"The Family in America"    Online Edition    [SwanSearch] 

Volume 18  Number 04


April 2004




Why Homosexuals Want What Marriage Has Now Become

By Bryce Christensen, Ph.D.*

* Bryce Christensen teaches English at Southern Utah University and is a contributing editor to The Family in America.  He is author of Utopia Against the Family (Ignatius) and editor of volumes including the Retreat from Marriage, The Family Wage, and Day Care: Child Psychology and Adult Economics.

No prominent American commentator anticipated the rapid sequence of events that in early 2004 brought hundreds of homosexual couples—in Massachusetts, California, New York, Oregon, and elsewhere—before religious and public officials who were willing to pronounce them married.[1]  Sympathetic observers marveled at the bravery of gay activists and compared their wedding ceremonies to the acts of black civil-rights demonstrators in the Sixties. Unsympathetic observers expressed dismay at how brazen homosexuals had become in violating moral tradition and in defying statutory law. Conservative groups have subsequently set in motion a number of initiatives—voter referenda, legislative actions, and constitutional amendments—on both state and federal levels to prohibit further homosexual marriages and to invalidate those that have occurred. But amid all of the many pundits praising or damning homosexuals for breaking the marriage barrier, few have reflected on just what kind of institution homosexuals—who have never laid hold of marriage in the past—are now claiming. Indeed, if Americans scrutinize carefully the way the national culture has in recent decades re-defined wedlock for heterosexuals, they may well conclude that it is not homosexuals that have changed so much, but rather marriage itself.   Far from being some astonishing development reflecting unprecedented new attitudes among homosexuals, homosexual weddings constitute the predictable (not natural, but entirely predictable) culmination of cultural changes that have radically de-natured marriage.

Once defined by religious doctrine, moral tradition, and home-centered commitments to child rearing and gender complementarity in productive labor, marriage has become a deracinated and highly individualistic and egalitarian institution, no longer implying commitment to home, to Church, to childbearing, to traditional gender duties, or even (permanently) to spouse. Gone is the productive husband-wife bond defined by mutual sacrifice and cooperative labor, replaced by dual-careerist vistas of self-fulfillment and consumer satisfaction. That homosexuals now want the strange new thing marriage has become should surprise no one: contemporary marriage, after all, certifies a certain legitimacy in the mainstream of American culture and delivers tax, insurance, life-style, and governmental benefits—all without imposing any of the obligations of traditional marriage (which homosexuals decidedly do not want). Thus, while the attempt to deny homosexuals the right to marry is understandable and even morally and legally justified, such an attempt is probably foredoomed if it does not lead to a broader effort to restore moral and religious integrity to marriage as a heterosexual institution.

Generally favorable to homosexual causes, the mainstream media have done little to identify the cultural metamorphosis of marriage as a primary reason that wedlock now attracts homosexuals.  When, for instance, nationally syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman praised homosexuals in February 2004 for engaging in "the civil disobedience of wedding," she did not so much as hint that homosexuals now want marriage only because Americans have radically redefined the institution.[2]  Numerous other commentators who made much of "the parallel between the civil rights movement of 40 years ago" and today's "gay marriage campaign," all the while maintained a code of silence about how very different marriage itself has become in the intervening decades.[3]  So when entertainer Rosie O'Donnell lauded public officials who accommodated homosexuals' desire to marry, hailing their "courage to stand up against injustice," she could hardly be expected to acknowledge that the courageous officials in question were actually beating up an institution already badly bloodied by decades of anti-marital public policy.[4]  Unfortunately, even when the media do allow conservatives to voice their views of homosexual marriage, the focus typically remains fixed on the novelty of homosexual actions, as though marriage had not already been radically redefined in American culture before homosexuals rather belatedly joined in the assault. Conservative columnist Thomas Sowell, for example, understandably responded to homosexual marriages by decrying the "lawless" acts of a "headstrong minority" convinced that they are "above the law."   But in his appeal for the "rule of law," Sowell failed to acknowledge that in many ways American law now already subverts the institution to which homosexuals are now laying siege.[5]    When conservative commentator Mychal Massie denounced as "an outrage" the attempt to equate "something so offensive" as gay marriage with the Black Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties, he rightly sensed "something much deeper and more insidious" than a simple desire to marry:  "They want to change the entire social order."[6] But Massie neglected to mention that long before advocates of homosexual marriage went to work, various other social activists had already decidedly turned "the entire social order" against marriage.

