenthood into one lasting bond. Marriage says to a child: The man and the woman whose sexual union made you will also be there to love and raise you. In this sense, marriage is a gift that society bestows on its children.

At the level of first principles, gay marriage effaces that gift. No same-sex couple, married or not, can ever under any circumstances combine biological, social and legal parenthood into one bond. For this and other reasons, gay marriage has become a significant contributor to marriage’s continuing deinstitutionalization, by which I mean marriage’s steady transformation in both law and custom from a structured institution with clear public purposes to the state’s licensing of private relationships that are privately defined.

I have written these things in my book and said them in my testimony, and I believe them today. I am not recanting any of it.

But afterwards, he discusses what about his opinion has changed.

To cover what he has written on that, I would basically have to copy and paste the rest of the New York Times article, so instead of doing that…I’ll just summarize his points. Blankenhorn’s evolution on gay marriage is due to the following factors: 1) he recognizes the equality of gay love and straight love (and especially in protecting gay and lesbian families and their children), 2) he’s tired of the social division of the “culture wars,” 3) he recognizes that rather than being about parenthood, the gay marriage debate has more often been about anti-gay animus, and 4) opposing gay marriage has done nothing to improve the statistics for straight cohabitation, straight divorce, or children born out-of-wedlock.

There is one line that he has in particular that I find interesting:

 Perhaps some of this can be attributed to the reconceptualization of marriage as a private ordering that is so central to the idea of gay marriage. But either way, if fighting gay marriage was going to help marriage over all, I think we’d have seen some signs of it by now.

Reconceptualization of marriage as a private ordering…hmmm…..

Anyway, in the end, he asks three questions:

Instead of fighting gay marriage, I’d like to help build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same. For example, once we accept gay marriage, might we also agree that marrying before having children is a vital cultural value that all of us should do more to embrace? Can we agree that, for all lovers who want their love to last, marriage is preferable to cohabitation? Can we discuss whether both gays and straight people should think twice before denying children born through artificial reproductive technology the right to know and be known by their biological parents?

The interesting thing part is…in discussions elsewhere, I’ve seen people take their shot at trying to answer these questions. From MetaFilter commenter escabeche:

For example, once we accept gay marriage, might we also agree that marrying before having children is a vital cultural value that all of us should do more to embrace?

Sure, that sounds good.

Can we agree that, for all lovers who want their love to last, marriage is preferable to cohabitation?

I doubt it.

Can we discuss whether both gays and straight people should think twice before denying children born through artificial reproductive technology the right to know and be known by their biological parents?

I don’t even know what he’s talking about here — is this from some part of the culture war that hasn’t even been rolled out yet?

The Parts He Did Not Recant…

I think it’s interesting that he has changed his views (and the reason for which he has changed his views), but what I find even more interesting are the views he did not change…some of his logic still doesn’t make a lot of sense to me…

I opposed gay marriage believing that children have the right, insofar as society makes it possible, to know and to be cared for by the two parents who brought them into this world…

…Marriage is how society recognizes and protects this right. Marriage is the planet’s only institution whose core purpose is to unite the biological, social and legal components of parenthood into one lasting bond. Marriage says to a child: The man and the woman whose sexual union made you will also be there to love and raise you. In this sense, marriage is a gift that society bestows on its children.

At the level of first principles, gay marriage effaces that gift. No same-sex couple, married or not, can ever under any circumstances combine biological, social and legal parenthood into one bond. For this and other reasons, gay marriage has become a significant contributor to marriage’s continuing deinstitutionalization, by which I mean marriage’s steady transformation in both law and custom from a structured institution with clear public purposes to the state’s licensing of private relationships that are privately defined.

OK, so here’s my problem with this.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to make marriage into how society recognizes and protects the right for children to know and to be cared for by the two parents who brought them into this world. Kids can be had out of marriage. The existence of children doesn’t automagically make the parents beholden to one another (even for the sake of the child.) Even throughout history, there have been many reasons why children might not be “known and cared for” by the two parents who brought them into this world — for much of history, children would often lose a parent or both to death. In the modern era, the particulars of why children may not be raised by the two parents who brought them into this world may vary (especially with improvements in life expectancy), but the fact is that opposing gay marriage or opposing adoption by gay (or straight) folks or whatever (I don’t really know what this first line is getting at?) doesn’t really change the underlying situation that there are children who will not be raised by their birth parents. Marriage can’t do anything about this, so neither can gay marriage. Marriage cannot say to a child: “The man and the woman whose sexual union made you will also be there to love and raise you.”

What gay marriage (and adoption rights) can do is make it so that such children are still nevertheless cared for by people who want to provide for them. Marriage is a gift that society bestows on its children, indeed.

