Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Future of Marriage by David Blankenhorn: A Summary and Review

David Blankenhorn is one of the foremost experts on marriage in the United States. Blankenhorn is a sociologist by trade, and founder and President of the Institute for American Values, an organization devoted to strengthening families and civil society in the U.S. and the world. Blankenhorn is a self-professed liberal but also an outspoken opponent of same-sex "marriage." The Future of Marriage is one of the most important books written to date on the contemporary threats traditional marriage faces in Western Civilization. This book is not written from a Catholic perspective. It is not even written from a particularly Christian perspective. Instead, Blankenhorn writes purely from a sociological standpoint, and offers a cogent defense of marriage in terms even secularists can not ignore.

Blankenhorn's main thesis is that marriage in America today is in danger of becoming "deinstitutionalized." Deinstitutionalization refers to the process of abolishing a practice that has been considered a norm, or reducing the importance, central meaning, and significance of a social institution. Marriage is such a public, social institution. In fact, marriage's public nature is its most important feature. The purpose of marriage, according to Blankenhorn is to ensure, insofar as possible, that the man and woman who make the child through sexual intercourse are there for the child, as social parents, and are there for each other. Marriage brings together biologically unrelated persons to produce the next generation, create fatherhood as a social role for men (which makes civilized society possible), and radically expands the reach and possibility of kinship ties. It brings together the two sexes in such a way that each child is born with two parents, a mother and a father, who are legally and jointly responsible for the child. Civil marriage is a societal endorsement of that monogamous, sexual relationship that exists to bring children into the world and ensure that the children know their parents, and are raised by their parents.

What the institution of marriage aims to regulate is sex, not love or commitment. (In modern society) marriage regulates sex in a wholly non-coercive manner (sex outside of marriage is no longer a crime). Marriage exists to solve a problem that arises between men and women but not from sex between partners of the same gender: what to do about its generativity or procreative power? Marriage has always been the union of a man and a woman (even in polygamous marriage) for the same reason that there are two sexes: it takes one of each to produce a child. That doesn't mean marriage is worthwhile only insofar as it yields children, but it means that the institution is oriented toward child-rearing. A healthy marriage culture encourages adults to arrange their lives so that as many children as possible are raised and nurtured by their parents in a common household.

Same-sex marriage is one part of the larger threat to the institution. The other threats to marriage include no-fault or otherwise easy divorce, the proliferation of unwed child-birthing and cohabitation, contraception, and the Western tendency to think of all things in radically private, individualistic terms. Ideas, movements, or technologies that separate marriage from its procreative and public purpose greatly weaken marriage. We could probably deinstitutionalize marriage without adopting gay marriage, but gay marriage clearly presupposes and in some respects requires deinstitutionalization.

Gay marriage proponents always begin from the premise that marriage is a private contract between consenting adults for the purpose of love and companionship. Unfortunately, most modern Americans view marriage in these private contractual terms as well. Therein lies the most fundamental problem says Blankenhorn. If one accepts this more contemporary view of marriage as a private relationship between two adults for the purpose of love and companionship, ignoring marriage's public function as a societal sanction of a sexual relationship for the purpose of creating and raising children, then same-sex marriage makes perfect sense. And if same-sex "marriage" is legalized, marriage will most certainly continue down this path of deinstitutionalization in which marriage becomes solely and decisively a private contractual arrangement, the form of which is limited only to the imagination of consenting adults. Polygamy could not logically be prohibited, nor could a multitude of different "family" arrangements. A new conception of marriage based on nothing more than "love and companionship" would eviscerate the traditional collective understanding of marriage and change its meaning and objectives forever. Why then, couldn't elderly brothers who take care of each other, or friends who share a house and bills, or boyfriends/girlfriends be marriages? Why shouldn't their relationships be recognized as well? Under the traditional view of marriage, however valuable those relationships are, they are not oriented towards procreation and children, so we do not treat them the same way. Society and governments have traditionally favored the uniquely procreative relationship of 1 man-1 woman, and set it apart with certain rights, privileges (and penalties for breaking this covenant) to ensure the propagation of society and help to ensure that children are brought into this world under the best possible circumstances. But if marriage is reduced to a private arrangement for the purpose of love, companionship, and intimacy, is no longer about creating and raising children, and is open to coupling arrangements that cannot generate new life, society's interest in encouraging, endorsing, and preserving marriage evaporates. Thus, there is a significant danger that over time, it becomes pointless for the state to confer any special marital status at all.

Blankenhorn observes that in the short term, if same-sex marriage becomes legally sanctioned, the legal framework of our society governing families and parenthood will have to be re-written to accommodate this revolution. If this is to happen, our culture and our laws may no longer favor one type of marriage over another--to do so would be akin to discrimination. In fact, criticizing gay "marriage" becomes hate speech. More importantly, our government will have a duty to give equal treatment to all "forms" of marriage, including the resulting changes to what constitutes parenthood. Same-sex marriage necessarily would require us to give greater legal protections to gay couples raising children by essentially creating a completely new definition of what a "parent" is. So a woman in a gay relationship with another woman is automatically the parent of that mother's child. Why? Because she and the mother say that she is. She is not just a caregiver, not just the mother's lover and partner. She is the child's parent. This novel conception of parentage is necessary if we are to put gay "marriage" on equal footing with traditional marriage and accord its participants the same rights and privileges. This threat is not mere alarmist hyperbole. After Canada legalized same-sex "marriage", Canadian law erased the term "natural" parent from its books and replaced it with the term "legal" parent.

