Recent events have made the legal recognition of gay marriage a hot topic. Social conservatives are fighting a battle to preserve the traditional definition of marriage, and this battle is entering a crucial stage. The other side of the argument has enormous influence in the popular culture, to the point where one of its most outspoken activists can be invited to judge the Miss USA contest, and use his position to score political points. Social conservatives are presumed guilty of bigotry for daring to speak in favor of traditional marriage � as the Carrie Prejean affair demonstrates, they are treated more like defendants at a trial, than participants in a debate.
Whatever the motivations of the outspoken leadership of the gay marriage movement, there’s no question that many average gay Americans want the official sanction of marriage for the best of reasons: to honor passionate commitment and lifelong relationships. It’s essential for those who defend the traditional definition of marriage to make the case that marriage is worth preserving, when the consequences of winning the debate include disappointment, humiliation, and anger among gay people who wish to be married.
Marriage between men and women is a tradition that stretches back for centuries, into the history of the European nations that colonized America, and the history of virtually every other civilization around the world. Marriage is vastly older than various other features of modern life that we asked to accept as eternal and unchangeable, such as progressive taxation, or federal control of public education. It was not invented in the Fifties by stodgy old television producers, and we are not designing our nation’s law or culture from scratch, arbitrarily deciding to pencil in a mean-spirited homosexual exclusion to a newly minted �right.� We should be clear that proponents of the traditional definition of marriage are being asked to redefine something that has been part of human law and custom for most of our recorded history. The longevity of marriage, and its presence in almost every human culture, speak in its favor. Modern Americans often embrace the delusion they are the first generation to be capable of changing their ways, but our forefathers down through the centuries were perfectly capable of redefining marriage, if they had wanted to. The definition of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman has endured through the development of Western culture, under the influence of various religions, because it’s important.
Marriage is a basic building block for society. The marital bond creates families, and brings families together, creating an atmosphere of trust and loyalty that was crucial to the formation of ancient societies… but is also important to a technologically advanced democracy. The line of authority begins with man and wife, and builds into families, extended clans, communities, and nations. Men and women raised by parents who honor their lifelong pledge of devotion are better able to enter a democracy as strong, independent citizens who can fulfill their civic duties and use their voting power wisely. It’s common sense to recognize the advantage of having an extended family you can fall back on for support in tough times, and which can build wealth that benefits all of the family members. Simply owning a family home, which has been largely paid for by the older generation, is an enormous asset. People who can turn to their families when they hit rock bottom are less likely to demand welfare from the government. The pathologies of crime and welfare dependency are strongly linked to the explosion of children raised by single parents, as the no-fault divorce culture has weakened marriage. Families also provide emotional support that no amount of sterile government spending can ever duplicate. We never should have accepted the Great Society notion that raising children was primarily an exercise in accounting, treating them as line items on Uncle Sam’s budget sheet.
Solid marriages, and the families they produce, also contribute a powerful resource that has become scarce in modern America: honor, and by extension shame. Families help to build a sense of honor by holding children accountable for what they do to each other, and making them aware that they carry the family’s honor with them when they move into the outside world. People who are mindful that their actions reflect upon the reputation of a mighty family tree are more likely to conduct themselves honorably, and more likely to feel the sting of shame if their actions don’t measure up to the family’s standards. It’s sad that so many of us have to go through life without being able to look behind us and see the ghosts of our parents, and their parents before them, holding hands and standing united in their pride at our achievements… and their disappointment when we behave in a way that dishonors their memory. We live in a world that our great-grandparents could scarcely have imagined, and we should be grateful that they were able to build that world for us, and aware of our responsibility to build the world our great-grandchildren will inherit. A nation that runs up an incalculable national debt is not a nation that is paying enough attention to the needs of its great-grandchildren.
Those who were raised in a single-parent household, as I was, might object that it’s possible to develop these virtues without both a mother and father to teach them. This is very true, but it’s far easier to raise children and give them the strength of an extended family with an intact marriage. I doubt most single parents reading this would deny their jobs would be easier if the mother or father of the children was still around to help, and took their responsibilities to their spouse and children seriously. When you’re talking about the evolution of a civilization � the interwoven life stories of three hundred million people � it pays for society to revere and encourage the traditions which are most likely to produce free-thinking, industrious, lawful citizens.
If raising children within an intact marriage makes it, say, 10% less likely those children will be criminals, you can keep thousands of criminals from haunting the streets by encouraging intact marriages… and that 10% hypothetical figure is probably a very low estimate of the beneficial effect of intact families, among the demographics most prone to violent crime, drug abuse, and long-term welfare dependency. Our cultural elite has constructed a society in which they can indulge their libertine instincts, and preen themselves over how marvelously open-minded they are, while passing the cost along to people whose lives became intolerable when they became a little bit harder. European states have collapsed into tired old socialist nursing homes by failing to produce enough children to keep their cultures and economies vibrant. In Europe, a half-dozen elderly grandparents have only one grandchild to share between them. In America, we have a vast population of children who never meet their grandparents.
