No prominent American commentator anticipated the rapid sequence of events that in early 2004 brought hundreds of homosexual couples—in Massachusetts, California, New York, Oregon, and elsewhere—before religious and public officials who were willing to pronounce them married.

But amid all of the many pundits praising or damning homosexuals for breaking the marriage barrier, few have reflected on just what kind of institution homosexuals—who have never laid hold of marriage in the past—are now claiming. Indeed, if Americans scrutinize carefully the way the national culture has in recent decades re-defined wedlock for heterosexuals, they may well conclude that it is not homosexuals that have changed so much, but rather marriage itself.

Once defined by religious doctrine, moral tradition, and home-centred commitments to child rearing and gender complementarity in productive labour, marriage has become a deracinated and highly individualistic and egalitarian institution, no longer implying commitment to home, to Church, to childbearing, to traditional gender duties, or even (permanently) to spouse.

That homosexuals now want the strange new thing marriage has become should surprise no one: contemporary marriage, after all, certifies a certain legitimacy in the mainstream of American culture and delivers tax, insurance, life-style, and governmental benefits—all without imposing any of the obligations of traditional marriage (which homosexuals decidedly do not want).

Thus, while the attempt to deny homosexuals the right to marry is understandable and even morally and legally justified, such an attempt is probably foredoomed if it does not lead to a broader effort to restore moral and religious integrity to marriage as a heterosexual institution.

Only the ideologically blind would deny that homosexual marriage threatens violence against all the moral and legal traditions that have defined wedlock for millennia. Homosexual activists have themselves asserted that they aim at more than a “mere ‘aping'” of heterosexual marriage: they want homosexual marriage to “destabilize marriage’s gendered definition by disrupting the link between gender and marriage.” They thus value the homosexual wedding ceremony in part because of the “transformation that it makes on the people around us.” But the disruptions in marriage and the accompanying transformations of the American people hardly began with homosexuals or homosexual marriage.

The history of a sea change

To recognize how profoundly mainstream American culture had changed the institution of marriage before a single wedding license had been issued to any homosexual couple is to realize that homosexual marriage culminates a decades-long attack, rather than initiates a distinctively new assault.

Once strongly reinforced by both religious doctrine and legal statute, marriage stood for centuries as the socially obligatory institution that shaped the individual for an adulthood of self-sacrifice and cooperative home-centred labour focused especially on the tasks of childbearing and child rearing.

For centuries, almost all Americans recognized marriage as a divinely ordained union of husband and wife entailing distinctive but complementary gender roles. Nor, until relatively recently, did the imperatives of marital theology lack for this-worldly reinforcement. As historian Allan Carlson has stressed, traditional patterns of “householding” assigned “reciprocal, complementary tasks [to] husbands and wives” engaged in various types of “household production, ranging from tool making and weaving to the keeping of livestock and the garden patch.” Marriage thus defined the very foundation of “a basic economic unit” which “bound each family together” as a “community of work.”

Sustained by their religious beliefs and absorbed in the labours of maintaining an autonomous home, American couples made their wedding vows both fruitful and durable. The fruitfulness of the traditional American marriage accounts for the words of a 19th-century American Congressman proudly inviting a foreign visitor to:

“visit one of our log cabins… There you will find a strong, stout youth of eighteen, with his Better Half, just commencing the first struggles of independent life. Thirty years from that time, visit them again; and instead of two, you will find in that same family twenty-two. That is what I call the American Multiplication Table.”

By the middle of the 20th century, the American supports for marriage had weakened in a number of ways—none of them involving advocates of homosexual marriage. By the 1950s the home’s surrender of productive functions had become so complete that Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin saw it becoming a “mere incidental parking place” for consumption and relaxation. Many wives consequently experienced what one social historian labelled the “festering contradiction of modern womanhood” as their traditional home crafts lost economic value and cultural legitimacy, so threatening to reduce their social status to that of menial parking-place attendants.