Only the ideologically blind would deny that homosexual marriage threatens violence against all the moral and legal traditions that have defined wedlock for millennia. Homosexual activists have themselves asserted that they aim at more than a "mere 'aping'" of heterosexual marriage: they want homosexual marriage to "destabilize marriage's gendered definition by disrupting the link between gender and marriage."  They thus value the homosexual wedding ceremony in part because of the "transformation that it makes on the people around us."[7]  But the disruptions in marriage and the accompanying transformations of the American people hardly began with homosexuals or homosexual marriage. To those who have been paying attention to what American culture, legislation, and jurisprudence have been doing to wedlock since at least the Sixties, homosexual marriage looks all too much like the coup de grace administered only after numerous judges, educators, therapists, activists, and entertainers have already done their worst.

To recognize how profoundly mainstream American culture had changed the institution of marriage before a single wedding license had been issued to any homosexual couple is to realize that homosexual marriage culminates a decades-long attack, rather than initiates a distinctively new assault.

Once strongly reinforced by both religious doctrine and legal statute, marriage stood for centuries as the socially obligatory institution that shaped the individual for an adulthood of self-sacrifice and cooperative home-centered labor focused especially on the tasks of childbearing and child rearing. For centuries, almost all Americans recognized marriage as a divinely ordained union of husband and wife entailing distinctive but complementary gender roles (cf. Gen. 2:24; 3:16-19) whose duty to God was to "multiply and replenish the earth" through childbearing (Gen. 1:28).  Out of reverence for this sacred marital union, Americans generally decried pre-marital sexual relations as the sin of fornication (cf. I Cor. 6:18) and recoiled from divorce as an offense against God  (cf. Mark 10:2-12).  

Nor, until relatively recently, did the imperatives of marital theology lack for this-worldly reinforcement.  As historian Allan Carlson has stressed, traditional patterns of "householding" assigned "reciprocal, complementary tasks [to] husbands and wives" engaged in various types of "household production, ranging from tool making and weaving to the keeping of livestock and the garden patch."  Marriage thus defined the very foundation of "a basic economic unit" which "bound each family together" as a "community of work."[8]  Sociologist Arland Thornton has in view the same kind of economically autonomous traditional marriages when he remarks that in the pre-industrial world, "there were few economic enterprises outside the home; and the family was the basic organizational unit for many important activities, including production and consumption."  Within this "family economy," Thornton points out, "family roles—such as husband, wife, and child—implied and overlapped economic roles....The husband generally directed the economic activity of the family, which was often, but not always an agricultural enterprise.  While the wife maintained a primary role in caring for the home and children, she often made an important contribution to the family economic enterprise."[9]  Historian Steven Ozment sees married couples as the very heart of a traditional family enjoying cultural as well as economic autonomy.  Such a family, he remarks "supported, educated, blessed, and entertained itself with minimal external instruction and coercion."[10]     

Sustained by their religious beliefs and absorbed in the labors of maintaining an autonomous home, American couples made their wedding vows both fruitful and durable.   The fruitfulness of the traditional American marriage accounts for the words of a 19th-century American Congressman proudly inviting a foreign visitor to "visit one of our log cabins....There you will find a strong, stout youth of eighteen, with his Better Half, just commencing the first struggles of independent life.  Thirty years from that time, visit them again; and instead of two, you will find in that same family twenty-two.  That is what I call the American Multiplication Table."[11]  Note that the 19th-century Congressman assumed that after thirty years the typical husband and wife would still be together: a safe assumption given that in the second half of the 19th century only one American marriage in twenty ended in divorce.[12]  Carlson has shown that even in the 20th century, religious conviction and inherited cultural traditions still melded lifelong marriages that produced "child-rich families" devoted to what Teddy Roosevelt identified as the nation's "great primal work of home-making and home-keeping."  Thus, Carlson argues, Roosevelt spoke for a culturally united people when he praised the married couples producing the country's "best crop," its "crop of children" and when he denounced "easy divorce" as "a menace to the home."[13]

By the middle of the 20th century, the American supports for marriage had weakened in a number of ways—none of them involving advocates of homosexual marriage.  First, the transformation of America from a primarily agricultural country into a primarily industrial nation meant, as historian John Demos has pointed out, "Family life was wrenched apart from the world of work—a veritable sea-change in social history."[14]  This sea-change inevitably meant that most men left behind the traditional household economy which had reinforced wedlock for millennia, leaving their wives to work alone in a functionally diminished home.   Immediately, advertisers, manufacturers, and educators conspired to take advantage of the social and economic isolation of the homemaking wife by making her into a "machine operative" and "general purchasing agent" for a home that had lost much of its productive function.[15]   By the 1950's the home's surrender of productive functions had become so complete that Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin saw it becoming a "mere incidental parking place" for consumption and relaxation.[16]   Many wives consequently experienced what one social historian labeled the "festering contradiction of modern womanhood" as their traditional homecrafts lost economic value and cultural legitimacy,[17] so threatening to reduce their social status to that of menial parking-place attendants.

