Among American conservatives it seems to be common knowledge now that marriage is on the rocks. According to the Pew Research Center, just over half of American adults 18 and older are now married. This is a record low, and most indicators suggest that marriage is continuing to decline. In many demographics, co-habitation and illegitimacy have become normal and in no way stigmatized. This is terrible news for American children, whose prospects for a healthy and prosperous life are significantly diminished by the loss of stable, secure homes headed by married mothers and fathers.
Even as traditional marriage collapses, same-sex marriage has asserted itself, and the speed at which the American public (or at least the persuadable middle) has come to accept it is breathtaking. Same-sex marriage has long been a cause celebre for the hard left, but increasingly the voters are moving in the same direction. The movement now enjoys support from young Americans and the nation’s most powerful courts. It sometimes seems that these trends are irreversible, given the left’s success in vilifying traditional marriage supporters and strangling rational public discourse on the subject.
Strangulation is a particularly effective strategy for the left, because the arguments in favor of traditional marriage are complex, and require sustained attention. For the grandchildren of the sexual revolution, the left’s simple argument in favor of same-sex marriage (“why not?”) seems so utterly definitive that most are uninterested in further discussion. The left’s characterization of conservatives as homophobic bigots is accepted more or less on face, and there the debate ends, before it has even begun.
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What does this mean for marriage as a whole? Same-sex marriage supporters love to argue (some disingenuously, but others with apparently real conviction) that this social trend in favor of marriage will help revitalize the institution as a whole. This seems unlikely. Until Americans can regain a clearer sense of what marriage is and why we need it, the institution will continue to decline. Offering civil marriage to same-sex couples will not clarify anything; quite the contrary, it will further entrench the idea that marriage is a nebulous arrangement that can mean anything the participants wish. To young people and the poor, marriage is coming to seem as mysterious and as it is unattainable. This creates a pool of natural sympathy for same-sex couples, who seem like fellow travellers on the quest for relevantly similar goods, but the bitter irony is that the same sex marriage agenda is actually putting that goal further out of reach.
At this juncture, it may be appropriate for social conservatives to reconsider our strategy. Of course, we cannot simply fall silent on the subject of same-sex marriage, in the first place because the left is bringing the fight to our very doorsteps, and in the second because it is necessary to articulate the truth about marriage for the sake of our own children. We cannot allow fear or shame to prevent us from defending the truth.
Nevertheless, it is wise to be realistic about the limitations of the natural law argument as a strategic tool for bolstering the institution of marriage. Liberals have convinced many Americans (and particularly the young) that extending civil marriage to homosexual couples is a basic requirement of justice. This is foolish on many levels, but young people are not receptive to that message at the present time. Having very little understanding of what marriage is, they see no reason why same-sex couples should not do it, and it is psychologically gratifying to regard themselves as being more tolerant, enlightened and fair-minded than their benighted forbears. A full frontal assault on that position is unlikely to yield much fruit.
There may, however, be another way to make progress on the marriage front. As I argued in last week’s column, even liberals have mostly come to agree that marriage is a good thing. This marks a genuine change from the liberal position that dominated the 1980’s and 90’s. Skeptical conservatives sometimes suggest to me that the (apparent) liberal embrace of marriage is little more than a feint, which ultimately serves their larger goal of normalizing homosexuality. Liberal pundits and politicians may indeed have made that calculation, and if so, they have succeeded in dramatic fashion. But the fact remains that, whatever their motives, liberals have begun preaching that marriage is important, that children especially need it, and that the instability of marriage (particularly among the poor) is a serious problem that should excite our concern. And the remarkable truth is that young people are starting to believe these things.
Social conservatives have a hard time believing that there could be any good news nowadays with respect to marriage, but this is good news, as far as it goes. Americans are fairly united now in their belief that marriage is a good and necessary thing. We need to do a better job of using that point of agreement to our advantage in bolstering the case for conjugal marriage.
Sometimes that may mean turning the conversation away from same-sex marriage, and focusing on arguments to which the young are more receptive. I have found in discussions with my undergraduate students that their comments can sound surprisingly conservative, and that many elements of the Catholic view of marriage are appealing to them so long as same-sex marriage is not the topic under discussion. In their ignorance and insecurity, they are fairly open to learning about marriage, but that openness tends to dissipate as soon as I challenge the one fact that they think they have clearly established: that marriage is something same-sex couples can do. I think these trends in my students are probably mirrored in the American public as a whole. Too often, Americans stop listening if they are told in advance that they are listening to a defense of heterosexual marriage. If they are not told, they may listen with considerably more attention.
Gay rights activists have for a long time been pressing an “argument from acquaintance, in which they suggest that homosexuality will be normalized as Americans increasingly get to know openly homosexual people. The presumption is that we will all be impressed by the normalcy of these couples, and will come to appreciate that their partnerships are not significantly different from heterosexual ones. This will lead us to abandon our groundless bias in favor of heterosexuality.
What if the process worked the other way? The available sociological evidence indicates that homosexual couples, even if legally married, are significantly less likely to conform to the traditional conjugal ideals of fidelity and permanence. What if we could persuade the American public that fidelity and permanence are essential to marriage? This is a much more winnable fight, and it offers a promising long-term payoff. As people gain a clearer understanding of what marriage is, they may start to appreciate (even without the benefit of instruction in the natural law arguments) how same-sex pairings are not well suited to it. In a few decades’ time we may find that it is no longer necessary to discuss natural law in order to convince people that marriage necessarily joins together a woman and a man.
Confusion about marriage creates terrible pain, particularly for the children who are deprived of a stable home with a mother and father. Thinking about this makes us eager to rectify the situation immediately, but unfortunately, it is not within our power to do so. What we can do, however, is lay a firmer foundation for the future. Let us endeavor to re-form the sensibilities of today’s impressionable young, so that the time may eventually come when they can appreciate the truth about marriage.
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