Still, for all of its monitory clarity about what could happen, Sorokin’s parking-space metaphor need have been nothing more than hyperbole. The average American family of the 50s and 60s resisted in significant ways the economic pressures undermining the home economy that had traditionally reinforced marriage. Though it had surrendered much, the American family still retained a significant core of its traditional autonomy and self-reliance.

Lamentably, America’s cultural and political elite—none of whom were activists promoting homosexual marriage—chose to subvert rather than renew marriage, not by advocating new rights for gays and lesbians, but simply by acquiescing to the economic processes tearing apart the traditional home economy.

After decades of such acquiescence, poet Wendell Berry could in 1990 fairly characterize the “typical modern household” created by a married heterosexual couple as something very like the “mere incidental parking place” which Sorokin had worriedly anticipated decades before—with exceedingly malign consequences for marriage.

 “The modern household, [Berry writes] is the place where [a] consumptive couple do their consuming. Nothing productive is done there. Such work as is done there is done at the expense of the resident couple or family, and to the profit of suppliers of energy and household technology. For entertainment, the inmates consume television or purchase other consumable diversion elsewhere.”

The religious slide

But the assault on wedlock during the 60s and 70s reflected cultural forces deeper than economics, cultural forces at work long before homosexuals began their strange parade to the wedding altar. Although its immediate effects remained confined to a relatively small elite, the intellectual atheism which historian James Turner sees emerging for the first time in the United States in the late 19th century had become by the mid-20th century a relatively potent force, one that “dis-integrated” our national culture by denying religious belief its traditional function as “a unifying and defining element of that culture.”

Even among Americans who continued to go to church, sociologists witnessed the emergence of dubious new religious attitudes in the post-60s (but pre-homosexual-marriage) world. Pollster George Gallup reported in the 80s that many Americans who professed religious beliefs were beginning to “dodge the responsibilities and obligations” traditionally associated with such beliefs. Post-60s sociological inquiry indeed revealed that those still filling the pews were increasingly inclined to interpret “their religious commitments and beliefs in individualistic terms and less in terms of institutional loyalty and obligation”. Even American Catholics—previously distinctive for their deference to hierarchy and tradition—became “more personally autonomous and less subject to traditional mechanisms of social control.”

Because so much of the traditional understanding of marriage rested upon religious doctrines, eroding popular commitments to those doctrines could only undermine marriage and family life. Sociologists predictably see a close linkage between declining church attendance among young Americans and a rising willingness to engage in premarital sex.

Young women eagerly availed themselves of the Pill in the 60s and 70s largely because they were simultaneously letting go of the New Testament. Whereas only 29 percent of college age females reported having had premarital intercourse in 1965, that percentage had skyrocketed to 63 percent by 1985. In the post-60s world, young Americans were clearly taking their behavioural cues from someone other than St Paul.

Thus many heterosexual couples had made a bad cultural joke of the traditional symbolism of the white wedding dress long before homosexuals tried to make optional a wedding dress of any sort.

Even when heterosexual couples did wed, an increasing number did so unencumbered by the scriptural prohibition against adultery: in a 1983 survey of over 3500 couples, 15-26 percent allowed for “non-monogamy under some circumstances,” while a parallel 1989 British study of married adults found that “of those surveyed under age 35, over one fifth (22 percent) entered their first marriage with no belief in sexual fidelity.”

In 1991, British sociologist Paul Mullen warned that adultery was fast becoming “a participation sport indulged in by the masses,” as “citizens increasingly assume the right to change and vary their erotic attachments.”

Meltdown in religious orthodoxy harmed and de-natured wedlock by destroying more than sexual restraint. As defined by religious tradition, marriage demanded—and taught—a deep capacity for self-sacrifice and selfless service. But self-sacrifice disappeared from the cultural catechism written by the Woodstock Generation. In the same survey, sociologists who limned a decline in religious faith in the 70s and 80s also tracked a sharp rise in “hedonistic values,” an increasing desire for “self-gratification,” and an increasing absorption in the imperatives of “self-actualization.”