Still, for all of its monitory clarity about what could happen, Sorokin's parking-space metaphor need have been nothing more than hyperbole.  The average American family of the Fifties and Sixties resisted in significant ways the economic pressures undermining the home economy that had traditionally reinforced marriage. Most mothers still cooked family meals rather than relying on restaurants or take-out; many still sewed some of their husbands' and children's clothing. Almost all mothers cared for their own young children rather than turning this task over to a paid surrogate. Fathers not only provided for their wives and children financially, but also performed many of the home repair and maintenance tasks. Though it had surrendered much, the American family still retained a significant core of its traditional autonomy and self-reliance. 

Had America's policymakers and lawmakers in the Fifties and Sixties made preserving that core a high priority, they could have developed aggressively pro-natalist policies (tax credits and child subsidies) to support married parents producing America's "best crop."  They could also have explored ways to bring technologically mediated work back into the home for both husbands and wives.[18]  Policymakers and legislators might even have restored some of the domestic autonomy that Ozment finds so admirable in pre-modern families by encouraging families to home school their children. More fundamentally, had the nation's cultural elite cared deeply about wedlock, they could have deployed the persuasive powers of rhetoric, literature, and entertainment to (as Carlson puts it) summon "both men and women...to relearn and recommit to the deeper meanings of the ancient words husbandry and housewifery."[19]

Lamentably, during the Sixties and Seventies America's cultural and political elite—none of whom were activists promoting homosexual marriage—chose to subvert rather than renew marriage, heterosexual marriage.  In large part, the country's cultural elite chose to subvert marriage not by advocating new rights for gays and lesbians, but simply by acquiescing to the economic processes tearing apart the traditional home economy.  After decades of such acquiescence, poet Wendell Berry could in 1990 fairly characterize the "typical modern household" created by a married heterosexual couple as something very like the "mere incidental parking place" which Sorokin had worriedly anticipated decades before—with exceedingly malign consequences for marriage. "The modern household," Berry writes, "is the place where [a] consumptive couple do their consuming.  Nothing productive is done there.  Such work as is done there is done at the expense of the resident couple or family, and to the profit of suppliers of energy and household technology.  For entertainment, the inmates consume television or purchase other consumable diversion elsewhere."[20]   The marital and domestic world Berry describes could hardly be further removed from the marital and domestic world in which the family once "supported, educated, blessed, and entertained itself with minimal external instruction and coercion."

But the assault on wedlock during the Sixties and Seventies reflected cultural forces deeper than economics, cultural forces at work long before homosexuals began their strange parade to the wedding altar.  Although its immediate effects remained confined to a relatively small elite, the intellectual atheism which historian James Turner sees emerging for the first time in the United States in the late 19th century had become by the mid-20th century a relatively potent force, one that "dis-integrated" our national culture by denying religious belief its traditional function as "a unifying and defining element of that culture."[21]   Unbelief thus eroded the theological basis for wedlock by giving cultural license to well-placed and influential (though still not numerous) apostles of godless Nietzschean, Darwinian, Malthusian, and Freudian doctrines.  Prayer disappeared from the nation's schools, and religious assumptions gradually faded from public discussions of morality and family life.  

Without question, the fading of religious belief would eventually embolden homosexuals by weakening the cultural authority of theological prohibitions against homosexuality (cf. Lev. 18:22; Rom. 1:26-28).  But most of the atheists who first warred against the country's Judeo-Christian marital and family traditions were free-thinking heterosexuals advocating "sexual and familial experimentation" of the sort that finally helped incubate the New Left's Counterculture of communes, drugs, free love (overwhelmingly heterosexual), and rock music."[22]

Although relatively few Americans directly participated in the Sixties counterculture, the prominence and cultural influence of those who did gave them remarkable power to re-shape American institutions and behavior in the decades that followed.  That re-shaping dramatically reduced the power of traditional religious faith in America.  As sociologist Timothy T. Clydesdale has remarked, religion held "an established cultural status" in America until "the cultural challenges of the 1960's disestablished this religious ethos."[23]   Not surprisingly, then, Berkeley sociologists trace a "startlingly rapid" upsurge in the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation to "more cohorts with a 1960's experience."[24]  The impact of the Sixties may also be discerned in a remarkable "generation gap" in church attendance documented by University of Michigan sociologists in a 1989 study, with younger Americans evincing a significantly lower commitment than their parents to weekly worship.[25] 

Even among Americans who continued to go to church, sociologists witnessed the emergence of dubious new religious attitudes in the post-Sixties (but pre-homosexual-marriage) world.  Pollster George Gallup reported in the Eighties that many Americans who professed religious beliefs were beginning to "dodge the responsibilities and obligations" traditionally associated with such beliefs.[26]  Post-Sixties sociological inquiry indeed revealed that those still filling the pews were increasingly inclined to interpret "their religious commitments and beliefs in individualistic terms and less in terms of institutional loyalty and obligation.  They [were] now looking to religion more for its personal meaning and less for its moral rules."[27]  Even American Catholics—previously distinctive for their deference to hierarchy and tradition—became "more personally autonomous and less subject to traditional mechanisms of social control."[28]

