Book Reviews

Family Reunion

The case against the case against gay marriage.

By Jonathan Rauch

Tagged Culture Warsame-sex marriage

The Future of Marriage By David Blankenhorn • Encounter Books • 2007 • 316 pages • $25.95

When I came out with a book making the case for same-sex marriage a few years ago, I expected to spend time selling gay marriage to straight people and marriage to gay people. The surprise was how much time I spent selling marriage to straight people.

By marriage, I mean not just a commitment that two people make to
each other. Marriage is a commitment that the two spouses also make to
their community. They promise to look after each other and their
children so society won’t have to; in exchange, society deems them a
family and provides an assortment of privileges, obligations, and
caregiving tools. (Not, mostly, “benefits.”) Marriage does much more
than ratify relationships, I would tell audiences; it fortifies
relationships by embedding them in a dense web of social expectations.
That is why marriage, with or without children, is a win-win deal,
strengthening individuals, families, and communities all at the same
time. Gay marriage, I said, would be the same positive-sum transaction.
The example gay couples set by marrying instead of shacking up might
even strengthen marriage itself.

Audiences received my gay-marriage pitch in predictably varied ways.
What consistently surprised me, however, was how few people thought of
marriage as anything more than a private contract. Particularly among
groups of younger people, the standard view was that marriage is just
an individual lifestyle choice. If chosen, great. If not chosen, great.
I would leave such encounters with a troubling thought: Perhaps
straights were becoming receptive to gay marriage partly because they
had devalued marriage itself.

In his new book, The Future of Marriage, David Blankenhorn
begins where my doubts left off. Blankenhorn is the founder and
president of his own think tank, the Institute for American Values, and
has built his career on the restoration of fatherhood to the center of
American family life. In The Future of Marriage, he emerges as
an articulate, humane, and fair-minded opponent of same-sex marriage,
which he regards as nothing less than part of an effort to steal
children’s patrimony. “It would require us, legally and formally, to
withdraw marriage’s greatest promise to the child–the promise that,
insofar as society can make it possible, I will be loved and raised by
the mother and father who made me.” He takes jabs at me, among other
gay-marriage advocates, but in my case he plays fair. And Blankenhorn
is ambitious. He wants to lift the gay-marriage debate from its
isolation in the mud-pit of the partisan culture wars and place it
within a larger theory of marriage. He also wants to put an end to the
days when gay-marriage advocates can say that there is no serious case
against gay marriage. In both respects, he succeeds.

As I read, I made note of points on which he and I agree. I soon
found myself running out of paper. Marriage, we both believe, is a
vital institution, not just equal to competing family arrangements from
society’s point of view but preferable; it is an institution embedded
in society, not a mere contract between individuals; it is social, not
just legal, and so cannot be twisted like a pretzel by court order; it
has (almost) everywhere and always been heterosexual and entwined with
procreation, and should be. Gay marriage, we both believe, is a
significant change that entails risk (though we assess the risks very
differently); but gay marriage, we also believe, is a supporting
character in the much larger drama of shifting social values. We agree
that heterosexuals, not homosexuals, will determine marriage’s fate and
have handled matrimony pretty poorly without any gay help. And we agree
that children, on average (please note the qualifier), do best when
raised by their biological mother and father, though he makes more
sweeping claims on that score than I would. That is a great deal of
common ground, which makes it all the more interesting that we come out
in utterly different places and that gay marriage, in some ways, turns
out to be the least of our disagreements.

For Blankenhorn, “the most important trend affecting marriage in
America” is not same-sex marriage. It is the “deinstitutionalization”
of marriage–that is, “the belief that marriage is exclusively a private
relationship”–of which gay marriage is merely a prominent offshoot. To
his credit, he understands and forthrightly acknowledges that the
individualistic view of marriage “has deep roots in our society and has
been growing for decades, propagated overwhelmingly by heterosexuals.”