This insistent emphasis on Self could only weaken and deracinate wedlock, regardless of whether homosexuals were ever permitted to take vows. But even more astonishing than the widespread rejection of traditional Christian and Jewish doctrines governing marriage and family life was the headlong apostasy of many clergy, particularly in America’s influential mainline Protestant denominations.

As a disgruntled Episcopalian observer has remarked, many mainline Protestant leaders caved in to cultural pressures, riding the turbulent currents of the sexual revolution as they catechized their parishioners in “being tolerant of non-marital liaisons” among heterosexuals and in accepting “new and non-traditional family forms,” including single-parent and cohabiting-parent families.

The loss of the natural anchor of a healthy home economy and the supernatural sanctions of religious doctrine left marriage at the mercy of adverse economic, political, and cultural currents for decades before homosexuals ever sought state and church imprimatur for wedding vows. In curious ways, these currents have combined the wild anarchy of raw individualism with the focused fury of political ideology and corporate greed.

Economic pressures

Once an essential element of the natural home economy, the gender complementarity of wedlock was exposed to particularly negative pressures in the 60s and 70s. As the distinguished economist Gary Becker demonstrated in a landmark study published in 1965—just when those negative pressures were gathering strength—marriage draws institutional strength from a complementary husband-wife division of labour.

Such a gendered marital division of labour had, of course, emerged spontaneously in pre-industrial agrarian cultures, but a somewhat artificial breadwinner/homemaker version of this marital division of labour had remained in place for decades in an industrialized United States, as labour unions demanded and employers and government officials acquiesced in a “family wage” system which paid a married father enough to support an at-home wife and their children, while deliberately keeping married women out of the labour market. However, as religion lost cultural strength in the firestorm of the 60s, employers and government officials turned decisively against the “family wage” system and the marital gender roles it protected. Indeed, lawmakers outlawed the deliberate gender discrimination essential to the “family wage” system.

Corporate employers needed no encouragement for abandoning the family-wage system and attacking marital complementarity: these employers had long recognized that bringing wives into the labour market would drive down wages. Politicians turned against marital complementarity for a more complex mix of reasons. Some were simply responding to the lobbying of corporate employers. Others resonated—consciously or unconsciously—to the ideological imperatives of utopian thinkers (Plato, Campanella, Bellamy, Morris, Wells, Skinner) who dreamed of making all citizens completely devoted to the ideal state as they abolished (or at least weakened) the competing loyalties of marriage and family.

The feminist elements of such utopian ideology gained strength in the 70s as doctrinaire gender-egalitarians rallied round the Equal Rights Amendment, drawing intermittent support from confused wives frustrated and disheartened by the economic and cultural marginalization of their homemaking.

Quietly undermined by the continual erosion of the home economy, directly assaulted by feminist egalitarians, and rendered economically precarious by the disintegration of “the family wage,” the economic gender complementarity of marriage disappeared for millions of couples as millions of wives moved out of the home and into paid employment. Hence, long before homosexuals challenged the male-female sexual complementarity of marriage, the economic complementarity of marriage had already disappeared. In economic terms at least, a growing number of American children had two “fathers” long before advocates of homosexual marriage ever attempted to give children two biologically male parents.

However, the transformation of wives into economic clones of their husbands had the entirely predictable effect of sweeping away most of the remnants of the home economy, as harried employed women increasingly relied on the restaurant for meal preparation and the day-care centre for child care.

Encouraging “child-poor” families

But the obliteration of the economic distinction between husband and wife also inevitably suppressed the biological event that most forcibly defined gender complementarity: childbirth. Marital fertility plummeted in the 70s, pushing overall fertility in the United States below replacement level in what policy analyst Ben J. Wattenberg called “a birth dearth.” Although the US population continued to grow in the 90s because of immigration and increased longevity, the birth dearth continued as the number of DINK (Double Income, No Kids) marriages multiplied.

