Having an affair is one of the most immoral things you can do, according to a new Gallup poll. As Eleanor Barkhorn reported last week, a survey of 1,535 American adults found that 91 percent considered extramarital infidelity to be morally wrong, a higher percentage than objected to human cloning, suicide, and polygamy. The poll aside, it's difficult to think of any other relatively common and technically legal (adulterous affairs are no longer subject to criminal sanction) practice of which more of us disapprove.
While this same poll showed growing acceptance of divorce, pre-marital sex, and having babies out of wedlock, the 91 percent disapproval rate for cheating is nearly twice what it was 40 years ago, when similar surveys showed that only half of American adults believed that having an affair was always wrong. As political scientist John Sides notes in a recent detailed analysis of changing attitudes towards adultery, "Americans, and especially better educated Americans, have become less accepting of adultery with the passage of time." Pointing out the simultaneously growing acceptance for ending an unhappy union, Sides summarizes what he sees as our contemporary attitude: "If you're in an unhappy marriage, don't cheat. Just get divorced."
These dramatic shifts in attitudes towards both divorce and infidelity are driven by a changed but still seductive marriage ideal. The culture war over same-sex marriage may or may not be nearly over, but one thing is clear: So many people care about who can get married—and what constitutes a marriage—that the issue of marriage equality has become the defining civil rights cause of our era. If marriage no longer held much of a hold on our collective and individual imaginations, we wouldn't be having the impassioned arguments we're having in state capitals, in the Supreme Court, and at the family dinner table.