This post was originally published at the Intercollegiate Review on December 12, 2013.
This is the sixth contribution to the Intercollegiate Review symposium “Sex and the Polis: Perspectives on Marriage, Family, and Sexual Ethics.”
Conservatives aren’t losing to the culture on marriage because they’re wrong. They’re losing because they’re answering the wrong question, because they’ve failed to grasp what the issue actually is. It isn’t same sex marriage: it’s people wanting same sex marriage.
Identifying the problem
Consider the longstanding narrative of a successful life in American culture, especially in American Christian culture: kid is raised in a stable and productive home with mom, dad, and siblings; kid goes to a good school, gets into college, gets a good job, and then finds a spouse. They marry, have kids, and do what their parents did. American social, economic, and legal structures are grounded in this narrative. Married couples buy homes together, get joint banking accounts, share health and car insurance, build a family together, and share a variety of other experiences and benefits that reinforce social, economic, and legal stability throughout their lives.
When today’s conservatives talk about the “family” as the foundation of society, they’re talking about the post-industrial nuclear household of mom, dad, and children. The nuclear family is the foundation on which Americans build their stabilizing relationships of inter-dependency. This might help to explain why conservatives focus so much upon the flourishing of children. For them, a wedding is the culmination of a flourishing life, and thus society’s primary responsibility is to enable as many people as possible to marry and to marry well.
This might also explain, in part, the twentieth-century American fascination with “reparative therapy” for men and women who experience exclusive or predominate sexual attraction to the same sex. With slogans like “develop your heterosexual potential”, one might wonder whether these methods were more interested in making people marriageable than making people healthy.
Friendship in marriage, and only in marriage
The connection between general health and the ability to marry is, in many ways, unique to the modern world. As historian Stephanie Coontz has pointed out, “new in the 1950s was the cultural consensus that everyone should marry”. This development in the idea of marriage, combined with the modern idea that marriage is primarily about love and commitment, has created strains on a variety of other human institutions, particularly the institution of friendship.
Partly because everyone is “supposed to get married” and marriage is “about love and commitment”, extramarital relationships grounded in love and commitment have lost their prominence in American society. Tennyson’s most quoted words, “Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all”, have been celebrated since they were first written. What has changed, however, is the understanding that he wrote those words about another man, a dear friend. We now live in a world in which we see marriage as the source and summit of love and romance. So anyone who experiences romantic attraction would be led to believe that this attraction is either a step towards marriage, or intrinsically disordered.
If we viewed “traditional marriage” as something which began before the eighteenth century, we would probably be led to reject this “marriagization” of love and romance. We should not forget that union in body is not the same thing as union in soul. The traditional view has been that it is in marriage that two “become one flesh.” But it is the traditional view that two become “a single soul” in friendship.
The problem is that in modern culture, these two views have been fused. The popular conservative notion, that your spouse should be your best friend, has fueled the popular liberal notion, that your best friend should be able to become your spouse. Aristotle has said that living together “is the chief mark of friendship”, but today adults are only expected to live with their spouses. Unlike most people throughout history, we now expect spouses to fulfill most of our emotional and practical needs. We don’t expect chaste friendships to be lifelong commitments with concrete responsibilities. So unmarried friends, in the most robust sense of the word, become a cultural anomaly.
The shrinking family and our isolation
Marriage is now seen as the stabilizing force in society and as the highest form of friendship. Thus, household communities have become distinctly insular in modern society. Proponents of the “traditional view” of marriage have argued that, as children mature, they benefit “from the committed and exclusive love of their parents for each other.” This seems partial-minded to me. Historically, households were often more like villages than like modern apartments. They have been composed of parents, children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, employees, servants, and friends. Children would have seen a variety of committed and inclusive loves. In these households, it didn’t take a mother and a father to raise a child; it took a village. I think it still does.
In these “village households”, if men and women didn’t marry and move out (although many married and still lived with this extended family), they remained in this community, which provided a steady and stable home over the course of a lifetime. Today, these extended households are no longer celebrated and prioritized institutions in American culture. To be “successful”, when Americans come of age, they are expected to move out of their parents’ homes and make it on their own.
If they don’t marry, they’re expected to remain independent. Today, some of the only established institutions in which unmarried men and women can establish lifelong relationships of stabilizing interdependency are monasteries and convents. One of the only established places in which modern unmarried Americans can leave singleness for loving, committed, and lifelong community is in the religious community. But not everyone who is unmarried will, or should, join a religious community. For the rest of these unmarried people, especially for gay people, the cultural message from conservatives over the last couple of decades has been: find a way to get married, or you’re on your own.
Seeking an answer
Gay Americans have responded to this in a variety of ways. Many have rejected traditional teachings on sex and sexuality. Some have entered into happy marriages with the opposite sex. Some have had disastrous marriages with the opposite sex. Some have chosen the path that many conservatives have recommended to them, struggling in their ongoing loneliness. Others are trying to understand ways in which same-sex-attraction can be ordered towards communal goods and, accordingly, how to think about vocation and build communities.
This last approach, I believe, is the approach conservatives need to take if they are truly going to “defend marriage.” In trying to understand how Christianity, an initially “obscure, marginal” movement, came to dominate Western culture, sociologist Rodney Stark has emphasized the ways in which successful movements are usually communally-focused. He writes, “The basis for successful conversionist movements is growth through social networks, through a structure of direct and intimate interpersonal attachments.” Given this, “struggle alone” is the last message conservatives should give to gay men and women.
Stark notes that the “Christian values of love and charity had, from the beginning, been translated into norms of social service and community solidarity.” The early Church was constantly open to those in need, establishing new networks by caring for widows, the sick, and the poor, especially in times of crisis. We would do well to take note of this, given the fact that gay persons have essentially been adult orphans in the American world of the nuclear family. Rather than incorporating such persons into communities, the response has often been to try to make gay persons into straight persons, insisting that they all conform to the increasingly closed network of American family life. Instead, we need to figure out how to bring gay people, as gay people, into our communities.
The rise of “gay marriage” does not come primarily from a crisis in the understanding of what marriage is. It comes from a crisis in the understanding and practice of love, commitment, and community. The legalization of gay marriage is likely to continue to destabilize the institution of marriage, but I don’t believe that simply maintaining the marriage status quo will solve our problem. The law does teach, but we must constantly discern how to connect law’s lessons to human realities. We need to know how to respond, not only when people don’t learn the intended lessons, but also when learning those lessons doesn’t seem to solve people’s problems.
I’m not suggesting throwing out the textbook on marriage, but I am suggesting that what conservatives think is the textbook may only be a small chapter (or even just a few pages) in a much larger work that needs to be written on human relationships, love, and community. Or maybe the book has already been written, and we need to figure out what we’ve done with the rest of the text.