Douthat’s wrong priorities on marriage

Ross Douthat’s column against gay marriage is more honest than most in acknowledging that many of the usual arguments are factually wrong, but that leaves the remaining argument pretty weak:

So what are gay marriage’s opponents really defending, if not some universal, biologically inevitable institution? It’s a particular vision of marriage, rooted in a particular tradition, that establishes a particular sexual ideal.

This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.

The flaw in this argument is supposing that the definition of marriage cannot adapt and must include both monogamy and heterosexuality. I think it’s more realistic at this point to say that conservatives need to choose between the two. They can protect the special place of lifelong (or at least post-marriage) monogamy or they can protect the special place of heterosexuality. Jonathan Rauch put it well in Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good Straights, and Good for America:

“… the river of history has rounded a bend. We have a choice to make. Marriage can be universal and thus the norm for serious couples, or it can be exclusive and thus only one of several norms for serious couples. But it cannot be both, and there are risks on both sides. We need to stop hyperventilating, sit down, think hard, and get this right.

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Thinking people, though, have a duty to remember that a future without marriage for gay couples is also a leap into the unknown. It leaps into the future in which a new legal and social infrastructure grows up outside marriage; in which various forms of socially and legally sanctioned nonmarriage become, for all homosexual couples and many heterosexual couples, substitutes for marriage; in which a wedding band might mean married or civilly united or domestically partnered or just “committed”; in which “traditional marriage” becomes only one color on the lifestyle palette; in which polite people no longer ask each other whether they are married but, more discreetly, whether they are “partnered” or “coupled” or “with someone.” Imagine that.

Regardless of whether social conservatives find the idea of legally sanctioned same-sex marriage appealing, their opposition to it strikes me as a tactical mistake given their other concerns, in addition to being wrong for many other reasons.

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