Marriage creates kin. In society’s eyes, it distinguishes a
relationship from a family. The trouble, for Blankenhorn, with
declaring any old kind of relationship a family–with turning marriage
into “a pretty label for a private relationship”–is that marriage
evolved and exists for a specific social reason, which is to bind both
parents, especially fathers, to their biological children. Same-sex
marriage, he argues, denies this principle, because its “deep logic” is
that a family is whatever we say it is, and it changes the meaning of
marriage “for everyone” (his italics). For support, he draws on the
writings of left-wing activists and academics who favor same-sex
marriage precisely because, they hope, it would knock mom-dad-child
marriage off its pedestal. Granting marriage rights to gay couples, who
even in principle cannot unite biological fathers and mothers with
their children, would “require us in both law and culture to deny the
double origin of the child.” Once that happens, we “transform marriage
once and for all from a pro-child social institution into a
post-institutional private relationship.”

In plainer English, Blankenhorn is saying that marriage is designed
to discriminate in favor of conjugal families and must continue to do
so. Egalitarians may hate that idea, but it isn’t stupid or bigoted.
Blankenhorn is correct to think society has a strong interest in
keeping fathers, mothers, and children together; many of today’s
problems of crime, poverty, and inequality flow directly from the
breakdown of families. But there Blankenhorn and I part ways. He says
he is all for maintaining the dignity and equality of gay people, but
he believes that changing marriage’s most venerable boundary is the
wrong way to do so. I am all for maintaining the strength of marriage
and family, but I think that telling homosexuals (and their kids) they
can’t form legal families is the wrong way to do so.

Having written a whole book on the subject, I won’t rehearse here
why I think gay marriage is good family policy. Suffice it to say that,
in a society riddled with divorce and fatherlessness, family policy’s
essential task is to shore up marriage’s status as a norm. In a world
where gay couples look married, act married, talk married, raise kids
together, and are increasingly accepted as married, the best way to
preserve marriage’s normative status is to bring gay couples inside the
tent. Failing to do so, over time, will tar marriage as discriminatory,
legitimize co-habitation and other kinds of non-marriage, and turn
every successful gay couple into a cultural advertisement for the
expendability of matrimony.

Blankenhorn clearly disagrees. Our disagreement over how gay
marriage will affect marriage’s normative status, however, is
well-plowed ground. So I’ll move along to what Blankenhorn rightly
considers his deeper and more important arguments, which are about the
nature of marriage itself. Near the beginning of his book, Blankenhorn
calls childrearing (by which he means the rearing of children by their
biological parents) “probably the single most important social need
that marriage is designed to meet, but there are numerous others as
well.” Two pages later, however, he makes a more unequivocal statement:
“Without children, marriage as an institution makes little sense.”
Though he regularly uses qualifiers, it quickly becomes clear that, in
practice, the unqualified statement is much closer to his view.

Blankenhorn succeeds in showing that binding fathers and mothers to
their biological children is a core purpose of marriage, and more power
to him for that. But the logic of his argument is that binding fathers
and mothers to their biological children is the only purpose that has
any compelling claim on society, and that allowing marriage to serve
any other purpose hurts children by pushing them to the sidelines. From
a purpose to the purpose is a long leap, and one that leaves the public
far behind. Blankenhorn himself cites a poll showing that 13 percent of
Americans say “promot[ing] the happiness and wellbeing of the married
individuals” is the “more important characteristic of a good marriage,”
and 10 percent choose “produces children who are well-adjusted and who
will become good citizens,” but three-quarters say: “The two are about
equally important.” In other words, the public believes that a good
marriage is good for adults and good for children, and that there is no
conflict. And the public is obviously right. Marriage has more than one
essential public purpose. Providing a healthy and secure environment
for the rearing of children (biological or adoptive) is certainly one
of them (and, of course, many gay couples are raising children), but at
least three others, in my view, compel respect: providing a transition
to stable domestic life for young adults (especially men), providing a
safe harbor for sex, and providing lifelong caregivers.

