Gay Marriage Is the Best Traditionalists Could've Hoped For

The most potent threat to marriage was always that secular society might abandon it. Now many are persuaded that it is a timeless human right.

Whitney Curtis/Reuters

Christian traditionalists are filled with pessimism as they watch the rapid spread of same-sex marriage. The most thoughtful harbor no animus toward gays and lesbians. Chris Roberts, a Catholic theologian in Philadelphia, says that while he would decline to bake a cake for the wedding of a longtime gay couple with whom he had a friendly relationship, he would gladly bake one for a birthday party or funeral "to honor their friendship, loyalty and faithful service to each other over years." Ross Douthat declares that, if asked, he'd bring the cake to a party he's attending to celebrate the same-sex marriage of a longtime friend, "but I would be uncomfortable attending same-sex vows in the style of a Catholic Mass." Seeing all opposition to gay marriage cast as irrational bigotry, likened to segregation, and even analogized to the Ku Klux Klan is understandably  dispiriting for them.

What I question is another aspect of traditionalist pessimism on this issue. In 1993, The Nation published an article claiming that gay people were being forced "to invent a complete cosmology" in the course of their struggle for equal rights, and that in doing so, "it’s just possible that a small and despised sexual minority will change America forever" by transforming sexual identity for everyone. Twenty years later, Rod Dreher agreed. "Same-sex marriage strikes the decisive blow against the old order," he wrote. "The Nation’s triumphalist rhetoric from two decades ago is not overripe; the radicals appreciated what was at stake far better than did many—especially bourgeois apologists for same-sex marriage as a conservative phenomenon. Gay marriage will indeed change America forever, in ways that are only now becoming visible. For better or for worse, it will make ours a far less Christian culture. It already is doing exactly that.​"

I disagree. I think that "the radicals" lost.

To be sure, Christian opposition to gay marriage has alienated believers and secularists alike. The fallout from the fight has perhaps made our culture less Christian insofar as some number of people have left their churches over the issue (in part because a subset of traditionalists who are bigoted toward gays has been exposed–mistreatment of gays by some religious people has been a self-inflicted wound). But I remain a "bourgeois apologist for same-sex marriage as a conservative phenomenon" and dispute that same-sex marriage has struck a decisive blow against "the old order." The rapid legalization of same-sex marriage has, I think, been better for traditionalists than would all plausible alternatives in a society where gays are out-and-loved rather than closeted-or-persecuted.

One place to begin is a rainbow bumper sticker I saw earlier this week in Venice Beach, California, on a car that also advertised various slogans and causes of the far left:

The glass-half-empty traditionalist sees a slogan like this and thinks, "Oh goodness, marriage at its core is a procreative institution, and this movement seeks to sever that connection, transforming it into any long term contract between lovers."

That outlook would make more sense if not for the fact that heterosexuals long ago changed the meaning of marriage to encompass (for example) a thrice-married, post-vasectomy male and a post-menopausal female joining together in a union that excludes, via prenuptial agreement, most of their assets. In an alternative world where no one had yet conceived of same-sex nuptials, the U.S. would still operate under a notion of marriage that John Witte Jr., a leading scholar of marriage law and history in the Western world, summed up in a 2002 essay as "a sexual contract designed for the gratification of the individual parties."

The Supreme Court all but declared decades ago that civil marriage in America is not an institution where child-bearing or openness to children is presumed, he noted:

In Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), for example, the Supreme Court struck down a state law banning the use of contraceptives by a married couple as a violation of their freedom to choose whether to have or to forgo children. In Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), the Court stated its rationale clearly: “The marital couple is not an independent entity with a mind and heart of its own, but an association of two individuals, each with a separate emotional and intellectual makeup. If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwanted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting the person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.”

Witte also observed that the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act of 1987 defined marriage simply as "a personal relationship between a man and a woman arising out of a civil contract to which the consent of the parties is essential." He went on to observe, "the Enlightenment ideal of marriage as a privately bargained contract between husband and wife about all their rights, goods, and interests has largely become a legal reality... The strong presumption today is that adult parties have free entrance into marital contracts, free exercise of marital relationships, and free exit from marriages once their contractual obligations are discharged."