Though it worried Wattenberg and others, certain groups rejoiced in the disruption of the cultural pattern that traditionally made marriage the foundation for a “child-rich” family. For policymakers and judges in thrall to the Malthusian scare propaganda of a population explosion, the child-poor family was the ideal. In order to discourage married couples from having children, Malthusian policymakers deliberately turned tax policy against large families.

Meanwhile, an activist Supreme Court joined in the war against childbearing directly by creating a legal right to elective abortion (Roe v. Wade [1973]). Further, the Court undermined the marital integrity that had previously given a married father legal standing in life-death decisions about his unborn children (Planned Parenthood of Missouri v. Danforth [1976]).

Severing the link between sex and marriage

Judge-made policy not only helped sever the linkage between childbearing and marriage, but it also helped further weaken the already severely compromised link between marriage and sexual activity. Even if not subverted by pornography and licentiousness, sterile marriages of economic clones became contentious and unstable in post-Sixties America.

As Berry pointedly remarks, when marriage became merely “two careerists in the same bed,” it degenerated into “a sort of private political system in which rights and interest must be constantly asserted and defended.” Such a system actually turned marriage into a “form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.” The radical redefinition of marriage during the latter decades of the 20th century—its legal, economic, and cultural decimation—largely accounts for the sharp drop in the marriage rate after the 60s.

By the 90s, marriage had lost so much of its cultural substance that it hardly seemed worth the bother to many young Americans. Between 1970 and 2000, the marriage rate dropped an astonishing 40 percent. Marriage became so culturally and socially marginal for Americans—heterosexual Americans—that in 1998 one social scientist declared that, in a development that was “novel, perhaps even unique, in human cultural history,” marriage had ceased to be “the definitive criterion for the transition to adulthood” in American society.

The sinking ship

It is in truth the cultural devaluation of marriage that explains why some homosexual activists have reacted to the recent push for homosexual marriage by asking, “Why should we scramble to get onto a sinking ship?” But most of homosexual couples now seeking to be married are doing so precisely because so much of the traditional freight of marriage—complementary gender roles, work in a real home economy, childbearing, sexual fidelity, permanence—has been thrown overboard as the marital ship has settled ever lower in the water.

The strangely de-natured and deracinated thing that marriage has become now appeals to homosexuals because it now offers insurance, employment, lifestyle, and government benefits, while imposing almost none of the obligations it once did. Opponents of homosexual marriage speak the truth when they protest that America makes a mockery of wedlock if it licenses vows for couples who can never have children (without resorting to surrogate mothers or sperm donors), will not resist the temptations to extramarital affairs, and will not preserve their union for a lifetime.

But commentators miss the point when they oppose homosexual marriage on the grounds that it “would undermine traditional understandings of marriage.” It is only because traditional understandings of marriage have already been severely undermined that homosexuals are now laying claim to it.

Though restoring substance to marriage will entail many legal, political, economic, and cultural tasks, it will require above all two things: (1) restoring substance to the marital home economy; (2) reinvigorating religion as a basis for marital and family life.

Berry clarifies what will be required to restore marriage to a healthy home economy when he writes about how “a household economy… [should involve] the work of both wife and husband [and]…[give] them a measure of economic independence and self-protection, a measure of self-employment, a measure of freedom, as well as a common ground and a common satisfaction. Such a household economy may employ the disciplines and skills of housewifery, of carpentry and other trades of building and maintenance, of gardening and other branches of subsistence agriculture, and even of woodlot management and woodcutting. It may also involve a ‘cottage industry’ of some kind.”

The renewing of religion, on the other hand, will require deeper and more challenging changes. However, the prophet Isaiah holds out the promise that “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles.”. Eagles, it should be recalled, mate — male and female — for life.

Bryce Christensen teaches composition and literature at Southern Utah University. This article has been abridged and republished with permission from The Family in America and from the author. For references, please consult the original article.