A Modest (Marriage) Proposal

Jonathan Rauch talks about his quest to establish a middle ground in the gay-marriage debate

book cover

Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America
[Click the title
to buy this book] by Jonathan Rauch
Times Books
207 pages, $22.

As anyone who has tried to discuss the issue in politically mixed company knows, reactions to the idea of gay marriage tend to be emotional and polarized. "Love Makes a Family" has little overlap with "God Didn't Make Adam and Steve." In the no-man's-land between the front lines of this impending culture war, Jonathan Rauch—Atlantic correspondent, social commentator, and marriage enthusiast—has staked out a compromise position. His recent book, Gay Marriage, proposes that by ignoring traditional arguments and thinking instead about the consequences of gay marriage for society as a whole, most Americans will find themselves able to agree that gay marriage is what he calls a win-win-win.

The winning parties in this scenario are gays, straights, and America as a whole. Taking as a starting point an affection for and belief in the institution of marriage as both an indispensable personal support system and a stabilizing social force, Rauch argues that it should be a matter of general concern that marriage is suddenly in competition with alternatives that fail to fulfill its uniquely positive functions. He suggests that as gay couples, excluded from marriage, create their own increasingly visible and successful arrangements, marriage will begin to seem less attractive to everyone, leading people to seek out the benefits of marriage without accepting the socially essential responsibilities that go along with it. These unions will be less supportive for the people in them and also more likely to fall apart, leaving society responsible for individuals no longer taking care of each other. Rauch also predicts that as homosexuality becomes more accepted, an exclusive version of marriage will be further weakened because it will seem incompatible with the values of fairness and equality.

As a determined pragmatist and a believer in tradition, Rauch doesn't fit the usual profile of a gay-marriage advocate. But he seeks to use this to his argument's advantage, suggesting a way to reconcile the equal-rights and libertarian supporters of gay marriage with its religious and traditionalist opponents. At a time when recent and impending same-sex marriages in San Francisco, Massachusetts, and elsewhere are forcing the issue into the national consciousness, and when the two sides have argued themselves down to irreconcilable principles, this new approach may prove to have considerable appeal and influence around the water cooler. And the water cooler, the office holiday party, the neighborhood, and the local and state political institutions these social institutions feed into are where Rauch suggests that the question of gay marriage will and should be decided.

Jonathan Rauch is an Atlantic correspondent, a senior writer and columnist for National Journal, and a writer in residence at the Brookings Institution. Before Gay Marriage, his most recent book was Government's End: Why Washington Stopped Working (1999). He is vice president of the Independent Gay Forum and lives outside Washington, D.C. An excerpt from Gay Marriage ran in the April Atlantic.

We spoke by telephone on Friday, April 9, 2004.

—Sarah Cohen

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Jonathan Rauch

When and how did you decide to write this book?

I've been thinking and writing about gay marriage since 1995, and have been thinking and writing about American families since the late eighties. Back then I was writing about economics, and it became pretty clear as I researched that a lot of what we think of as problems of poverty and crime, for example, are really offshoots of the collapse of the family. With fatherlessness and single parenthood increasing, there were whole portions of America where marriage was becoming rare. I'm a big believer in marriage, and I'm convinced that same-sex marriage is a way to help strengthen marriage; it's part of the solution to marriage's problems. So that's where I'm coming from.

And then, of course, the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in June, and everybody panicked, and then came the Massachusetts decision, ordering same-sex marriage as of May 17. It seemed like it was really time to put some of these ideas out there, so everybody worked very fast. I wrote the book in August and September and it was edited by December.

One of the most striking things about the book is its very measured and logical tone. Did you consider alternatives to this approach?

No, that's just the way I write—sometimes I think I might be a more effective writer if I were more polemical. But there is also a further dimension: I do feel that there's a burden on advocates of same-sex marriage, since it's a big change, to show that we have thought very seriously about this and that we really do have good answers to the strongest arguments that the opponents can make. So I made a very deliberate effort to try to avoid inflammatory rhetoric or grandstanding. I just tried to surgically dissect the arguments, to really look at what's behind them.

What do you think about the marriages in San Francisco?