So, it doesn’t seem that gay marriage “effaces” that gift. I mean, I can see Blankenhorn’s point that gay marriage represents a continuation or culmination of social and economics changes that have shifted the perception of marriage…but gay marriage isn’t the driver of that change. Furthermore, opposing gay marriage doesn’t effectively highlight why you’re opposing it…in other words, people will continue to see “anti-gay animus” rather than “thinking of the children,” because the two issues are far and apart from one another, when one thinks instead of all the social changes that have come before this point.

There are changes that could possibly made…but most folks don’t like those kind of economic and social changes. Putting the genie back in the bottle isn’t so simple.

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18 Comments
  1. My answer to the 3 questions:

    Yes.

    Yes.

    And… Yes, let’s talk about it. (Though, honestly, I haven’t given a lot of thought to this… I’ve always thought about parenting in terms of foster/adoptive care rather than through artificial reproductive technology.)

    My response to the general spirit of his statement is, of course! Yes! This is what many LGBT advocates of legal marriage equality have been arguing all along. Many of us are fighting for this because we believe that marriage (period) will be strengthened by not creating two classes of relationship, and upholding a single standard for everyone.

    It took me a while to come to this position… For many years, my attitude was, “Let the straight folks have their marriage. We can validate and strengthen our relationships our own way.” Experience in my relationship with my husband has brought me to a pro-marriage position…

  2. John, have you seen Kiley’s post (Rings and Things — I would link to it, but I’m typing from my phone)? I mean, not try to to impute my thoughts onto Kiley’s story, but I think there’s a tension between wanting to have a marriage just like everyone else’s, and wanting to redefine what a union should mean in the first place.

    I’m sure, any moment now, Seth will point out the negative flip side of this idea — something about gay rights activists wanting.marriage to stick it to straight folks, or maybe something about how, until recently, no one was really thinking about gay marriage or appearing to be “just like everyone else.”

  3. I think Kiley’s statement is very close to how I would have put this myself about 20 years ago. I saw all the “baggage” that seems to be attached to marriage — the history that connects it to treating women as property, and in which it was primarily a vehicle for dynasty and empire building, or in which it was used to create a sense of middle-class respectability. I was aware of the 50%-end-in-divorce thing and the fact that marriage frequently is a foil for terrible abuse. I thought, Who needs all that? So they won’t let us get married? Good! (I sort of equated that with the ban on military service… So I’m not required to go out and kill people? And there’s supposed to be a downside to this?)

    But really, marriage is simply a union. It’s a serious (sacred) commitment. That it can be abusive or abused is beside the point. You can abuse anything holy or sacred. Our entire culture can abuse it. But that doesn’t take away from what it is.

    And for me — I want to make that solemn commitment to Göran. I want to give myself to him, in return for him giving himself to me. And I want that to be a life commitment, in so far as I am able. If that’s not marriage, what is? To me, “redefining” marriage would be to make that kind of commitment, and call it something else.

  4. John,

    I think so many folks would oppose your saying “marriage is simply a union.” I mean, yeah, you say after that it’s a serious (sacred) commitment — but I think the various “baggage” that people tend to add to it are why they consider it sacred and serious. Some of the baggage, in other words, are features, not bugs.

  5. Most gay folks who want to get married simply look around them at the significant marriages in their lives — parents, siblings, uncles and aunts, close friends — and they say, “I want that. That’s what I want with the person I love.” And best I can tell, we successfully create unions that the straight folks who know and love us have a hard time saying, “That’s not a marriage.” That’s the biggest factor in support for same-sex marriage… Those who know us and are familiar with our relationships, and who know what they mean to us, and who see how they function in the communities in which we reside, understand that we can’t possibly be a threat to the institution of marriage, and that, practically speaking, it doesn’t make sense to define us out of marriage.

  6. However, I don’t think most folks who oppose gay marriage are convinced that many straight folks really have a good grasp of marriage as a *sacred* commitment either

  7. Tell my parents, whose 50th wedding anniversary we’re celebrating next month, who were married in the temple and are active in the Church, who raised five kids, and who totally support my marriage with Göran, that they don’t really have a good grasp of marriage as a sacred commitment.

  8. I meant to say “who were married in the temple and are active in the Church.”

  9. John Gustav-Wrathall,

    I’m not trying to say that any particular couple doesn’t have a good grasp or whatever…I’m saying that society in general has changed so much that most people’s views of marriage has changed accordingly. I’m not saying that these changes are bad or undesirable, but that it makes little sense to refer to marriage as “sacred” given the continuing changes.

  10. I think that an institution is sacred because those participating in it invest sacredness in it. If I and my family and my community view my commitment to my partner as sacred, then to me (to us) it is sacred.

    This is important, because if I view a commitment as sacred, I am much more likely to take it seriously, to value it, to put work into it.

