Blair: Marriage Without Meaning

by Peter Blair | 1/19/12 11:00pm

There's a popular antipathy in the air right now toward social conservatism, among both Republicans and Democrats. The idea seems to be that, in a time of desperate fiscal problems, concentration on social issues is at best a distraction and at worst a kind of irresponsible negligence. The conservative writer Mark Steyn, for example, recently mocked the fixation of certain Republican presidential candidates on social issues in a time of ballooning debt. The latest example of this perspective in the Dartmouth community is Adam Mehring's recent column arguing against the attempt by the New Hampshire legislature to repeal same-sex marriage ("Repeal Without Reason" Jan. 17).

Mehring, to be sure, offers several arguments for his position, but the vast majority of them are responses to the claims made by N.H. legislators in the proposed bill. He has only two positive arguments of his own. One is the statement that most New Hampshire voters oppose the move to derecognize same-sex marriages. Mehring's concern for democracy is touching, given that proponents of same-sex marriage have repeatedly cheered on judges who have imposed same-sex marriage on their states either without or against the consent of the citizens of that state.

His second positive argument, as I said above, is that the move to repeal the legalization of same-sex marriage is an "immaterial policy matter" with respect to "the pervasive volatility that encumbers our present reality." What Mehring fails to realize, and what the erstwhile opponents of social conservatism fail to realize, is that the decline in a healthy marriage and family culture in America is one of the principal causes of this "pervasive volatility."

I just want to focus now on the reason legislation about marriage is appropriate to pursue even in our time of fiscal crisis. The state does not create marriage it recognizes it. It recognizes it because of the terrible importance marriage possesses for the health of a country. The decline in a healthy marriage culture, which started in the 60s and 70s in our country, has been linked again and again to higher crime rates, higher poverty rates, poorer education and lower levels of psychological health in children, among other things.

There are several articles that demonstrate the importance of marriage for the financial and social health of the nation: "Does Marriage Reduce Crime?: A Counterfactual Approach to Within-Individual Causal Effects" in Criminology; "The Funds, Friends and Faith of Happy People" in American Psychologist; and "Work and Marriage: The Way to End Poverty and Welfare," a report by the moderate think tank the Brookings Institution. In other words, marriage never goes out of style. Encouraging a healthy culture of marriage is not a distraction from the pressing problems of our day but rather a partial solution to them. But how does this point relate to gay marriage? The answer is, in one sense, that it doesn't. Gay marriage isn't a proximate cause of our marriage crisis, but a consequence of that crisis.

We no longer have any coherent idea of what marriage even is as an institution. We have no notion of what is special about the state of marriage such that it needs to be distinguished from other life conditions. What is it to be married? To list the external conditions, we would say: living together, having and raising kids, having sex, receiving tax benefits. But all of these things are no longer exclusively marital in our society. A healthy marriage culture cannot flourish if there's nothing distinctive or special about marriage besides an empty and formulaic title.

What we need to do as a society is restore to marriage some of its distinctive characteristics to restore marriage not as the only important relationship between people, or even the most important one, but as a specific kind of human relationship that is distinguished from other kinds of relationships by the role it plays in raising the next generation. What implications this will have for gay marriage is a secondary question.

The conversation about this secondary question, however, should not ignore the rather obvious fact that out of all the possible sexual behaviors of the human race, only one type can produce children. Whether this astonishing fact gives government a special interest in that relationship, I leave to you.