Because so much of the traditional understanding of marriage rested upon religious doctrines, eroding popular commitments to those doctrines could only undermine marriage and family life.  Writing in 1985, social commentator Barbara Hargrove thus saw "the authority of the Church over the family, and the family over the individual [fading into] the past."[29]  And five years later, cultural critic Alvin Kernan acknowledged stark and clearly linked declines in religion and family life in the latter decades of the 20th century.[30]

Sociologists predictably see a close linkage between declining church attendance among young Americans and a rising willingness to engage in premarital sex.[31]  Young women eagerly availed themselves of the Pill in the Sixties and Seventies largely because they were simultaneously letting go of the New Testament: whereas only 29% of college age females reported having had premarital intercourse in 1965, that percentage had skyrocketed to 63% by 1985.[32]   In the post-Sixties world, young Americans were clearly taking their behavioral cues from someone other than St. Paul. By the 1980's—still long before homosexual couples challenged the religious doctrines denying them the right to marry—millions of heterosexual couples would flout the religious doctrines forbidding fornication: over two million unmarried heterosexual couples were living together in 1986, and 44 percent of all American heterosexual couples who married between 1980 and 1984 had cohabited before taking vows.[33]   Thus many heterosexual couples had made a bad cultural joke of the traditional symbolism of the white wedding dress long before homosexuals tried to make optional a wedding dress of any sort.   

Even when heterosexual couples did wed in the post-Sixties world, an increasing number did so unencumbered by the scriptural prohibition against adultery (cf. Ex. 20:14; Matt. 19:18): in a 1983 survey of over 3500 couples, 15-26% allowed for "nonmonogamy under some circumstances,"[34] while a parallel 1989 British study of married adults found that "of those surveyed under age 35, over one fifth (22%) entered their first marriage with no belief in sexual fidelity."[35]  In 1991, British sociologist Paul Mullen warned that adultery was fast becoming "a participation sport indulged in by the masses," as "citizens increasingly assume the right to change and vary their erotic attachments."[36]   A 1995 American study documented the very attitudes that so distressed Mullen, its authors reporting that "many married persons continue to search for an intimate partner, or at least remain open to the possibility of forming extramarital relationships, even while married."[37]

But the Sixties meltdown in religious orthodoxy harmed and de-natured wedlock by destroying more than sexual restraint.  As defined by religious tradition, marriage demanded—and taught—a deep capacity for self-sacrifice and selfless service (cf. Eph. 5:22-33).  But self-sacrifice disappeared from the cultural catechism written by the Woodstock Generation of the Sixties.  In the same survey, sociologists who limned a decline in religious faith in the Seventies and Eighties also tracked a sharp rise in "hedonistic values," an increasing desire for "self-gratification," and an increasing absorption in the imperatives of "self-actualization."[38]  This insistent emphasis on Self could only weaken and deracinate wedlock, regardless of whether homosexuals were ever permitted to take vows.  For good reason, sociologists Howard Bahr and Kathleen Bahr express dismay that the kind of self-sacrifice that once served as "the essential glue of a moral society," particularly within marriage and family, came to be widely regarded as a "self-defeating behavior" or even a deplorable "personality defect" by modern commentators who were guided by "the assumption of self-interest and...the logic of utilitarian individualism."[39]  By the end of the 20th century, many Americans no longer worshiped the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob—the Deity who summoned husbands and wives to selfless devotion within the conjugal bonds of marriage—but rather adored only the Sovereign Self, unfettered by religious or moral restraints.

But even more astonishing than the widespread rejection of traditional Christian and Jewish doctrines governing marriage and family life was the headlong apostasy of many clergy, particularly in America's influential mainline Protestant denominations.  As a disgruntled Episcopalian observer has remarked, many mainline Protestant leaders caved in to cultural pressures during the Sixties and Seventies,  riding the turbulent currents of the sexual revolution as they catechized their parishioners in "being tolerant of non-marital liaisons" among heterosexuals and in accepting "new and non-traditional family forms," including single-parent and cohabiting-parent families.[40]  Catholic philosopher David Carlin marvels at how liberal Protestant clergy in the Seventies and Eighties "tried to hold on to their people by accommodating to the latest moral and intellectual fashions in the surrounding secular culture."   "So far from struggling against secularist elements of culture," Carlin remarks, these progressive clerics "actually embraced them, attempting to incorporate them into a 'modernized' version of Christianity."[41]  Predictably enough, such institutional apostasy drove mainline attendance and membership down during the latter decades of the 20th century.  But tradition and inertia kept many perplexed parishioners in the pews, listening to clergy so permissive that they allowed couples (all heterosexual until very recently) to write their own bizarre wedding vows, so intensifying the spiritual and moral confusion about the true nature of wedlock and family life.[42]