I can't decide what I think, to be honest. I think, on balance, that it was probably not a very wise thing to do. But my head goes one way and my heart goes another. My head says that it's not a good idea for elected officials to protest the laws they're supposed to enforce—that that's a role that other people should play. But my heart says there's never a good time for a civil-rights protest. Elected officials are capable of reading the state constitution, and it's not unreasonable for them to say that a law that's on the books violates the constitution. What I think would have been absolutely wrong would have been for Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, to say he was going to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of a court order to stop. That would have been a real threat to the rule of law. He did not do that, and, in fact, two courts ruled in three separate rulings that he could continue to issue the licenses. So to that extent he actually had the court's sanction. And then, when the higher courts said "stop," he stopped. At the end of the day, I think it's a really close call.

I'm a little bit surprised to hear you characterize gay marriage so emphatically as a civil-rights issue, because the book seems to shy away from that emphasis.

I think that gay marriage is a civil-rights issue, but it's not only a civil-rights issue; it's also a family-policy issue and a morals issue. My book discusses some arguments that have to do with civil rights; I do argue it's wrong to say that gays don't matter, that if what's good for them is bad for somebody else, to heck with them. But many people have already covered the civil-rights aspect of this extremely well, so the rest of my book focuses on the social arguments for gay marriage, which I think are very important.

This is a loaded debate, and a lot gets lost if all we're talking about is equality and what the law says. It's a problem if same-sex marriage advocates wind up having to say, "Well, equality requires us to be included in this institution even though that is going to harm millions and millions of other Americans." First of all, that's not true. But second of all, it's potentially a really big setback to making the case effectively. So I thought it was very important to explain that this is not a win-lose situation. This is not gays attacking marriage or gays against straights. I wanted to show that there are enormous social benefits here.

What do you think the effect will be of the San Francisco and other civil-rights-protest marriages?

The main effect so far has been to show gay Americans that they do have friends in the straight world. And that's a breakthrough, because until now the presumption among gay people has been, "Straight people don't really care, and we're on our own." That has given people a huge boost. The second big effect will be to show straight America that this is an issue they've got to wrestle with. The marriages that have already been performed show that a lot of people do view the gay-marriage movement as a struggle for equality and freedom, and I think that has led more Americans to grapple with this issue. The effect may be even bigger when genuine marriage licenses are issued in Massachusetts on May 17—genuine meaning legal, enforceable licenses.

So you're not too worried about a political backlash?

Oh, heck yes. We're having a huge political backlash right now. State after state is passing constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. The Virginia legislature has passed a law which not only bans same-sex marriage but also bans civil unions. It even bans private arrangements between people of the same sex that would confer some benefits of marriage: two people can't even make a contract with each other in private. There's also the movement to ban same-sex marriage nationally, which is a radical new intrusion into states' power, as well as a very bad idea for marriage. So there's an enormous backlash.

What's your sense of the best-case scenario, proceeding from the situation as it is now?

For me, the crucial thing is for the federal government to keep its nose out of this. I think that it's much too early in the process to contemplate the Supreme Court, for example, ordering same-sex marriage. The law says that the states should decide this, and constitutional jurisprudence has upheld that. On the other hand, it would be an even bigger mistake for the federal government to ban same-sex marriage forever, even in states where the population was in favor of it. That would guarantee that we would spend the next five decades creating alternatives to marriage, and marriage would become one item on a menu of options.

If we don't do either of those things, I think the best scenario is that a state or two will try same-sex marriage and we'll have a chance to find out how well it works. Gay people will finally have the opportunity to show that we are good marital citizens, and that our participation strengthens the institution of marriage by making it more universal. In time, I think, other states would come to see that gay marriage is a benefit, not a threat, and would adopt it.

Do you think that the state-by-state approach would cause any harmful demographic changes by driving gay people out of the no-marriage states?

No, I think that the effects would be good. One of the great strengths of our federalist system is that it lets people choose to live in a place where the moral and legal climate is congenial to them. That's the genius of our system: it doesn't force everyone to have the same law and live in the same kind of place. The public is still making up its mind on gay marriage, and different regions feel radically differently. California, especially northern California, is not a bit like Oklahoma. So the divide is already there. The big mistake would be to pretend it isn't and to enforce a single national policy that half the country would dissent from.