Still others can be found in a 2000 document called The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles. In a section headed “What Is Marriage?” the manifesto declares that “marriage has at least six important dimensions”: it is a legal contract, a financial partnership, a sacred promise, a sexual union, a personal bond, and a family-making bond. “In all these ways,” the statement continues, “marriage is a productive institution, not a consumer good.”

That manifesto, as you may have guessed, was drafted, endorsed, and
disseminated by David Blankenhorn, among others. The Blankenhorn of
2000 was right. Marriage multitasks. It is undoubtedly linked with
procreation, but the reductionist Blankenhorn of 2007 gets the
relationship backward: Marriage binds children to parents by
conditioning procreation on marriage, not by conditioning marriage on
procreation. We regard the marriage of infertile (say, elderly) couples
as cause for celebration, not condemnation. And, of course, gay couples
are just another variety of infertile couple. Even if their unions do
not accomplish all the public purposes of marriage, three out of
four–or five out of six–ain’t chicken feed.

Blankenhorn, oddly, treats the objection that society values and
encourages infertile straight marriages as no objection at all. His
three flippant pages explaining why infertility would bar gay but not
straight couples from matrimony are the only really embarrassing
performance in his book. He says that allowing infertile straight
couples to marry no more shows that marriage isn’t for biological
parenting than allowing non-drivers to buy cars shows that cars aren’t
for driving. He fails to note that marriage is more like a mobile home
(some people drive them, some live in them, and some do both), that it
is in fact legal for non-drivers to own cars, and that in any case gay
couples are already out on the roads by the thousands. He says barring
infertile straight couples would be impractical, as if that were the
reason we don’t do it. (And, actually, it would be pretty easy; in
fact, a satirical Washington state initiative campaign proposes to do
it.) Then, backing up, he acknowledges that practicality isn’t the
issue, only to tumble headlong into a baffling non sequitur by saying
there is no need!” (his emphasis) for a ban on infertile straight
marriages because fertile couples will have babies anyway.

In the midst of those pratfalls, he looses this whopper: “Marriage’s
main purpose is to make sure that any child born has two responsible
parents, a mother and a father who are committed to the child and
committed to each other. To achieve this goal, it has never been
, and it would never be possible, for society to require that
each and every married couple bear a child
” (italics mine). Well,
thanks. I rest my case.

Fortunately, Blankenhorn has a stronger argument to make–although in
the end it lands him on the horns of another false dilemma. Setting
aside the structure of marriage, he considers the structure of support
for gay marriage. It is no coincidence, he says, that “people who
professionally dislike marriage almost always favor gay marriage
” (his
italics). Marriage’s opponents want to de-privilege marriage, replacing
it with a “family diversity” model in which society and law view all
family structures as equal and interchangeable. Such folks favor gay
marriage, he argues, because they understand it as a step along their
downhill path.

Blankenhorn here elides the fact that many egalitarian anti-marriage
activists have expressed ambivalence or outright hostility toward
same-sex marriage, precisely because they fear it would undercut their
liberationist agenda. He also elides the fact that some of the
country’s most distinguished and dedicated marriage advocates support
same-sex marriage: Paul Amato, William Doherty, William Galston, and
Theodora Ooms, among others. He does not explain why a bunch of
left-wingers who he and I would probably agree are wrong about almost
everything else should be presumed right about same-sex marriage.

Still, Blankenhorn is making a deeper point, and one with an element
of truth. He is saying that certain values go together in coherent
bundles. If we could have the status quo plus gay marriage, he could
live with that. But he thinks we will either get less than gay marriage
or much more, because we must choose between two bundles of values, one
that puts children at the center of marriage and another that gives
primacy to adults. To clinch the point, Blankenhorn draws on two
multinational public-opinion surveys. He considers eight questions
about marriage, such as “Married people are happier,” “People who want
children should marry,” and “Marriage is an outdated institution.”
Countries that recognize gay marriage, he finds, are consistently less
likely to insist on the importance of marriage than are countries that
do not recognize it.

