Marriage is in trouble. Whether it can be rescued depends on whether you are a pessimist or an optimist. David Blankenhorn, author of a new book, The Future of Marriage, is optimistic, but only if we get some basic things about this institution straight.
Twenty years ago when he and others launched the marriage movement in the United States the big issues were divorce and unwed motherhood — the subject of his 1995 book, Fatherless America. Today that problem is still with us, but now the campaign for same sex marriage could result in a motherless America as well.
In this interview with MercatorNet he explains how same sex marriage would change the meaning of marriage — to the detriment of all parents and children.
MercatorNet: Your book title suggests that marriage has a future. What does that future depend on?
David Blankenhorn: It depends on what we do now. We can either maintain and seek to strengthen marriage as society's most pro-child social institution, or we can turn it into a nice name for any private committed relationship. If we choose the latter — choose what scholars call deinstitutionalization — the biggest single likely result will be more children growing up in one-parent homes.
But who says we have to follow that path? I disagree strongly with those who say that marriage is already in such bad shape that nothing can be done. There are plenty of things we as a society can and should do.
MercatorNet: How important is the same-sex marriage issue to the future of marriage?
Blankenhorn: Same-sex marriage is one part — probably not even the biggest part — of the larger threat to the institution. We could probably deinstitutionalize marriage without adopting gay marriage, but gay marriage clearly presupposes and in some respects requires deinstitutionalization.
This became clear when I analysed data from the 2002 International Social Survey Programme. The countries with same sex marriage were also the ones where support for marriage as an institution was 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.
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.
MercatorNet: After avoiding this issue for some time, what has convinced you to tackle it?
Blankenhorn: I avoided the issue until the issue hunted me down. I was the most unwilling entry into this debate that you can imagine! But when people advocating gay marriage started publicly insisting, for example, that children do not really need fathers, I felt that I had no real choice. I've spent my whole professional life arguing that children need fathers!
MercatorNet: What is the evidence you have marshalled against same-sex marriage?
Blankenhorn: Firstly, the primary purpose of marriage as an institution in all cultures where it exists — and that is almost everywhere — 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.
Secondly, every child raised by a same-sex couple will by definition be missing either their mother or their father.
Thirdly, it is therefore not possible, or at least extremely hard, to believe both in gay marriage and in the importance of this essential cross-cultural purpose of marriage. The two goods are in conflict; we as a society must choose which we think is more important.
Finally, changing the meaning of marriage and normative parenthood to accommodate same-sex couples changes marriage and parenthood overall — not just for the children in same-sex couple households, but for all children.
MercatorNet: How difficult is it for scholars like yourself to oppose same-sex marriage and retain the respect of others in the intellectual community?
Blankenhorn: So far, I feel good about what has happened to me. I've been treated respectfully, including by those who strongly disagree with me. And it's also pleased me greatly that several leading gay marriage advocates have stated publicly that my book is seriously argued and that it respects the human dignity of everyone involved. That means a lot to me. Perhaps we are finally ready for a serious conversation about these issues.
MercatorNet: There are conservative people who say that same-sex marriage is a vote of confidence in marriage and therefore a positive thing; that marriage encourages homosexual partners to be faithful and so on. What do you say to that?
Blankenhorn: I say that the benefits that gay marriage would bring to same-sex couples and to society generally — and there are some — are likely to be far outweighed by the damage that such a change would inflict on marriage as social institution and to future generations of children.
MercatorNet: On the other hand, there are those who are alarmed at the idea of homosexual partnerships being recognised as marriages, while they are tolerant of divorce and cohabitation. Is that correct?
Blankenhorn: Yes, and if one is accepting of high divorce and unwed childbearing, but against gay marriage, that to me seems a bit two-faced, even hypocritical. Same sex marriage advocates claim that such people are simply anti-gay, and I can see how they might come to that conclusion.
MercatorNet: What are the implications of same sex marriage for religious freedom?
Blankenhorn: If we adopt gay marriage, we will be saying to millions of believing Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others, that, as a matter of law, their deepest views about marriage — its structure and purpose — are beyond the pale of our civil society, pretty much the same as being an overt racist, or shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. As a result, many believers would likely have to have to choose between being a good believer and being a good citizen.
MercatorNet: You are critical of the marriage movement — of which you are a founding member — saying that it has "stagnated". Why has that happened?
Blankenhorn: Where are the big ideas today? What is being done that is exciting? I don't see much. That is not to our credit. We need to do much better. Part of the reason why this has happened is that the gay marriage debate has sucked so much of the energy out of the room and has made so many people of good will anxious and unsure. That's part of the reason I wrote this book.
David Blankenhorn is the founder of the Manhattan-based Institute for American Values. He is married with three children.