Ross Douthat of The New York Times produced what is perhaps the most penetrating piece on the Supreme Court’s ruling last week on gay marriage. He notes that, long before the debate on that subject gained traction in U.S. politics, gay intellectuals carried on their own debate about marriage and how the gay community should view that venerable human institution.
Some said, essentially, to hell with it, as it was (as Mr. Douthat describes this view) “inherently oppressive, patriarchal or heteronormative, better rejected or radically transformed than simply joined.” Others argued that, no, marriage was part of human dignity, and gays should embrace it as a hallowed institution — for them as well as for straights. The latter argument won out, and it developed over time that straight Americans were surprisingly receptive to the idea that gays should be empowered to enjoy the same matrimonial rights — and joys — as anyone else.
That is the essence of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s Supreme Court ruling, which waxed eloquent on the profundity of marriage, embodying, as he put it, “the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.” He speaks of “new insights” strengthening marriage and bringing to society “new dimensions of freedom.”
But, lo, as gays pressed for the right to pursue this venerated institution, the institution itself was disintegrating as a societal norm and adhesive among heterosexual Americans (and Europeans as well; this is a phenomenon of Western civilization). Justice Kennedy, it turns out, doesn’t seem to have much of an idea of what is happening in American society, where people increasingly are pursuing what Mr. Douthat describes as “freedom from marriage — from the institution as traditionally understood, and from wedlock and family, period.”
According to the National Survey of Family Growth, divorce rates in America hover between 40 percent and 50 percent, down a bit from the 1970s and early ‘80s but still high in historical terms. Another index of the marriage decline is the rate of what has become known as “cohabitation.” A government study indicates that between 2006 and 2010, fully 48 percent of “first unions” of women were not marital relationships. This is up from 43 percent in 2002 and 34 percent in 1995. Out-of-wedlock birth statistics offer another picture. Fully 41 percent of births in the United States in 2012 were outside of wedlock. A Johns Hopkins University study indicates these numbers have increased dramatically among so-called millennial women; Fully 64 percent of millennial mothers gave birth at least once outside of marriage.
Also among millennials, birth rates have declined significantly, according to the Urban Institute, which reports that women between 20 and 29 produced 15 percent fewer children in 2012 than their counterparts did in 2007.
Social conservatives have argued, to little influence, that these two phenomena — the call for same-sex marriage and the decline of marriage generally — are linked, that the separation of marriage from society’s procreative imperative has served to undermine the traditional view of marriage. That is the view of Jonathan V. Last in a recent issue of The Weekly Standard. Mr. Last posits that the same-sex-marriage campaign has been a massive “bait-and-switch” by people who argued that they just wanted what straight married couples had but actually wanted to undermine the institution of marriage as a societal institution.
He quotes various gay activists whose views seem to show that they really don’t care much for the institution as traditionally understood and revered. For example, Jay Michaelson, writing in the Daily Beast, ponders: “What if gay marriage really will change the institution of marriage, shifting conceptions around monogamy and intimacy?” He suggests there is “some truth” in the conservative claim that gay marriage is “changing, not just expanding marriage.” Mr. Michaelson cites a study suggesting that half of gay marriages aren’t “strictly monogamous” and adds that many gays generally believe “it’s more like three quarters.” He adds:
“But it’s been fascinating to see how my straight friends react to it. Some feel they’ve been duped: They were fighting for marriage equality, not marriage redefinition. Others feel downright envious, as if gays are getting a better deal.”
Slate’s Hanna Rosin believes this could bring some needed vibrancy to “the drooping institution of heterosexual marriage.” After all, writes Ms. Rosin (who is straight), it may well be that “gay marriage has something to teach us, that gay couples provide a model for marriages that are more egalitarian and less burdened by the old gender roles that are weighing marriage down these days.”
Given such expressions, it isn’t surprising that writers such as Jonathan Last would see the rise of gay marriage as causation for the erosion in the bonds of heterosexual marriage throughout society. More likely, though, the gay-marriage agitation hasn’t really spawned this decline in marriage as a force for societal cohesion. Rather, the two phenomena are merely two intertwined manifestations of a profound societal transformation, in which behavior and attitudes once almost universally considered destructive of society have become acceptable and “normal.”
Western society is in uncharted territory here. As Chief Justice John Roberts notes in his fiery dissent, the court ordered “the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia .” In doing so, he adds, it “not only overlooks our country’s entire history and tradition but actively repudiates it .” True. But that repudiation had been coming from ever greater swaths of American society over a long period of time.
• Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author of books on American history and foreign policy.