That's the mistake we made with abortion. Or, actually, that's the mistake the Supreme Court made with abortion, and they started a thirty-year culture and legal war which shows no signs of abating: every judicial nomination is infected with abortion politics, states pass law after law looking for ways to criminalize abortion. If the Supreme Court hadn't imposed a single national policy, today virtually all states would have legal abortion. One or two might not, and those would be places where people who think abortion is murder would be able to live in a legal climate conducive to their view of the world. Then this whole vicious culture war wouldn't have happened. So, bottom line, I feel that federalism makes us stronger and more unified as a country. It's a strength, not a weakness.

Would you be willing to speculate on whether you think the gay-marriage question will go that way?

I'm cautiously optimistic. I think that passing a constitutional amendment is hard, and that the public doesn't support it. Public opinion is evenly split, at best, on the question of amending the Constitution, so I'm cautiously optimistic that a national federal ban wouldn't pass. On the other side, I'm also pretty optimistic that this time the Supreme Court will have the sense to let the states do their thing. This court in particular has been extremely deferential to states' authority. I think they learned a lesson from Roe v. Wade. There's also the very important fact that we have more than a hundred years of jurisprudence, virtually uncontested, that says marriage is up to the states and that states do not have to recognize each other's marriages. So for all these reasons—political, social, and especially legal—I'm cautiously optimistic that we can get the win-win-win.

Do you think that at the state level the courts have a legitimate role in this, that the charge that activist judges are overstepping their bounds is false?

State judges absolutely have a role, and that role should be defined by the state constitution and the people of the state. If people don't like what the courts in their states are doing, they can change the constitution, or change their judges. Massachusetts is on its way to putting through a constitutional amendment which would ban same-sex marriage, enact civil unions, and then put this to a vote of the people. A popular referendum in Massachusetts would decide this issue. This is not only not a threat to democracy—it doesn't get any more democratic than this.

What do you think the legal and social status of Massachusetts same-sex marriages will be if the state does amend the constitution to ban gay marriage? Will the fact of legal marriages, even short-lived ones, change anyone's attitudes?

My understanding is that the marriages themselves will convert to civil unions. In terms of public perception, they might change attitudes in both directions at once. My guess is that legal marriages will win at least some local support for gay marriage, because when gay couples come home with marriage licenses, their friends and neighbors will see that the sky hasn't fallen, and that communities and families are stronger when people are married. The opposing view is that people will be so resentful of what the judges did that there will be a backlash. These things are hard to predict.

What kinds of reactions have the book and your ideas received?

It's still early days, but what I anticipate is that this book will take flack from both the left and the right. It will take flack from the right, obviously, because it is for gay marriage. It will take flack from the left because it is for marriage. The message of this book is that marriage is unique and superior to other arrangements for couples and society, that it's privileged and should be privileged. One of the things that same-sex marriage will do is strengthen the special place that marriage has in America, and there are quite a few people on the left who don't want marriage to be privileged. They don't want the government to have any kind of favorite relationship, so they'll be uncomfortable with this.

Have there been any surprises from people who have read the book or the article in The Atlantic?

Well, one very heartening thing that I often hear is married straight people telling me that this book has greatly deepened their appreciation of marriage. That means a whole lot to me, because to me this is a book not just about gay marriage but about marriage. A lot of people in America have come to think of marriage as just a document from the government and a package of benefits. This book says marriage is something much more than that: it's a promise that the couple makes, not just to each other, but to their community. That's what elaborate weddings are for, and that's why people ask spouses every day, "How's your husband? How's your wife?" and expect them to know. The community has an enormous stake in marriage, and plays an enormous role in investing in a marriage, supporting it, and making it hard to get out of. If someone says, "I'm getting a divorce," their friends and neighbors and family and coworkers don't say, "Bully for you!" They say, "Oh, gosh, that's too bad, I'm sorry." And what they're saying there is, "We had a stake in this too, and divorce is a sad event, sad for all of us." Even if a couple doesn't have kids, divorce still means that two more people are out there on their own, and that means more vulnerability and more insecurity.

How did your understanding of marriage and its importance develop?