The loss of the natural anchor of a healthy home economy and the supernatural sanctions of religious doctrine left marriage at the mercy of adverse economic, political, and cultural currents for decades before homosexuals ever sought state and church imprimatur for wedding vows.  In curious ways, these currents have combined the wild anarchy of raw individualism with the focused fury of political ideology and corporate greed.

Once an essential element of the natural home economy, the gender complementarity of wedlock was exposed to particularly negative pressures in the Sixties and Seventies.  As the distinguished economist Gary Becker demonstrated in a landmark study published in 1965—just when those negative pressures were gathering strength—marriage draws institutional strength from a complementary husband-wife division of labor.[43] Such a gendered marital division of labor had, of course, emerged spontaneously in pre-industrial agrarian cultures, but a somewhat artificial breadwinner/homemaker version of this marital division of labor had remained in place for decades in an industrialized United States, as labor unions demanded and employers and government officials acquiesced in a "family wage" system which paid a married father enough to support an at-home wife and their children, while deliberately keeping married women out of the labor market. Scriptural sanction for a gendered division of labor in marriage (cf. Gen. 3:16-19; Titus 2:4-5) fostered acquiescence so long as religion remained a powerful force in American public life.  However, as religion lost cultural strength in the firestorm of the Sixties, employers and government officials turned decisively against the "family wage" system and the marital gender roles it protected.   Indeed, during the Sixties and Seventies lawmakers outlawed the deliberate gender discrimination essential to the "family wage" system.[44]   

Corporate employers needed no encouragement for abandoning the family-wage system and attacking marital complementarity: these employers had long recognized that bringing wives into the labor market would drive down wages.  Politicians turned against marital complementarity for a more complex mix of reasons.  Some were simply responding to the lobbying of corporate employers.  Others resonated—consciously or unconsciously—to the ideological imperatives of utopian thinkers (Plato, Campanella, Bellamy, Morris, Wells, Skinner) who dreamed of making all citizens completely devoted to the ideal state as they abolished (or at least weakened) the competing loyalties of marriage and family.[45]   The feminist elements of such utopian ideology gained strength in the Seventies as doctrinaire gender-egalitarians rallied round the Equal Rights Amendment, drawing intermittent support from confused wives frustrated and disheartened by the economic and cultural marginalization of their homemaking.

Quietly undermined by the continual erosion of the home economy, directly assaulted by feminist egalitarians, and rendered economically precarious by the disintegration of "the family wage," the economic gender complementarity of marriage disappeared for millions of couples as millions of wives moved out of the home and into paid employment.  Hence, long before homosexuals challenged the male-female sexual complementarity of marriage, the economic complementarity of marriage had already disappeared. In these couples—as sociologist Steven Nock pointed out—"being a 'good' mother" had come to mean "the same thing...as being a 'good' father [had]...for years—the provision of adequate material/financial resources" for the family.[46] In economic terms at least, a growing number of American children had two "fathers" long before advocates of homosexual marriage ever attempted to give children two biologically male parents.

However, the transformation of wives into economic clones of their husbands had the entirely predictable effect of sweeping away most of the remnants of the home economy, as harried employed women increasingly relied on the restaurant for meal preparation and the day-care center for child care.[47]  But the obliteration of the economic distinction between husband and wife also inevitably suppressed the biological event that most forcibly defined gender complementarity: childbirth.  Marital fertility plummeted in the Seventies, pushing overall fertility in the United States below replacement level in what policy analyst Ben J. Wattenberg called "a birth dearth."[48]  Although the U.S. population continued to grow in the Nineties because of immigration and increased longevity, the birth dearth continued as the number of DINK (Double Income, No Kids) marriages multiplied.[49]  

Though it worried Wattenberg and others, certain groups rejoiced in the disruption of the cultural pattern that traditionally made marriage the foundation for a "child-rich" family. For policymakers and judges in thrall to the Malthusian scare propaganda of a population explosion, the child-poor family was the ideal.  In order to discourage married couples from having children, Malthusian policymakers deliberately turned tax policy against large families.  Meanwhile, an activist Supreme Court joined in the war against childbearing directly by creating a legal right to elective abortion (Roe v. Wade [1973]).  Further, the Court undermined the marital integrity that had previously given a married father legal standing in life-death decisions about his unborn children  (Planned Parenthood of Missouri v. Danforth [1976]).[50] By making childbearing entirely a female decision, the High Court's decisions helped make the shotgun marriage a rarity, as the percentage of children born out of wedlock rose from just 5% in 1960 to 33% in 1998.[51] The rise in the illegitimacy rate accelerated under welfare policies making Uncle Sam a reliable surrogate spouse.  By the Eighties "mother-state-child" families predominated in some inner-city areas.[52]

