Monday, August 9, 2010

Saving marriage

A longtime friend recently posted this as his Facebook status:
I really don't want to get into an acrimonious debate but I wonder if anyone, liberal or conservative, can calmly, and without inflamatory or deprectory language, explain to me why some people feel that same-sex marriage threatens or undermines heterosexual marriage?
Right after reading his question, I read an article by a conservative Christian leader who felt extremely threatened by the San Francisco federal court judge's ruling against Proposition 8. "The central institution of human civilization suffered a direct hit, and its future hangs in the balance," he wrote, but he offered no reasons for that belief that would persuade anyone who did not already agree with him. His reaction was typical in the conservative Christian blogosphere, and I figured my old friend was not likely to get a reasoned answer anytime soon.

But finally this morning comes an intelligent commentary in defense of traditional marriage: "The Marriage Ideal" by Ross Douthat, who is conservative, Republican, and Christian.

Douthat begins by demolishing the usual anti-gay-marriage arguments. He then offers his own description of what he calls "a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the sexes":
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.
He allows that this understanding of marriage has been on its way out for quite some time, having been replaced by "a less idealistic, more accommodating approach." "If this newer order completely vanquishes the older marital ideal," he concludes, "then gay marriage will become not only acceptable but morally necessary."

Douthat is not happy about the fading of the older marital ideal. Still, I don't expect most conservative Christians to love his op-ed piece. While affirming the value of the traditional Jewish and Christian definition of marriage, he points out that this definition is not necessarily held by other religions, other cultures, or even many contemporary Jews and Christians.

One could argue that in a diverse, democratic society, the state's duty is to ensure that people of all religious traditions - as well as people with no religion at all - are left free to practice their own beliefs. While a religious group could marry or refuse to marry according to its doctrines, civil marriage should allow for varying traditions.

If the older marital ideal really is, as Douthat believes, "one of the great ideas of Western civilization," then churches who share his view would do better to stop fighting gay marriage and instead turn all their attention toward fostering lifelong fidelity among the already and about-to-be married. Marriage will not be saved by a legal definition. As Douthat points out, "the lifelong commitment of a gay couple is more impressive than the serial monogamy of straights."

If anything can save marriage - traditional or contemporary - it will be the witness of married couples - straight or gay - who are getting it right.


Kate said...

I was nodding along to this op-ed until the last few paragraphs, at which point I was stymied - Douthat's logic is self-defeating. He's right in that gay marriage isn't a slippery slope to polygamy, that (straight) divorce has left us with a system of serial monogamy and the possibility of multiple spouses in the long run - but then he still somehow manages to insist that not "committing" ourselves to heterosexual marriage is destructive to society. Come again? He bases his argument on two blatantly erroneous (and disproven) claims: 1) that "the nuclear family is the universal, time-tested path to forming families and raising children." (He himself argues that, in fact, polygamous family set-ups are historically more prevalent) and 2) that "heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit." Where does this second claim bear itself out? I would argue that heterosexual and gay unions are more similar - in ALL of these areas - than they are different. Committed gay couples have been raising children together for decades, quite successfully, facing the same parenting and relationship struggles that straight couples do. (Studies of children in gay-parent households always raise some kind of outcry from opponents of same-sex marriage, but here's an example:,8599,1994480,00.html).

It's a nice try from Douthat, but his line of reasoning defeats his own conclusion.

(All quotes taken directly from the NYT op-ed without editing.)

Agnieszka said...

Your last sentence sums up my sentiments well. I am a fan of marriage under the right circumstances (which include the legal freedom for all to marry regardless of their sexual orientation), but whether marriage needs "saving," I am not sure. The institution is, after all, at bare minimum, legally a mostly very helpful arrangement. I think it will do just fine.

My lack of certainty is related to something that RD appears to misapprehend, and it's not just a technicality. If he indeed believes that marriage was replaced by "a less idealistic, more accommodating approach," then I'm surprised. For most of human history and in most cultures, marriage has been precisely that: an accommodating approach that was more a business transaction and a legal insurance of sorts for those who had less power in a given society, no? The enshrining of romantic love is a pleasant, but rather uncommon and relatively recent aspiration that marriage has taken on. The book Marriage, a History comes to mind. (

Agnieszka said...

P.S. This take on the RD column from Andrew Sullivan is worth reading, too:

LaVonne Neff said...

I just checked the link to Sullivan's article (thanks Agnieszka). Brilliant and compassionate.

Beth B said...

I agree with the idea that churches are better off engaging in the postitive than the negative: that is, strengthening existing marriages and preparing those who are engaged for marriage, rather than protesting against gays.

However, part of that task will always involve transmitting the traditional biblical theology of marriage, and responding to the revisionist theology of marriage.

Here is the best resource I know: Richard Hays' The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Chapter 15, "Divorce and Remarriage," and Chapter 16, "Homosexuality."

Carol D. said...

His definition of the ideal marriage is limiting by almost anyone's standards in the world we live in today (where the average age of death is no longer 27) specifies that children are biological, not adopted; that heterosexual partners mutually surrender their reproductive capabilities, seeming to eliminate or devalue childless marriages, including elderly widows who marry. Times change, and ideals must also change to accommodate a greater charity.