Gosh, just so much thinking and writing over the years. Sometimes I wonder if a lot of straight people might take marriage for granted because they're so used to it. They don't see it the way a fish doesn't see water. When you're excluded from the culture of marriage, the hope of marriage, all the benefits and responsibilities of marriage, maybe it's a little easier to appreciate what you're missing than what you already have.

Do you think that marriage in America is pretty monolithic, or are there significant differences having to do with race or class or geography?

The legal institution is completely monolithic and the social institution is also fairly monolithic. One of the great strengths of marriage is that everybody knows what it is. Everybody knows it's the obligation to look after your partner and make it your job, no matter what else happens, to be there for that person. Everybody also takes for granted that a certain package of legal benefits comes with it. Although the social status of marriage is, I think, pretty monolithic, there has been an enormous broadening, within the last thirty years, of the way people actually conduct their marriages. I think that for the most part that's a good thing, because it means a marriage can accommodate a greater variety of couples. But the big change has not been marriage becoming less monolithic in itself, it's that society has become much less monolithic in its commitment to marriage as opposed to non-marriage. A third of all American children are born out of wedlock. Among African-Americans it's almost 70 percent. Cohabitation has soared—that is, couples deciding not to get married at all, or deferring marriage. There's also divorce, which is stable now, but is at very high levels compared to any earlier time in our history.

Do you favor social programs that go into inner cities to try to encourage marriage?

I do. There's a lot of experimentation going on with social work that tries to shore up families, and shoring up families means shoring up marriage, because marriage is what glues families together. That means trying to help teach people how to be married and what being married means. These programs are far from the magic bullet, but the evidence shows that they can make a difference.

From your research, do you have a sense of how they make a difference?

Every program is different, and there's no template. There are all kinds of approaches being used: counseling, for example, and I believe there are some incentive-based programs that provide benefits to people who get married. There are also cultural programs that try to spread the word about marriage, because there are whole neighborhoods in this country where a stable married couple is an exotic thing. I don't know about you, but I grew up in a world where most adults were married. If they were divorced, they were looking to marry again, because they all took for granted that marriage was in their lives or in their future.

Marriage-promotion efforts are being made by lots of community groups in different places all over the country, and they're very tailored to particular situations and particular client groups. For example, a single mother who is not in contact with the father of her children and who wants to go out into the marriage market is in a very different position from an unmarried couple who have a child and are trying to decide whether to get married.

Do you think that marriage as it exists today is better or more special than marriage as it has existed historically, or do you think the institution has, even in its wide variety, always conferred the same sorts of benefits?

Marriage has definitely changed enormously. Within my lifetime marriage in some states was only between people of the same race. Within my lifetime divorce was much harder to get. If you want to talk about a change in marriage which is really enormous and significant, it used to be taken for granted that "til death do us part" really meant "til death do us part." Getting a divorce used to be a legal nightmare, and in some countries divorce wasn't necessarily even possible; you'd have to get an annulment. I'm not sure if America was one of those countries; it may have been, as recently as the mid-nineteenth century. The liberalization of divorce laws in the sixties and seventies was revolutionary: it completely changed the terms of marriage. Some people like that and some people don't, but it had far more effect on marriage than anything gay marriage is likely to do, because it affects every couple in the terms of their marriage.

Then you can go back earlier. It was considered revolutionary, and by some an offense against nature and God, when the laws were changed in the nineteenth century to allow wives to own their own property and have economic independence. Until fairly recently, young people couldn't decide whom to marry; that decision was considered to belong by right to their parents, and marriage was essentially a business alliance between families. And of course polygamy has been the norm in most human cultures, though not a single one of those cultures has been liberal or democratic. King Solomon had, what, 500 wives? So marriage is in constant flux, and it always will be, and it always should be. It has to be.

Throughout all of these changes, have the benefits of marriage, as you describe them in the book, persisted? Or are those benefits specific to marriage as it exists in America today?

I think that the three central functions of marriage have persisted pretty well. One is child-rearing; another is providing domestic stability, which is especially important for young people and people who need to get themselves established. In the days when marriage was a business arrangement, you couldn't really start your life until you were married. The third function is providing a safety net for everybody, providing someone whose job it is to look after each individual. In earlier forms of marriage, the sex roles were very different, very structured. We've gotten away from that, something I think is all for the good. What we haven't gotten away from is that over the centuries the basic commitment of the marriage vow, which is a commitment to care for another person come what may, has pretty much remained the true north for marriage.

