Less than two weeks into Massachusetts’ judicially imposed experiment in gay marriage, its boosters were ready to proclaim it an unambiguous success. After all, the sky didn’t fall, did it?
If this analysis seems unnecessarily flippant, peruse the opinion pieces and news stories leading up to the big day when same-sex nuptials began in the Bay State. Repeatedly you will see the phrase “the sky won’t fall” being offered to reassure the mushy middle and dissuade traditionalists from acting to stop the Supreme Judicial Court’s Goodridge ruling in its tracks. The ubiquitous same-sex marriage supporting pundit Andrew Sullivan’s words in the Philadelphia Inquirer were representative: “Will heterosexuals now stop marrying because gay people can? Will the birthrate plummet? Will the sky fall?”
A New York Times story on the issue concluded with a lesbian cousin of Massachusetts House Speaker Thomas Finneran, a conservative Democrat who opposes gay marriage, saying that after she exchanges vows she will send him a card asking, “Did the Earth shake? Did the sky fall?”
So now that Massachusetts’ sweeping redefinition of marriage has proceeded for a number of days without precipitating such dire geological consequences, those of us in the other 49 states should presumably get with the program. Of course, the sky didn’t immediately fall when divorce was liberalized, out-of-wedlock birth rates began to rise, and broken families started to proliferate either. We were assured at the time that each of these changes in our culture of marriage would be harmless. It took at least a generation for the social science to confirm what tradition and common sense already told us: Children need mothers and fathers, and when they don’t get them there are repercussions for said children and society at large.
Even controlling for race, income, parents’ education, and suburban versus urban residence, children born in non-intact families have higher rates of criminal behavior, welfare dependency, educational failure, and a host of other social pathologies. Writing over a decade ago in the Atlantic, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead observed that the connection between fatherlessness and crime was “so strong that controlling for family configuration erases the relationship between race and crime and low income and crime.”
The consequences of family breakdown are so pronounced that few people still dispute their existence. But the culture has been so thoroughly transformed while we were waiting for the sky to fall that even once the damage became well known, even fewer would dare to be so judgmental as to advocate going back to the old ways of doing things.
ALL OF THIS SHOULD BE A cautionary tale for those who want to recklessly plow forward with same-sex marriage. The full effects of social changes like this take years to become apparent; you need to wait longer than a few days or until the next election to truly determine if those socially conservative Chicken Littles might be on to something. Worse, if you allow enough cultural drift there is no easy way back even if the sky does fall. Past deviations from the marriage idea have in fact come at a great price. And the problems associated with fatherless families and illegitimacy occurred even though there are many loving single parents who do an excellent job.
It’s often assumed that objections to same-sex marriage are premised on the belief that gays and lesbians as people will somehow contaminate the institution of marriage, that their participation in the institution of matrimony will cause heterosexuals to recoil in shock and horror and either begin to divorce en masse or refuse to marry at all. Some gay-marriage foes, who see this as more of a debate over the social acceptance of homosexuality than the nature of marriage, work overtime to reinforce this perception.
But this is not the reason many of us believe gay marriage is likely to push society further along the painful path of family breakdown. We do not see Massachusetts as merely extending an old institution to a new group of people. Instead, our concern is that the policy mandated by Goodridge rewrites the definition and assumptions of marriage as an institution.
Gay marriage completes the separation of marriage and parenthood in a way that is fundamentally incompatible with the presumption that children need fathers and mothers. As Elizabeth Marquhardt and Don Browning have written, marriage would instead be reduced “primarily to an affectionate sexual relationship accompanied by a declaration of commitment.” It would hardly be the first reform to do so, but this is no consolation — these reforms have tended to weaken, rather than strengthen, family ties. Affection is impermanent but it is all that is increasingly holding marriage together.
STANLEY KURTZ HAS MADE the argument that cohabitation, toleration of high out-of-wedlock birth rates, and legal acceptance of de facto gay marriage are mutually reinforcing phenomena that have expedited the decline of marriage in Scandinavia and the Netherlands. While critics have assailed his work, none have explained how society can promote a culture where children are raised by mothers and fathers while treating such couples no differently than every other possible arrangement.
Maybe concerns about same-sex marriage will prove unfounded. Or maybe it will lead to a situation that is less than ideal, like many of the changes in marriage that have so far reduced family cohesion, but we will muddle through tolerably well somehow. But it would seem prudent to make that judgment after a carefully thought out discussion of what marriage is for, rather than those who dismiss such thoughts wave and sniff, “Ah, the sky won’t fall.”
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