    Also, making sacred commitments invests those making the commitments with dignity and humanity.

    So this is why I insist… If gay couples are not allowed to make sacred commitments and participate in sacred rituals, it is as much as saying that we don’t have and don’t deserve the dignity and human respect that everyone else who is allowed to participate in those sacred commitments and rituals deserves.

    To me it seems insulting to suggest that it’s OK for gays to participate in marriage now because we don’t consider marriage sacred any more.

  11. John,

    Maybe I’m just being obtuse, but I’m not really grasping what you’re saying. Like, when you say, “I think an institution is sacred because those participating in it invest sacredness in it,” that sounds like question-begging…or maybe not so much question-begging as it is that it doesn’t really clarify anything about what “sacredness” is. Sacredness is what you say is sacred — that’s about all I can get from there.

    This, of course, has impacts further down in your comment. “If gay couples are not allowed to make sacred commitments and participate in sacred rituals…” — but who is saying gay couples are not allowed to make sacred commitments or participate in sacred rituals. If you “invest sacredness” to your commitments, then it really shouldn’t matter what anyone else thinks or says, right? That’s all I get from your definition of sacredness so far — it is subjective and internal.

    Yet down here, you seem to suggest that sacredness is something external. Something that can be withheld from folks.

    Why is sacredness tied specifically to the word “marriage”? For you or for anyone else? In such a way that you see things differently than you did 20 years ago?

    I mean, it would make sense to me if marriage were something that were concretely defined and unchanging…but it’s not either. It’s something that changes and has changed over time too. I mean, we can start saying that all the ways it has changed are “baggage” external to marriage itself, but at the core of marriage is something a lot smaller and more compact but…I don’t get it.

  12. Actually, my original point was that we know marriage best in practice, in reality.

    I know what marriage is mainly from what I saw of it in the lives of my parents. I see what they have and I want what they have. And I have a pretty good idea of what’s involved because I’ve observed it up close my whole life.

    My parents know what marriage is and they’ve observed my relationship with my husband, and the best they can tell, we have it. They’re willing to call it that.

    It seems to me the reason you have such a difficult time defining marriage is because you want some abstract, timeless definition of it. And marriage has never really been abstract and timeless. it has always been lived.

    Now as to social recognition… Marriage adds value to a relationship because it confers social recognition. Part of what marriage is, is that it is recognized by the whole society. This is important because marriage is not just a private commitment between “consenting adults.” If that’s what I thought marriage was, you’re right, it shouldn’t matter to me one way or another whether it’s legal or not. In essence, part of the importance of marriage is that I make promises, I make commitments, that in some real sense the broader society holds me to. That is part of how we solemnize/sacralize religion.

    Now I don’t know if you’re being deliberately obtuse… Only you know that. I know you can’t resist the urge to argue, and you probably have more endurance for it than I do. I don’t think this is that difficult a concept… But, if you must, take it to the next level of argument.

  13. how we solemnize/sacralize marriage, is what I meant

  14. I suppose that the point at which I’m pre facing my comments with, “I don’t know if I’m being obtuse” is a point when I should be self aware enough to realize that if I have to ask that question, then I probably am being obtuse.

    I don’t want to be argumentative (see above paragraph… That’s probably a sign that that’s exactly the way I’m coming off) but it feels like that’s the only way to possibly get anywhere on the issue…

  15. OK… I appreciate acknowledgment of the discussion dynamics here.

    Please tell me if I’m wrong, but I think what you’re asking here is how can any type of commitment be “sacred” if it is evolving and changing. And part of my implicit thinking (though maybe I haven’t made it explicit enough) is that the sacredness of a thing is not necessarily in it being static and unchanging. So I don’t know if that helps you understand what I’m driving at or not.

    I think among religious folks, there are probably fundamentally different worldviews. Some folks feel that God is eternal and unchanging, and therefore anything that changes and evolves must by definition be profane. I actually think this is a fairly naive understanding, but I recognize that lots of people have this view.

    I consider the fact that — within the Mormon understanding of the world anyway — God gives us lower laws and higher laws. God gives us laws that are adapted to our understanding and our level of enlightenment. The Book of Mormon is pretty explicit about this… It talks about how the lower law was necessary because people were hard-hearted. They lacked compassion. So God gave them a law that was strict, harsh and unyielding, until they were ready to open up to a law more based on love.

    So in the Mormon world view, yes there are laws and principles that are eternal: those are the laws and principles God abides by, and unless we abide by them we cannot enter into God’s presence or become God-like. But we may or may not right here and right now be able to fully abide by those principles, so OUR laws, the laws God gives us, may not be the final, full version…

    So I don’t have a problem with the concept that things can change and still be sacred. It’s the JOURNEY that’s sacred, not necessarily every single stop along the journey.