Judge-made policy not only helped sever the linkage between childbearing and marriage, but it also helped further weaken the already severely compromised link between marriage and sexual activity.  Seven years before the High Court legalized abortion, it exacerbated the growing effects of the sexual revolution by giving pornographers a startling victory in its notorious Fanny Hill decision of 1966.  With law officials powerless to stop them, pornographers carried out what one of their champions, writing in 1973, called "the obscening of America," inciting ever more licentious behavior until "nothing was reduced to less recognizable rubble than the revered...Institution of Marriage."[53]

Even if not subverted by pornography and licentiousness, sterile marriages of economic clones became contentious and unstable in post-Sixties America.  As Berry pointedly remarks, when marriage became merely "two careerists in the same bed," it degenerated into "a sort of private political system in which rights and interest must be constantly asserted and defended." Such a system actually turned marriage into a "form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided."[54]  The Sixties and Seventies did in fact see divorce rates skyrocket, rising by 145 percent between 1960 and 1980.[55]  Rather than resist this trend, state legislators—urged on by a well-organized coterie of activists—enacted "no-fault" divorce laws—laws that reduced marriage to less than the weakest contract-at-will and put the state for the first time in alliance with the spouse who wanted the divorce (often a calculating betrayer) against the spouse who wanted to preserve the marriage.[56]

As marriage became more insubstantial and impermanent, the family that couples formed through marriage ceased to create the kind of autonomy Ozment finds so admirable in early modern families.  As the legal scholar George Swan looked at the divorce-prone modern couple of the Eighties, he could not see them creating "a freestanding institution" in their home: "Today's family, continually threatened by dissolution, is less and less able to serve as the context in which...Americans organize their lives independently of central political authority."[57]   Rather than the foundation of a sphere of autonomy, the modern marriage—bereft of a healthy home economy, frequently devoid of children, and threatening to dissolve at any moment—metamorphosed into merely a convenient social arrangement for securing and regularizing the benefits of dependency on insurance, employment, and government benefits (such as Social Security).

The radical redefinition of marriage during the latter decades of the twentieth century—its legal, economic, and cultural decimation—largely accounts for the sharp drop in the marriage rate after the Sixties.  By the Nineties, marriage had lost so much of its cultural substance that it hardly seemed worth the bother to many young Americans.  Between 1970 and 2000, the marriage rate dropped an astonishing 40%.[58]  Marriage became so culturally and socially marginal for Americans—heterosexual Americans—that in 1998 one social scientist declared that, in a development that was "novel, perhaps even unique, in human cultural history," marriage had ceased to be "the definitive criterion for the transition to adulthood" in American society.[59] 

It is in truth the cultural devaluation of marriage that explains why some homosexual activists have reacted to the recent push for homosexual marriage by asking, "Why should we scramble to get onto a sinking ship?"[60]  But most of homosexual couples now seeking to be married are doing so precisely because so much of the traditional freight of marriage—complementary gender roles, work in a real home economy, childbearing, sexual fidelity, permanence—has been thrown overboard as the marital ship has settled ever lower in the water.  The strangely de-natured and deracinated thing that marriage has become now appeals to homosexuals because it now offers insurance, employment, lifestyle, and government benefits, while imposing almost none of the obligations it once did.  Opponents of homosexual marriage speak the truth when they protest that America makes a mockery of wedlock if it licenses vows for couples who can never have children (without resorting to surrogate mothers or sperm donors), will not resist the temptations to extramarital affairs, and will not preserve their union for a lifetime.[61]  But the mockery of wedlock began decades ago when hundreds of thousands of heterosexual DINK couples started  buying basset hounds rather than bassinettes, started indulging in extramarital affairs, and started fulfilling divorce attorneys' dreams of avarice.  It was indeed by trivializing the marital traditions of fertility, fidelity, and permanence that heterosexuals so completely changed the character of marriage that homosexuals finally wanted to claim the very odd thing it had become.