There are those who say that assigning an exalted, officially sanctioned status to married couples implies that single people are somehow less valuable to society. Some argue that child-rearing isn’t a sufficient argument in favor of marriage, because we don’t frown on married couples who never get around to having children, or are incapable of having them. This misses the larger point that a healthy America has plenty of room for spinsters, playboys, and career-minded power couples who can’t fit children into their lifestyle… but we can’t all be like that. The next generation will come from families who make the incredible sacrifices necessary to have two, three, or even more children, when many of their friends look at the bill for a stay in the maternity ward, and think about what a cool plasma TV and home-theater system they could have bought with that money. Love and faith � in the future, and in each other � make it possible for a man and his wife to make those return trips to the maternity ward, without which the future would be empty and poor.
The advocate of redefining marriage will say that same-sex marriages can provide the kind of solid family environment that is so desirable, and modern technology can make it possible for them to have children. This ignores the value marriage has for the men and women who are joined by it, even if they never raise a family. Too much of our social evolution since the Sixties has been distorted by the ridiculous article of faith among the elites that men and women are interchangeable. Men and women are different, and they need each other. Marriage civilizes and focuses men, who have traded their clubs and spears for footballs and videogame controllers, but remain the same competitive and predatory creatures they have always been. It places their strength at the service of the women they love. For a man who don’t choose to serve in the military, marriage is his greatest opportunity to swear absolute loyalty to someone in this world besides himself. When a man kneels before his love and asks for her hand, he is not kneeling because he’s weak… he kneels because he’s strong, and he’s ready to share that strength with his wife. It’s a promise that is not easy to make, or easy to keep. Four decades of increasing crime, declining ambition, and deepening poverty for the most unfortunate among us should have taught us beyond question how much husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, need each other. The freakish ideologues who sold American women idiocy like �a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle� owe several generations of women, and their children, a groveling apology.
Some advocates of redefining marriage would laugh at this description of marriage, and call it an ideal too many couples fail to achieve. They might say the epidemic of divorce since the Seventies proves that traditional marriage has become a tattered and threadbare flag that is not worth defending. On the contrary, the divorce explosion proves the necessity of officially respecting and encouraging the difficult commitment of marriage. We weakened marriage by redefining it as a temporary business arrangement between men and women, to be dissolved without hesitation or remorse at any time. We would weaken it further by redefining it as a temporary business arrangement between anyone. We aren’t doing ourselves any favors by abandoning ideals that are difficult to achieve. We haven’t been helping our children by discouraging them from reaching for the future together… by telling them “forever” is a silly word, or “always” is merely the opening bid in an extended negotiation. We’ve done a poor job of setting a good example for the younger generation, and now we’re trying to let ourselves off the hook by saying those marriage vows were unreasonably difficult to begin with. Marriage is valuable because it’s difficult.
The libertarian objection to official recognition of marriage is that people should not look to their government to legitimize their moral preferences. This has always been a hollow argument, because the laws of a nation inevitably reflect the morality of its citizens. It becomes a ridiculous argument in the face of the gigantic, activist, sanctimonious government and ruling class of modern America. If the government is going to become agnostic on the question of sanctioning marriage, it will be the first time in decades it has decided to become agnostic on anything. Politicians who tell us we have a moral imperative to drive smaller cars should not be allowed to fall silent when asked if we have an even greater imperative to honor our marriage vows.
The idea that defenders of marriage are pleading for state and federal laws to “legitimize” their beliefs has the situation exactly backward: the citizens of a nation have a right to expect the laws of their government to reflect their beliefs. The advocates of redefining marriage understand this instinctively. The point of their crusade is not to gain the “right” to declare themselves to be married… they can do that now, and many of them do. The point is to change the legal structure of the country, to express a revised, manufactured consensus that the sex of the people involved in a marriage doesn’t matter, and eventually this would be further revised to say that the number of people involved doesn’t matter either. The point of obtaining legal sanction for gay marriage is not to change how gay people feel about it.
Ordinary people, struggling to prosper and raise their children in a complex world, are tired of being told that everything they revere is subject to deconstruction and re-interpretation. They are tired of hearing that every standard they hold is an insult to those who don’t meet it, and every belief is an insult to those who don’t share it. They’re weary of being used as test subjects in grand social experiments. To maintain a common culture, we must have ideals with intrinsic meaning, just as some of the words in any language must have a clear and unambiguous meaning. Government is not something imposed from above on its citizens, in a democracy – its authority flows upward from them. They have a right to expect that government to honor the vows and commitments they have made between themselves, dating back to centuries before the United States of America existed. They have a right to live in a society that doesn’t expend its energies trying to condition them to forget something they have understood since the first time they saw their fathers and mothers standing together and smiling down at them in the cradle… and which they have respected since the first time they looked through a family photo album and dreamed about who would be standing beside them, when the picture of their own family was added. Redefining marriage doesn’t make lasting unions between men and women less important. It just makes them harder to find.