After I’ve written about gay marriage for 12 years, more than a few people have asked me how this issue got to be so big.
Marriage is centuries old, and until a few years ago, no enduring culture ever recognized same-sex marriage, at least on par with heterosexual marriage. Why is America consumed with this debate?
There are well-crafted answers from gay writers like Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Rauch, Evan Wolfson and E.J. Graff. A major line of reasoning says that now that we know sexual orientation is as unchanging and inborn as skin color or national origin, gay marriage is a civil right.
I will leave that (deeply contested) civil rights argument aside for now and instead highlight an article that says heterosexuals opened the door to gay marriage: Long before gay couples asked for marriage licenses, the institution of marriage itself already had been “radically redefined” by activists, judges, academics and others, says Bryce Christensen, English professor at Southern Utah University, in a 2004 paper called “Why Homosexuals Want What Marriage Has Now Become.”
Previously, marriage was defined by religious doctrine and moral tradition. It was divinely ordained, and couples were expected to embrace commitments to childbearing, religious attendance, distinctive sex roles (i.e., breadwinner/homemaker) and lifelong sexual fidelity to each other. However, a series of events, beginning with America’s shift from an agricultural nation to an industrial one, left the institution of marriage “badly bloodied.”
Men went away to work, leaving women to toil alone “in a functionally diminished home,” and “advertisers, manufacturers and educators” moved in to assist those homemakers, Mr. Christensen writes. But instead of the American home remaining a hub of family activity, it evolved by the 1950s into an “incidental parking place,” where family members met to consume goods and relax, according to Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin.
Marriage was further undermined in the 1960s, as home cooking and sewing gave way to restaurants and store-bought goods. Child care, home maintenance and car repair were turned over to paid professionals. Entertainment revolved around the television and other purchased diversions.
The religious undergirding of marriage (i.e., Scriptures that praised childbearing and man-woman complementarity and prohibited fornication and adultery) came under attack. As intellectuals and elites pounded Judeo-Christian values, the exciting counterculture of communes, drugs, free sex and rebellious music swept the land. Self-gratification was in, self-sacrifice was out.
The entry of millions of women into the work force severely torqued marriage. Husbands and wives became “economic clones,” each vying to be a “good provider.” Married couples had fewer children, while DINK households — dual incomes, no kids — proliferated.
Then, as no-fault divorce swept the country in 1970s and 1980s, these marriages of “two careerists in the same bed” (as author Wendell Berry called them) became vulnerable because marriage became increasingly about rights and interests that “must be constantly asserted and defended.”
Once marriage became “bereft of a healthy home economy, frequently devoid of children, and threatening to dissolve at any moment” and yet remained the most convenient way to get insurance, employment and government benefits (i.e., Social Security), it became an institution “that homosexuals finally wanted” to participate in, Mr. Christensen writes.
I spoke with Mr. Christensen recently to get an update. He sees no signs of a “Great Awakening” in religion and only inklings of a revival of home-based “cottage industries.” He remains confident that America’s path to gay marriage started not with gay couples wanting to marry, but with heterosexuals who wanted new rules of engagement for themselves.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.