“First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.”
So the childhood saying goes, carrying with it the weight of inevitability - but is marriage really deserving of that landmark status?
Underlying the debate over the Supreme Court’s gay marriage cases - dominated by the usual shrill accusations of “heathen” and “homophobe” - is a persistent but much quieter national puzzle about the nature and value of marriage as such. And that’s why the popular analogy that equates the battle for gay rights with the battle for civil rights, recently argued before the Supreme Court, is simply too quick and too simple.
Gay marriage is not, as some conservatives suppose, the cause of a weakened institution of marriage, but there’s no doubting that such a weakening has occurred in our culture. For better or worse, an institution that began as a socially mandated blood covenant has fallen over the past fifty years from its pedestal at the top of society: just look at no-fault divorces, increased singleness and permanent cohabitation, and the social norm of cohabitation before marriage for a few examples.
So, if we as a society still value marriage, it would behoove us to figure out why. Consider the following rather specific definition: “Marriage is a permanent union of one man and one woman for the purpose of sexual relations and raising children.” Then consider this question: which elements of the definition are essential to the public good (whatever it is) served by recognizing marriage?
Certainly not the “permanent” part, society has decided by its acceptance of no-fault divorce. The “man/woman” part is of course central to the gay marriage argument. Polyamorous couples frequently object to the monogamy standard embodied in “one” by using arguments similar to those of gay rights activists. Sexual relations and raising children are socially accepted today outside of marriage, so perhaps the purpose clause is no longer essential.
If all those arguments are accepted, that leaves the following definition: “Marriage is a union.” Some would argue that’s all it should be: an opportunity for people to express their love for one another, nothing more. Some would scrap marriage altogether. And maybe they’re right.
But we shouldn’t dismiss those who would caution against such a significant societal change as simply redneck racists who hate anyone different than themselves - particularly given the centuries-long history of marriage as traditionally defined, and particularly given the importance of the family unit on the development of children.
To be sure, there are homophobes and fundamentalists who are more interested in shrill condemnation than reasoned dialogue. But to compare the more measured opponents of gay marriage with racists is to ignore the fact that there are larger and more complex issues at play here than simple Klan-like hatred and ignorance.
The analogy won’t work, and every time it’s used, it obscures the larger, important debate about the nature and necessity of a society centered around marriage.