This legal accommodation of gay marriage and the rights of gay parents would require us in both law and culture to deny the double origin of the child. It would would require us to withdraw marriage's greatest promise to the child--the promise that, insofar as society can make it possible, the child will be loved and raised by the mother and father who made him. In a gay marriage culture, when one says, "every child deserves a mother and a father," one will be saying something that is not only controversial, but that also conflicts with the law. To accept same-sex marriage, society will have to disregard the notion that a mother and a father is the right of each child and create a legal regime in which natural and heterosexual parents cannot be favored over "legal" parents. Children will no longer have the right to know and be raised by their mother and father (to the extent it is possible). The rights of children will be withdrawn in favor of the rights of (gay) adults. Children become rights of the gay couple, not individuals that possess their own infinite value and rights. The mantra of the gay marriage movement of "we, as consenting adults, have the right to get married and have children" necessarily conflicts with the rights of children to know and be raised by their parents. Thus, if government gets out of the business of marriage (as so many wish it would), then the government essentially declares that it is no longer interested in the welfare of children.

If marriage is weakened, as it would be if government no longer fostered, encouraged, or even recognized traditional marriage, those that are the most vulnerable and the most dependent upon marriage would suffer the most: children. But when marriage as a social institution weakens, government ironically has to get more involved, not less. The government ends up performing many of the functions previously provided by the parents, and courts end up acting as referees to decide issues such as custody, etc. Moreover, marriage exists to make sure that tomorrow exists. It is the best institution ever devised to provide for the generation and care of children (the future of society). So if the government cannot have an interest in marriage and ensuring that society continues, then the government can have no interest in anything.

Finally, many proponents of gay marriage conceptualize marriage in terms of "civil rights." This argument has an element of self-delusion about it, because at the same time, those who propose it deny that same-sex marriage would work a radical change in American law or society, insisting to the contrary that within a few years of its triumph everyone will wonder what all the fuss was about. But its simultaneous insistence that opponents are the moral equivalent of the white supremacists of yesteryear belies these false assurances. Our tolerance for racism is quite limited: the government, while it generally respects the relevant constitutional limits, is active in the cause of marginalizing racists and eradicating racist beliefs and behaviors. Moreover, social sanctions against racism, both overt and implied, are strong. If our society is truly to regard opposition to same-sex marriage as equivalent to racism, it will have to undergo change that would be as dramatic as it would be extensive. Churches that object, for example, will have to be put in the same cultural position as Bob Jones University was in the days when it banned interracial dating, until they too join the consensus. Criticism of gay marriage, will be equivalent to hate speech. Religious organizations that choose not to give benefits to the "spouse" of a gay employee would quickly find themselves on the wrong end of a lawsuit and hefty federal fine, etc., etc., etc.

Changing a public meaning is a public event; the meaning changes for everyone. Changing the definition of marriage would forever change the way we all think about marriage, and will result in deinstitutionalization. And this point cannot be overstated. Re-defining marriage would make the countervailing norms and the public purpose of marriage themselves incoherent, which affects everyone. In fact, as Blankenhorn points out with statistical data, the countries with same sex marriage were also the ones where support for marriage as an institution is weakest--where people tended to accept single parenthood and divorce, for example. Countries with marriage-like civil unions showed more support for marriage; those with only regional recognition of gay marriage showed more support still, and those without either gay marriage or civil unions were most supportive of all of traditional marriage. Same sex marriage may not be the main cause of weak support for marriage, but the two clearly go together. Same sex marriage is not a sign of a strong marriage culture, and adopting same-sex marriage would permanently and fundamentally alter this institution in ways that we have yet to even imagine. Blankenhorn's book is a sobering caution against this social experimentation.

Overall, Blankenhorn offers a robust defense of traditional marriage. Although the book is not a theological work, the topic of Christian teaching does come up occasionally. I noticed a few instances where the author misstated Church teaching and took a few Church fathers' writings out of context; these are fairly inconsequential parts of the book that are not really necessary to his main thesis. In addition, Blankenhorn struck me as a bit naive in overlooking the threat that civil unions would pose to marriage. But I think this position derives from the author's desire to offer a sort of compromise with the gay marriage movement, rather than an oversight. This also, is a very minor criticism of an otherwise excellent book. The Future of Marriage by David Blankenhorn is a must read for anyone who is serious about the gay marriage debate.

1 comment:

Doug said...

Thank you for this review of The Future of Marriage, this is an important work offering reason and clear evidence to show why marriage is something that only a man and woman can enter. The destruction of the family is a part of the culture of death, but this can be overcome with a simple presentation of the beauty of the family to which no commodity can compare. Great post!