Do you think that channeling people's attention toward family life and domesticity inhibits any creativity or energies that might be directed at other kinds of achievements?

No, it frees people up to have energetic and exciting personal lives. You can't go out and have the kind of risk-taking career that a lot of people want if you don't have a home to go back to that's pretty stable and supportive.

Does that require one spouse to do more of the supporting?

No, I think it requires mutual support in the creation of the home and in the knowledge someone will go looking for you if you don't come home at night. That's just essential; home is where someone looks after you, and family is your base. Married people are healthier, happier, more prosperous, and more secure. They have fewer problems with depression and crime, they lead longer lives—by every measure we can calculate, married people do better on average, and that's even after you account for the differences in the married and unmarried populations. This isn't to say that single people can't do wonderful things, and don't do wonderful things, but I think marriage is a help, not a hindrance.

In the book you describe the increasing normalization of homosexuality as a "bend in the river of history." Do you have a theory about what caused history to take that turn? Or is there a moment you'd identify when the "bend" became inevitable?

There's no moment; it's just a realization over the past thirty to forty years that there are some people who are so constituted as to be homosexual. It's the understanding that these people are not misbehaving heterosexuals, that homosexuality is not chosen, that it is not changeable, that it is not pathological, and that some small minority of the population just is this way and poses no threat to anybody else. Of course, today there are still a great many people who don't believe that, but many people now do. Once that's accepted, then gay marriage seems a natural thing, because it's not going to mean that lots of straight people suddenly decide to have same-sex marriages and forgo having children. It just means including gay people in the same social compact that straight people make.

I think the acceptance came about as straight people started knowing gay people, starting in the late 1960s. Gay people became much less willing to hide and much more assertive about the fact that they were not sick and they were not dangerous—and they were not going to be treated as if they were. Now a lot of Americans know someone personally who is gay, or have someone in their family who is gay, and other Americans see this on TV. This makes it all seem much less scary and weird.

Do you think that popular culture has a role to play in the gay-marriage debate?

It certainly has its effects, but I think it's as much following as leading. It's part of the general trend toward acceptance of the fact that homosexuality exists. As for its role in the future, I really look forward to the day when you see happily married gay couples on TV. I think that's a great advertisement for marriage, because it will further underline that marriage is something that everyone should be allowed and encouraged to do.

Do you think cohabitation on TV is moving things in the other direction?

Well, as I said, culture and TV are as much effects as causes. Do you remember what Dan Quayle said around 1990, that it does not help when a popular TV show like Murphy Brown extols the benefits of single parenthood? Obviously single parenthood is a part of life, it shouldn't be hidden or disguised, but if you have a situation where it's fashionable for people to be portrayed as unmarried, that doesn't help exemplify marriage. By the same token, if you ban same-sex marriage, the inevitable result is that you turn every gay couple into a poster-child for cohabitation. You say to the world: look how great life can be outside of marriage. And there are already enough heterosexuals out there looking for excuses or reasons not to get married. I think that's exactly the wrong message to send and it just baffles me why conservatives would want to send it.

Is there anybody else making similar arguments to yours?

Yes, Andrew Sullivan, for example, and I think Dale Carpenter at the University of Minnesota, although he's more interested in the legal side. Most people thinking about this issue, though, are either coming from the gay-rights movement and view marriage mainly as a matter of civil rights and not social benefits, or they're coming from the religious right and think of it as a matter of morality and a referendum on homosexuality. The kind of thinking I'm doing here in this book is much newer. It says, Wait a minute, let's think about family policy. That's much more recent, because family-policy thinkers in this country were busy doing other things and didn't really see gay-marriage coming.

It does seem to have come about unexpectedly quickly.

Tell me about it. My head is spinning.

Were the developments of the past couple of years surprising to you?

I vividly remember a conversation that I had with my father in the fall of 1995. He advised me not to write about gay marriage, not because of his views on the subject, but because he said it would marginalize me. He thought that gay marriage was a wacko, out-there idea that no one would take seriously, and that if I wrote about it, I wouldn't be taken seriously. In 1995, that was how the world looked.