Gay marriage has been successful in the courts precisely because, given both the actual behavior of married Americans and the prevailing legal logic of many decades, it was impossible to maintain the fiction that civil marriage remained an inherently procreative institution, even if sacramental marriage in some faiths remains so. It took the arrival of gay marriage to wake some traditionalists up to the fact that that religious and secular notions of what marriage is had long since parted ways. But the logic of same-sex marriage requires no leaps beyond what heterosexuals had already made. It fits within the Enlightenment model of civil marriage as a contract. For traditionalists, its logic is such that nothing new is lost. Yet something is gained for traditionalists. Let's look once more at that bumper sticker:

The glass-half-full traditionalist (if such a person indeed exists) might have a different outlook. They might reflect on the fact that attacks on "traditional marriage" date back to Plato; that there were 19th Century feminists who'd have loved to abolish the institution; that a long line of socialists has sought to undermine it; that the Free Love movement and other parts of 1960s counterculture saw no need for anyone to marry; and that gay-rights radicals of the 1990s had no use for marriage either. And recalling all that, they might imagine the many trajectories under which secularists would've abandoned marriage entirely by now.

Had that happened, it would be harder for the traditionalists who stuck with marriage to live out their vocation in a society organized around different arrangements.

Instead, even leftist activists now embrace large parts of traditional-marriage logic. Their vision of the good life has a family unit at its center. They are mostly not declaring the anti-nuptial belief that "same-sex marriage is perhaps a way of taming the gay community and the power they could contribute to revolutionizing our political and cultural structure." They have not sought to dismantle a system where society attaches benefits to marriage in recognition of its importance. They've sought to join that system, embracing the idea that marriage is so beneficial, natural, and fundamental as to merit exalted status as a human right!

Since secular marriage has long encompassed unions that depart sharply from sacramental marriage, the optimistic traditionalist sees that adding same-sex unions doesn't constitute a loss. And he sees that it is a gain for traditionalists when compared to a world where gays gained visibility and acceptance but never sought marriage rights. What if instead they'd demanded mere tax benefits, hospital visitation, and other material concessions like what has been called "civil unions"? Had that happened, civil unions would've quickly spread from gays to non-traditionalist straights. With the spread of civil unions, all continuity with the past would've been lost. A full break with traditional marriage would've been upon us.

Instead, a culturally influential minority is now included in marriage, so it remains the default way that couples join; religious people are as free as ever to marry in a fully traditional sense; and secular straights retain more traditional aspects and attitudes than they would if they'd switched over to a new paradigm of coupledom.

That story is more plausible to me than the one where traditional marriage survived–despite centuries of changes driven by the Enlightenment–until gays came along and struck the decisive blow against the old order by successfully joining it. If traditionalists stay focused on denying civil marriage to gays, they'll waste their time on a battle they can't win. If they persuade themselves that same-sex nuptials have struck the decisive blow against marriage, they'll stop trying to influence the institution entirely. But if traditionalists pick their battles, it is conceivable to me that a decade or two hence, even as same-sex marriage is legal everywhere in the United States, there could also be a significant increase in the number of religious people who embrace the orthodox parts of their respective marriage traditions and a significant decrease in the society-wide divorce rate.

One reform Wittes proposes that could conceivably gain support from the religious and secular worlds would add a bit of paternalism to the front end of marriage.

"Today, in most states, marriage requires only the acquisition of a license from the state registry followed by solemnization before a licensed official... with little waiting, with no public celebration, without notification of others," he wrote. "So sublime and serious a step in life seems to demand a good deal more prudent regulation than this. It may well not be appropriate in every case to invite parents and peers, ministers and magistrates to evaluate the maturity and compatibility of the couple. Our modern doctrines of privacy and disestablishment of religion militate against this. But, especially in the absence of such third parties, the state should require marital parties themselves to spend some time weighing their present maturity and prospective commitment. A presumptive waiting period of at least ninety days between formal engagement and wedding day seems to be reasonable, given the stakes involved, particularly if the parties are under twenty-five... Probationary waiting periods, particularly for younger parties, are routinely required to enter a contract for a home mortgage, or to procure a license to operate a motor vehicle or handgun. Given the much higher stakes involved, marital contracts should be subject to at least comparable conditions."

That's just one example of how traditionalists might influence secular marriage culture, even having lost the battle over whether civil marriage should require two genders. As Witte says, "marriage has always found the resources to heal and reinvent itself, to strike new balances between orthodoxy and innovation, order and liberty, with regard to our enduring and evolving sexual, marital, and familial norms and habits. The prospect of healing and reinvention is no less likely today so long as academics, activists, and advocates, political, religious, and civic leaders ponder these problems in good faith and direct their resources to good works."