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A marriage question

Lance Gallop | Wednesday, April 5, 2006

It has been observed by some well-known political columnists and bloggers that members of the neo-conservative right, which is famously fond of denouncing traditional marriage and civil rights for gay and lesbian couples and families, rarely, if ever, say what rights and social structures they favor for them to provide the support given by these proven institutions. Yet the fact of the matter is, according to the Urban Institute, there are at least 250,000 same-sex families raising children across the nation. Some of these children are the product of legal adoption in those states that permit it, like California and Massachusetts. Others are born through artificial insemination (possibly carried by a willing surrogate mother) or are “Brokeback Mountain” cases where a gay parent retains child-custody after legal separation.

It is odd, and more than a little distressing, that the defenders of “family values” and the coiners of the phrase “no child left behind” have remained entirely closemouthed about their policy toward this growing segment of the population. It is almost as if they wish that these families, and these children, would vanish without a trace. Yet any social historian can tell you that legal marriage has always been primarily about the legitimization of children and provisions for their protection. Therefore, arguably any national institution that willfully ignores the need to legally and socially protect a nontrivial cross-section of its children has no real claim to the name “marriage” at all.

Looking at marriage through the lens of its larger pragmatic goals, and setting aside any questions of its underlying meaning (although I argue that its meanings and its goals are aspects of the same thing), one begins to wonder, given its track record, if the institution of marriage is even suitable for the modern world.

After the 18th century the entire concept of marriage was stood completely on its head, as a major segment of the population began to believe (against all tradition, mind you) that people should marry for the sake of love. This was the first great sexual revolution, and the mother of every lesser moral revolution that has come since, from Dr. Ruth to Dr. Phil. Frankly, the theology of marriage, and indeed of human sexuality, has also not yet caught up with this reality. The strain shows in the disconnect between what Christian religions teach and what people, by their own common-sense morality, hold to be true. (Start up a discussion of condoms at lunch and see what I mean.)

Can we even honestly claim that marriage is doing its job anymore, and are we even certain what the job of marriage should be? Both are valid questions. Besides the aforementioned problem of providing legal protection to the children of gay couples, half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce, millions of children are born to single mothers and millions more are terminated before birth by those who feel unable, emotionally or financially, to support them. Meanwhile, the failure of many couples to understand the basic mechanics of stable relationships has given rise to a booming relationship self-help industry.

Something is clearly missing from our implementation of marriage, and as the empirical evidence shows, the institution of marriage is becoming less and less able to fulfill its given role. With this most excellent track record, is it any wonder that more and more couples are choosing to forgo marriage altogether? Perhaps they have taken the smarter road.

The situation is laughably depressing, and it is hard to construe otherwise. What’s more, the conservatives are very much aware that the institution of marriage is not healthy in this country, and that it is neither fulfilling its larger social purpose nor meeting the needs of those who seek it out. Indeed, they are always quick to enumerate the goals and benefits of marriage – protection of children, the long-term economic stability of society, the physical and emotional health of couples and the physical and emotional health of children.

Yet the neo-conservatives have already committed themselves to the form of a solution to this problem – marriage, exactly as it is today, with no compromises, no adjustments and no questions asked. The argument has become the social science equivalent of creationism, where one side is pre-committed to an untouchable ideal handed down from on high. Even when the institution has become self-contradictory, as with its inability to protect the children of gay couples, they remain unwavering. Unchangeable sanctity, they say, even if the institution it totally broken. Meanwhile everyone else is controlling their bladder and trying not to giggle while the old priest from “The Princess Bride” mutters on about “Marwahge.”

What we have lost sight of is the reality that what ultimately suffers from all of this neo-conservative rhetoric is marriage itself, along with its loftier goals and all those who have come to depend upon it.

Lance Gallop is a 2005 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He can be contacted at comments@tidwaterblues.com, or, if he is standing close by, semaphore works just as well.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.