It's not even ten years later and now you've got millions of good-hearted Americans wrestling with this issue and taking it very seriously, whereas just a few years ago they would have said, "Don't be ridiculous, I'm not even going to talk about it, get out of my face with that garbage." The moral debate we're having now is one of the most touching and moving things I've ever lived through. Obviously not everyone agrees with me, and I don't expect them to. But at the end of the day, Americans are morally very serious people. They're weighing this carefully, really thinking about it. I'm very happy to have lived to see that.

Do you think that people who are weighing it are weighing it increasingly from a social-policy point of view?

No, they're weighing all kinds of things, but I think they're mostly searching for a way to do right by their gay friends and fellow citizens. Not all of them are; some say that homosexuality is disgusting and these people should just get off the planet. But a lot of people are saying, "Okay, I don't want to change something as basic as marriage if I don't have to, but I do want to do right by my gay fellow citizens. How do I do that?"

I'm curious about your decision to use the first person and personal experience in the book. Was that an easy decision to make?

Yes, because that's how I write, and also because it's important for people to know I have a vested interest so that they can evaluate the book properly. I also talked about my own experience because it's important for people to understand that we're talking about real people's lives. This isn't just theoretical; there are 9, 12, 15 million Americans—roughly the population of Illinois—who are deprived of the single most important social institution in adult life: that is, marriage. Most people would rather give up the vote than marriage, and a lot of people, real people, are being excluded from that. Real people are unable to care for their partners because they are being shut out of hospital rooms. Real people are finding their partners shut out of the country because they're classified as unrelated individuals. Real people are losing their houses when one of them dies. And on and on. The point I'm making is there's a lot of real injury being done, and people need to know that these are real human beings, real individuals, and every individual counts.

Back to the equal-rights argument?

Equality is very important, don't get me wrong. Extremely important. But it's also about basic decency; it's about do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you wouldn't be willing to tell 12 million straight Americans, "tough, you can't get married, it's not convenient for the rest of us," then you shouldn't do that to 12 million gay Americans, not just as a matter of equality but as a matter of basic humanity.

We are a better and stronger country when we do our utmost to treat all individuals with respect and to open opportunity to every individual. And we're a stronger country when our civic institutions are universal institutions, when they're defined by what they oblige instead of by whom they exclude. Voting is stronger because women can vote, and marriage will be stronger when gays can marry.

You say "when gays can marry." Do you think it's inevitable that gay marriage will eventually be legal?

Well, it looks like it's almost inevitable that it will be legal on May 17 in Massachusetts, so I'm willing to say to that question, almost certainly yes. If you mean will it be legal on every square inch of American soil? I think that might be a long way off. Will it become broadly accepted? Yes, I'm cautiously optimistic that it will be. I think if we do this with due deliberation people will see that it works, and will see that it's a positive thing. States and citizens across the country will come around to thinking it's a good thing. but I think that it will take a while. The majority of the country is still against it. A significant minority thinks that homosexuality is a very bad thing and that gay people, if they want to do that, should do it in private, with no help from the government and no other form of recognition.

Do you think that gradual social change is better than sweeping social change as a rule, or is it specific to the situation?

Sometimes sweeping social change is necessary. Take the Civil War—a horrible thing, a really horrible thing. If it had taken ten years longer to abolish slavery and we could have avoided the Civil War, I would take that deal. But sometimes you're not left with any alternative to social dislocation.

The genius of America, though, is that normally we don't back ourselves into a corner that way. And by temperament, I'm a radical incrementalist. I believe in fomenting revolutionary change on the geological time scale. My friend David Frum, who is an avid opponent of gay marriage and a self-professed conservative, will tell you that he thinks I'm the only real conservative in Washington, in the sense of generally taking the view that you can achieve almost anything if you have a little bit of patience. And, as Gypsy Rose Lee the stripper once put it, "Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly."

Is that part of why you chose to argue in such a reasoned, measured way?

That's a soft-ball question! But yes, I think that's the great thing about our country, that if you have a case, people will listen to you. That's not necessarily true in the short term, where demagoguery often rules. But in the longer term, when people stop panicking and start thinking—which they inevitably do—they do evaluate argument. And that's why I wrote this book. I have a lot of confidence in the ability of the American people to understand that the universal culture of marriage will be a good thing.