Blankenhorn is saying that only one of these two cultural bundles
can sustain marriage as a child-centered public institution. But it is
the whole bundle, not just gay marriage, that determines marriage’s
fate. With exemplary integrity, Blankenhorn acknowledges as much. “To
the degree that it makes any sense to oppose gay marriage, it makes
sense only if one also opposes with equal clarity and intensity the
other main trends pushing our society toward post-institutional
marriage” (his italics). So the important question isn’t only gay
marriage, or even marriage. Just as important is what else is in these

Here is one clue. Countries in his data set that recognize same-sex
marriage nationally are relatively few and are concentrated in Western
Europe, plus Canada and South Africa. Countries that do not recognize
same-sex unions, on the other hand, form a larger and more
heterogeneous group, including a few Western countries, but also, for
instance, Bangladesh, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia,
Nigeria, Uganda, and Ukraine. It would certainly be surprising if the
latter countries did not take a more traditional view of marriage–and
very much else.

And so they do. Using data from the World Values Survey–the larger
and, as we both agree, more representative of Blankenhorn’s two
sources–I looked at how countries with and without same-sex marriage
felt on some matters other than marriage. As Blankenhorn points out,
countries without same-sex marriage do indeed take more traditional
attitudes toward marriage, parenthood, and divorce. But–prepare to be
shocked–what correlates most starkly with the absence of gay marriage
is intolerance of homosexuals. Meanwhile, people in countries with
same-sex marriage are more supportive of teaching children to be
independent and tolerant; they are more supportive of women’s equality
in work and politics; and they are less insistent that women must be
mothers to be fulfilled. They are also more secular and are marginally
more supportive of democracy. As it turns out, they also report higher
satisfaction with life and feel they have more freedom of choice and
control over their lives. If you had to live in a random country chosen
from one of these two lists, which list would you choose? As a
homosexual American, I can tell you my own answer, and not just because
of gay marriage.

Blankenhorn has painted himself into a corner, one where the
American public will never join him. If, as he insists, we cannot
sustainably mix and match values and policies–combine adult
individualism with devoted parenthood, for example, or conjoin same-sex
marriage with measures to reduce divorce–then we must choose whether to
move in the direction of the Netherlands or Saudi Arabia. I have no
doubt which way the public would go. And should.

n fact, however, the public will reject the choice Blankenhorn
offers as a false one; and, again, the public will be right. A look at
Blankenhorn’s own data shows that the publics of gay-marriage countries
have not rejected marriage; on six out of the eight questions he uses
as indicators, they agree with non-gay-marriage countries, just by less
decisive margins. People in countries recognizing same-sex unions are
more accepting of co-habitation and single parenthood than Blankenhorn
and I would prefer; but their project is not to reject marriage, except
perhaps on Blankenhorn’s reductionist account of it, but to blend and
balance it with other values of liberal individualism.

Blankenhorn may think this project futile. He is right to sound
cautionary notes. But in recent years, as he points out, U.S. divorce
rates have dropped a little and teen-pregnancy rates have dropped a
lot, while “rates of marital happiness have stabilized and may be
increasing.” States are experimenting with reforms to strengthen
marriage and reduce unnecessary divorce, and the proportion of
African-American children living in two-parent, married-couple homes
has stabilized or increased. Those modest but heartening improvements
come at precisely the time when gay Americans in the millions–the
ordinary folks, not the academicians–have discovered and embraced
marriage and family after years of alienation from both.

Blankenhorn and I could argue all day about whether gay marriage is
part of the solution or part of the problem. But I feel I have learned
a couple of things recently. From giving all those speeches, I have
learned that the public takes a more individualistic view of marriage
than either Blankenhorn or I would prefer. From his new book, I’ve
learned that the public’s view of both marriage and society is
nonetheless richer, wiser, and more humane than David Blankenhorn’s–and
possibly, for that matter, than my own. Which gives me hope that,
whatever the experts say the real purpose of marriage is or is not, the
public can ultimately get it right.

Read more about Culture Warsame-sex marriage

Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer for National Journal and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. His latest book is Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.

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