    In fact, there’s a great story in the Old Testament that really illustrates this well. There’s a story about how some Israelites had taken Moses’ old brazen serpent and turned it into an idol. And so God commanded the brazen serpent to be destroyed. So God initially commands Moses to make the brazen serpent, later God commands it to be destroyed – when the Israelites idolize it. Is God changing his mind here? Not at all…

    Now, as far as the sacredness of marriage is concerned, for me it resides mainly in the concept of commitment. Making a covenant with someone that is meant to last – not just for this life but forever.

    And I think it is interesting that some social conservatives (like the one discussed in this post) who are starting to come around and support gay marriage really ARE concerned about the sacredness of the marriage commitment in this sense. I hear a lot of these folks talking about divorce, and the perception that marriage is a contingent arrangement that isn’t so serious that we would hold anybody to it for life. And they perceive gay marriage as encouraging this view of marriage as contingent and something we do for “personal benefit.” They think if biological kids can’t be in the equation, that that makes marriage even less of a full, permanent “sacred” commitment. I get that.

    But what they’re learning is that keeping gays from marrying isn’t having the desired effect on heterosexual marriages. Divorce rates aren’t dropping in places where gay marriage is banned. And now it’s dawning on some of them: “OH! Gay folks want to get married BECAUSE they see this as a serious commitment. And maybe that’s a good thing… Maybe we WANT to uphold commitment as a universally accepted social value.” So this guy, in essence, is laying down arms, and saying to the gay community: “OK, you want to do this? Let’s talk about the nature of commitment.” And I’m saying, Yes, FINALLY. That’s what I’ve been wanting to talk about ALL ALONG.

  16. I guess “how can any type of commitment be “sacred” if it is evolving and changing” would be an ok way to phrase my question, although I’d probably say that the reason I ask about how a commitment can be sacred is because I believe “sacred” is undefined here as well. This still carries on through most of your response. I guess it doesn’t matter whether it is changing or static — “sacred” is undefined.

    For example, it seems that the disagreement on the social conservative side is that they view something entirely different as “sacred.” You write:

    They think if biological kids can’t be in the equation, that that makes marriage even less of a full, permanent “sacred” commitment.

    Well, I think it’s because the commitments seen are different. It’s not just about making a commitment to your spouse — but about the children brought biologically from union with that spouse. In this case, I don’t think most people are saying that gay folks can’t be committed to each other (at least, not anymore…of course, there are still some folks who will still claim that promiscuity is an essential characteristic and a rule)…but the fact is that there aren’t going to be biological children there, ever. Not only that, but the fact that there aren’t going to be biological children isn’t an accidental function (as would be the case from, say, infertile/barren straight couples) — it’s an essential aspect here.

    And I’m not trying to say that adoption isn’t admirable, or that gay people can’t make great parents, and artificial insemination, surrogate mothers, and whatnot all add different things to the equation. But these never equate to biological parenting.

    And maybe marriage isn’t “about” that. But it seems to me that when social conservatives talk about marriage, that aspect of biological parenting is what they regard as “sacred.” And you know, i don’t get what “sacred” is supposed to mean there, either, so maybe I’m not even asking about the “sacred” part, but I can see at the very least how that is unique.

    And this really applies in Mormonism. It’s not just making a commitment to someone; it’s also about biological children.

    That being said, I understand that banning gay marriage won’t fix all of the changes that have occurred to marriage so far — rises in divorce, rises in children born out of wedlock, etc., etc., but gay marriage is really orthogonal to all of these points too…it’s just not really comparable, because it isn’t the same thing and doesn’t have the same issues when you move beyond “two adults committing to each other.”

    That’s why what I think is really interesting are the points that this guy does *NOT* concede. In other words, yes, he wants to have a conversation about the nature of commitment, but he also wants to talk about children. He states boldly and does not recant that “No same-sex couple, married or not, can ever under any circumstances combine biological, social and legal parenthood into one bond,” and that is still important to him.

  17. For Mormons, children born to an opposite-sex couple are automatically “sealed” to their bio-parents. But there’s also policy for non-biological children to be sealed to their parents. There’s enough infertility amongst heteros in the Church that there’s already plenty of thought put toward the particular issue of reproduction vis-a-vis the constitution of “a family.”

    My sense is that arguments against homosexuality in the Church stopped being about reproductive incapacity circum 1980s and began to be more about “divine gender roles of the family” (see The Family Proc for more details =p ). There’s always been an emphasis on gender in the Church, but I think it’s been more essentialized policy-wise in response to the “threat” of homosexuality. Even when it came out in 1995, I would say that its description of roles for men and women was terribly dated, even within the Church. Moving forward, I can’t see how it won’t be de-emphasized…

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