In my eight years covering America’s debate over how to define civil marriage, a common meme from the Left has been that cultural conservatives would do better to focus on problems with heterosexual marriage, such as divorce and unwed motherhood, rather than deny marriage rights to same-sex couples.
It’s one of the most effective arguments against the traditionalist position on the issue. It’s not without some merit. After all, the institution of marriage in the United States is in shambles. No doubt that’s why a small enclave of conservatives has echoed the same argument.
Adroit political analyst Michael Barone did so in a column on Saturday. After quoting polls showing a shift in the public’s perception of same-sex marriage, Barone repeats the same refrain:
Opponents of same-sex marriage argue that it would weaken the institution of the family. Certainly there are problems there: rising percentages of children are raised by one parent or none, and nearly 50 percent of teenage children in non-college households did not live with both parents. Yet outcomes for children raised in two-parent families are far better than for those who are not.
But as one who favors same-sex marriage for reasons set out in Jonathan Rauch’s 2004 book “Gay Marriage,” I think the institution of the family is less threatened by a few people who want to get married than by the very many more people who get divorced or who have children and without getting married at all.
Because the United States’ rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock birth are so high, conservatives should be focusing their firepower on those social ills rather than the question of same-sex marriage. So goes the argument. But it’s full of holes and a classic example of the either-or fallacy.
I’m unaware of any cultural conservative who would rank same-sex marriage a more significant threat than decay in traditional family structures — rampant divorce, single-parent families mired in poverty, child abuse, the whole gambit. At the same time, I doubt many would rank it as less of a threat. These issues go hand-in-hand and are similar fronts in the same culture war.
It’s a given that same-sex marriage has occupied more attention lately due to the Left’s rapid-fire campaign during the last decade. Politically speaking, it’s possible to fight both skirmishes at the same time. To be trite, we can synchronize walking and chewing gum.
No doubt, the ills of the traditional family are grave. But setting up a false dichotomy between problems in heterosexual marriage and the threat of same-sex marriage accomplishes nothing. It constitutes a convenient excuse for “moderate” Republicans, wary of being labeled “homophobic,” to side step an important issue.
There are links between same-sex marriage advocacy and liberalized divorce laws. In many ways, our contemporary debate over homosexual marriage is analogous to the campaign in the 1970s for no-fault divorce. Under that concept, either party can leave the marriage without the need to establish grounds, such as adultery. It had sweeping impact and transformed what future generations of Americans understood marriage to be.
Legalized same-sex marriage would take the campaign a step further by upending the traditional definition of marriage for society as a whole. That has been a chief goal of liberalism for decades. In fact, advocacy for same-sex marriage is inextricably linked to the cultural campaign that brought us no-fault divorce, rampant unwed motherhood, the breakdown of the traditional family, and the failed welfare state.
The idea is the same: reshape America into a liberal utopia. That goal can be accomplished through both fiscal and cultural means. It’s not overstating the case to say that same-sex marriage — along with other means of chipping away at the family — is one of the Left’s chief ways of achieving statism.
Without strong families, recognized and protected by law, a free society is weakened. Then the government steps in to fill the vacuum. Preventing that is a vital conservative ideal.