Thus commentators miss the point when they oppose homosexual marriage on the grounds that it "would undermine traditional understandings of marriage."[62]   It is only because traditional understandings of marriage have already been severely undermined that homosexuals are now laying claim to it.  Carlin assesses the situation astutely when he asserts that "gay marriage is...worth opposing not as an end in itself...but [only] as the first step toward the rolling back of the progressive delegitimization of marriage that has occurred in the past few decades."  If it becomes merely a separate and discrete initiative, unconnected to the broader task of restoring substance to marriage, then Carlin judges the effort to outlaw homosexual marriage to be a "game...not worth the candle."  "If," Carlin writes, "we are not interested in this rollback [of the delegitimization of marriage], we might as well permit gays and lesbians to marry."[63] 

Though restoring substance to marriage will entail many legal, political, economic, and cultural tasks, it will require above all two things:  1) restoring substance to the marital home economy; 2) reinvigorating religion as a basis for marital and family life.  Berry clarifies what will be required to restore marriage to a healthy home economy when he writes about how "a household economy...  [should involve] the work of both wife and husband [and]...[give] them a measure of economic independence and self-protection, a measure of self-employment, a measure of freedom, as well as a common ground and a common satisfaction.  Such a household economy may employ the disciplines and skills of housewifery, of carpentry and other trades of building and maintenance, of gardening and other branches of subsistence agriculture, and even of woodlot management and woodcutting.  It may also involve a 'cottage industry' of some kind."[64]  

The renewing of religion, on the other hand, will require deeper and more challenging changes.  However, the prophet Isaiah holds out the promise that "they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles..." (Isa. 40:31).  Eagles, it should be recalled, mate—male and female—for life.


1    Pam Belluck, “Gay Marriage, State by State,” New York Times 7 March 2004: Sec. 4, p. 2.

2    Ellen Goodman, “Center Has Shifted,” South Florida Sun-Sentinel 21 February 2004: 19A.

3    Jennifer Peter, “Massachusetts’ gay marriage debate taking on form, rhetoric of civil rights movement,” Associated Press Worldstream 15 January 2004.

4    O’Donnell qtd. in Paige Wiser, “Riveting Rosie,” Chicago Sun-Times 27 February 2004: 60.

5    Thomas Sowell, “Democracy needs the rule of law for its survival,” Albany Times Union 5 March 2004: A11.

6    Associated Press and Fox News, “Blacks Balk at Gay Marriage-Civil Rights Links,” Fox News 28 November 2003, 10 March 2004 http://www.foxnews.com.

7    Barbara J. Cox, “A (Personal) Essay on Same-Sex Marriage,” National Journal of Sexual Orientation Law 1.1 (1995): 88-89.

8    Allan C. Carlson, From Cottage to Work Station: The Family’s Search for Social Harmony in an Industrial Age (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), 1-2.

9    Arland Thornton, “Reciprocal Influences of Family and Religion in a Changing World,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 47 (1985): 382.

10   Steven Ozment, Flesh and Spirit: Private Life in Early Modern Germany (New York: Village, 1999), 262-265.

11   Qtd. in Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 284.

12   Cf. Thornton, op. cit., 384.

13   Cf. Allan Carlson, The ‘American Way’: Family and Community in the Shaping of the American Identity (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2003), 8-13, 16.

14   Qtd. in Carlson, From Cottage, 2. 

15   Cf. Stuart Ewen, Captains of Consciousness:   Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976),  161-164; Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), Chapter 6.

16   Pitirim A. Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics: A Study of Change in Major Systems of Art, Truth, Ethics, Law and Social Relationships, rev. and abridged ed. (1957; rpt. New Brunswick: 1985), 700.

17   Cf. Ewen, op. cit., 164-166.

18   Cf. Carlson, American Way, 166.

19   Carlson, From Cottage, 168.

20   Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (San Francisco: North Point, 1990), 180-181.

21   James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 263.

22   Cf. Eli Zaretsky, Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis  (New York: Knopf, 2004), 208, 317.

23   Timothy T. Clydesdale, “Family Behaviors Among Early U.S. Baby Boomers: Explaining the Effects of Religion and Income Change, 1965-1982,” Social Forces  76 (1997): 607.

24   Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer, “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations,” American Sociological Review 67 (2002): 165-190.

25   Arland Thornton and Donald Camburn, “Religious Participation and Adolescent Sexual Behavior and Attitudes,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 51 (1989): 641-653.

26   Qtd. in Howard M. Bahr and Bruce A. Chadwick, “Religion and Family in Middletown, USA,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 47 (1985): 410.

27   Thornton, “Reciprocal Influences,” 385.

28   William V. D’Antonio, “The American Catholic Family: Signs of Cohesion and Polarization,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 47 (1985): 399.

29   Qtd. in Patrick H. McNamara, “The New Christian Right’s View of the Family and Its Social Science Critics: A Study in Differing Presuppositions,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 47 (1985): 450.

30   Alvin Kernan, The Death of Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 8.

31   Thornton and Camburn, op. cit.

32   Ira Robinson et al., “Twenty Years of the Sexual Revolution, 1965-1985: An Update,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 53 (1991): 216-220.

