Ross Douthat’s opinion column in the Times this morning gets certain things right, things that the marriage-equality forces (I am in those forces) would do well to admit. But he gets certain much bigger things wrong, and I hope he’ll admit that, too. Let me explain what I mean.
Douthat wants to make the point that “[a]s the cause of gay marriage has pressed forward, the social link between marriage and childbearing has indeed weakened faster than before”—and while correlation does not imply causation, it is naïve, Douthat says, to deny that allowing marriage between non-procreative couples hasn’t had something to do with these trends:
[T]he marriage rate has been falling faster, the out-of-wedlock birthrate has been rising faster, and the substitution of cohabitation for marriage has markedly increased. Underlying these trends is a steady shift in values: Americans are less likely to see children as important to marriage and less likely to see marriage as important to childbearing (the generation gap on gay marriage shows up on unwed parenting as well) than even in the very recent past.
This is a tough argument for conservatives, that allowing gay people to marry affects straight norms in any way. Liberals usually rush to point out that all sorts of non-procreative straights have always been allowed to marry: infertile couples, elderly couples, people who just don’t want to have children, etc. What’s more, the divorcing, bastard-child-having straights’ revolt against marriage norms predates by at least 30 years any serious discussion of letting gay men and lesbians marry. It’s not hard to see why marriage-equality people find the Douthat position laughable.
But I don’t. Consider this: everything has some effect. Nothing is neutral. Allowing the LGBTQ community full marriage rights, which I support, definitely has some affect on how straight people view marriage. There’s no reason not to admit that this latest move is part of a shift toward seeing marriage as a lifestyle option for grown-ups, rather than as an expected norm for straight people who are expected to stay in that marriage and raise children in that marriage — let's call that the 1950 norm, just as shorthand. That norm is dead, the casualty of the Pill, or more lax divorce laws, and of different kinds of families becoming socially acceptable — including families headed by same-sex couples.
It could be the case—I hope it is—that we can rebuild the old, low-divorce, pro-child norms, but this time include same-sex couples in those norms. But meanwhile, it’s not unreasonable for people who cherish 1950 Marriage to see every liberalization of marriage laws as some attack on the legal and social regime they cherish: one in which it was harder to get an abortion, in which accidental pregnancies more often led to weddings, in which divorce was harder to get, and in which more marriages led to children, and to more children. If what you want is 1950 Society, then allowsing same-sex marriage does get you farther from your ideal, perhaps in all sorts of ways. It is a legal change you’ll want to undo, and it reduces in yet another way the potency of shame as a social weapon: once upon a time, we could shame people for having out-of-wedlock children, for divorcing, and for being gay. One by one, we’re losing the ability to shame them for any of those things. They aren’t all equivalent things: I think there should be some shame having children you can’t really raise, which is the case with some single parents, especially very young ones; I don’t think it’s at all shameful to be gay. But if what you want is a more potent weapon in shaming, to help get you back to 1950 Marriage, then same-sex marriage will hurt your cause.
OK, fair enough. Maybe same-sex marriage is, as they like to say, “the last straw” in this sexual revolution. But rights for the most marginalized people will always be the last straw in social revolutions. The marginal people will always get everything last. If you’re honest and ethical, you have to go after the elites who started the revolution, not the marginalized who later said, “Me too! Please, me too!” And you can’t just pay it lip service, like, “Oh, straight people are culpable, too, since they began divorcing at higher rates in the 1970s...”—you have to actually try to shame straight divorcés more than you are trying to shame gay people for wanting to marry, because the straights started it. If you aren’t horrified by Rush Limbaugh being married four times—if you didn’t see Ronald Reagan as a less fit leader because of his divorce—then you simply have to shut the hell up about gay people marrying. You can’t ethically go after the marginalized people who try to eat the fruits of a revolution. You have to go after the revolutionaries.
So here’s my question to Douthat, Maggie Gallagher, Ross Douthat Brian Brown, the world of conservative evaneglical preachers, and others who are so concerned about same-sex marriage: What does it do your perception of Ronald Reagan that he was a divorcé—and in being the first divorced president certainly helped remove any last shreds of stigma? Would you have voted against him for that reason—as many would have in 1952? Would you discourage people from listening to radio hosts who have divorces in their past (Limbaugh, Dennis Prager), or voting for divorcés like John McCain? If our goal is to work our way back to 1950 Marriage, how are we going to re-stigmatize divorce for wealthy white people? How are we going to make their divorces seem unseemly? In 1950, when a divorced woman moved into the neighborhood, people whispered about her. Are we prepared to whisper again? Are we prepared to tell our own children, someday, to stay in unhappy marriages to avoid the stigma of divorce? If your daughter gets knocked up by some really unsavory guy with no job, are you prepared to tell her to marry the slug?
If you come up with that program for me, and seem serious about it, then we can talk about the gays’ role in reestablishing 1950 Marriage.
My general sense is that conservatives aren’t fighting this fight today because it’s too far lost. They believe there’s no re-stigmatizing divorce. But I think—truly—they are giving up too easily. If it were the goal of the traditionalists at First Things and National Review and The American Conservative to help us re-think the Reagan presidency on the grounds that he helped normalize divorce, and thus helped usher in all that is terrible about libertine USA ca. 2013, they could. The Bradley Foundation could help, so could Templeton. So could Fox News. It would have to be a talking point, they’d have to push it consistently, Regnery would have to publish books about it divorced Republicans and the harm they have caused the country. But they’re good at those things.