33   Cf. Arland Thornton, “Cohabitation and Marriage in the 1980’s,” Demography 25 (1988): 501-506; Patricia A. Gwartney-Gibbs, “The Institutionalization of Premarital Cohabitation: Estimates from Marriage License Applications, 1970 and 1980,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 48 (1986): 423-434; Martha Farnsworth Riche, “The Postmarital Society,” American Demographics November 1988: 26. 

34   Arline M. Rubin and James R. Adams, “Outcomes of Sexually Open Marriages,” Journal of Sex Research 22 (1986): 311-319. 

35   Annette Lawson and Colin Samson, “Age, Gender, and Adultery,” The British Journal of Sociology 39 (1988): 409-439.

36   Paul E. Mullin, “Jealousy: The Pathology of Passion,” British Journal of Psychiatry 158 (1991): 593-601.

37   Scott J. South and Kim M. Lloyd, “Spousal Alternatives and Marital Dissolution,” American Sociological Review 60 (1995): 21-35.

38   Cf. Arthur G. N. Neal, Theodore Groat, and Jerry W. Wicks, “Attitudes About Having Children: A Study of 600 Couples in the Early Years of Marriage,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 51 (1989): 313-328; Lawson and Samson, op. cit.  

39   Howard M. Bahr and Kathleen S. Bahr, “Families and Self-Sacrifice: Alternative Models and Meanings for Family Theory,” Social Forces 79 (2001): 1231-1258.

40   Dianne Knipps, “Exploding Myths About the Episcopal Church Crisis,” AAC News,  10 January 2004, American Anglican Council 10 March 2004 http://www.americananglican.org.

41   David Carlin, “Open or closed religion?” Homiletic & Pastoral Review November 2001 10 March 2004 http://www.catholic.net.

42   Cf. Kerry A. White, “Words to Marry By: The Do’s and Don’ts of Writing Your Own Wedding Vows,” Baltimore Sun 2 June 1996: 21.

43   Cf. Carlson, From Cottage, 154.

44   Allan C. Carlson, “Gender, Children, and Social Labor: Transcending the ‘Family Wage’ Dilemma,” Journal of Social Issues 52.3 (1996): 137-161.

45   Cf. Bryce Christensen, “The Family in Utopia,” Renascence 44 (1991): 31-44.

46   Steven L. Nock, “The Symbolic Meaning of Childbearing,” Journal of Family Issues 8 (1981): 373-393.

47   Cf. W. Keith Bryant, “Durables and Wives’ Employment Yet Again,” Journal of Consumer Research 15 (1988): 37-45.

48   Ben J. Wattenberg, The Birth Dearth (New York: Pharos, 1987), 127-130.

49   Cf. “DINKs,” Investopedia 10 March 2004 http://www.investopedia.com.

50   Cf. Bryce Christensen, “Double Bind: The Redefinition of American Fatherhood,” The Family in America October 1988: 3-4.

51   Cf. George A. Akerlof, Janet L. Yeller, and Michael L. Katz, “An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the United States,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 111 (1996): 277-317; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States 2 September 2003 http://www.census.gov.

52   Cf. Randal D. Day and Wade C. Mackey, “Children as Resources: A Cultural Analysis,” Family Perspective 20 (1958): 258-262.

53   Allan Sherman, The Rape of the A*P*E (American *Puritan *Ethic): The Official History of the Sex Revolution (Chicago: Playboy Press, 1973), 11, 338-339.

54   Berry, op. cit.

55   U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975), 1: 20, 64; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States 2 September 2003 http://www.census.gov.

56   Cf. Lenore J. Weitzman, The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America (New York: Free Press, 1985), 27; Herbert Jacob, Silent Revolution: The Transformation of Divorce Law in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 65-59, 150-151.

57   George S. Swan, “The Political Economy of American Family Policy, 1945-85,” Population and Developmental Review 12 (1986): 752.

58   Cf. Robert Schoen, “The Continuing Retreat From Marriage: Figures From 1983 U.S. Marital Status Life Tables,” Sociology and Social Research 71 (1987): 108-109; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States 2 September 2003 http://www.census.gov.

59   Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, “Learning to Stand Alone: The Contemporary American Transition to Adulthood in Cultural and Historical Context,” Human Development 41 (1998): 295-315.

60   Cf. Johann Hari, “If it looks like a marriage, then call it a marriage,” The Independent (London) 20 January 2003: 17.

61   Cf. Timothy J. Dailey et al., Getting It Straight: What the Research Shows About Homosexuality (Washington: Family Research Council, 2004), Chptrs. 4-5.

62   Cf. Stanley Kurtz, “Seeing the Slip,” National Review online 14 April 2003, 10 March 2004 http://www.nationalreview.com.

63   Carlin, op. cit.

64   Berry, op. cit.  





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