The Washington Post runs a weekly feature in its Sunday “Outlook” section, examining “Five Myths About” something new each week. Of course the whole point about such a feature is to have a guest writer debunk some notions that are widely believed to be true but aren’t. Therefore it isn’t surprising if someone says of an attempted debunking, “but that isn’t a myth at all–it’s true!” The weekly feature is also fairly space-constrained, so the guest debunker has to give a concentrated dose of truth if he is going to get his argument across. Either that, or he has to choose some easy targets, with the obvious risk that he will appear to have chosen straw men in which no one really does believe.
Jonathan Rauch cannot be accused of picking straw men, in his contribution from the latest “Outlook,” titled “Five Myths About Same-Sex Marriage.” But he has not delivered on the concentrated dose of the truth that this demanding format requires. Four out of his five “myths” are plainly true, completely true, unassailably true, and all Rauch accomplishes is to run aground on the hard shoals of the truth. Only one of his myths, the last one, is in any way a “myth” at all. (It’s also the one that relatively few people believe, as well.) Let’s take them each in turn.
1. Rauch’s first “myth” is that “letting gay couples get married redefines marriage.” He accepts as a “true premise” the proposition that “with few exceptions, marriage has always been about uniting the two sexes and linking mother and father to children.” But he calls it a “false conclusion” to say that changing this means that “marriage ceases to be marriage.” Why is that false? Because, Rauch says, “marriage multitasks.” It’s an institution that does lots of other things, and has various “social benefits” for those brought within its boundaries.
This is true but not exactly on point. Marriage has historically been about many things–about legitimacy of offspring, and inheritance, and the acquisition and transmission of property, and the alliances of families, and even about international relations in the case of royalty. Some feminists would even have us believe that it has been “about” the subjugation of women. We need not disagree with any of these characterizations, even the last one, in order to say that marriage has never, in any culture at any time in history, not been about “uniting the two sexes and linking mother and father to children.”
The “multitasking” description puts me in mind of the “multi-tool” many of us have in a desk drawer or a glove compartment. I have a really good one my wife gave me when I had to live apart from her in another country for several months, and might find that I needed a tool occasionally around my temporary home. (Thoughtful woman I married.) It’s an excellent pair of pliers, though not the best I own, and a good wire-cutter. It’s a serviceable jackknife, and a surprisingly capable mini-saw. Some inch and centimeter markings are etched into one handle. It is several emergency screwdrivers of inferior utility, and a not-terribly-useful file, and it will open bottles and cans. It is not a hammer at all, though you can whack something with its broader surfaces if you must. But clearly its central design structure is as a pair of pliers, with everything else an add-on that the central structure will carry, sticking out here or tucked away there.
Jonathan Rauch treats marriage the way someone would treat my multi-tool by taking it apart, discarding the central pair of pliers, observing the disassembled knife blades and screwdriver bits, and then concluding, “see, it’s still a multi-tool.” If it weren’t for the pliers, the whole would not exist. The same goes for marriage. If there were not, in every human culture, a need to connect men with the women who bear their children, and with the children themselves, marriage would not exist. Treat that central purpose as dispensable, and the institution is disassembled and shapeless.
2. Rauch’s second “myth” is that “same-sex marriage hurts children.” Once again, Rauch (to his credit) does not go easy on himself, accepting another “true premise,” this time that “other things being equal, children do best when raised by their married biological parents.” But again he claims that those of us who believe this have drawn a false conclusion, while it is he himself who commits the fallacy. He writes:
The great enemy of the traditional family in the United States today is not the desire of gay couples to get married; it is the failure of heterosexual couples to get married and stay married.
It is true that the history of modern marriage is a sorry one, with skyrocketing rates of divorce, cohabitation, out-of-wedlock births, not to mention the grim fallout of the contracepting hook-up culture, and the steadily grim abortion rates of recent decades. If men and women lived chastely, ours would be a different culture. But then Rauch claims that “what gays want to do” is to “reinforce the norm of marriage.” Even if we were to credit them with this intention (and when many leading advocates of same-sex marriage–not including Rauch, I will note–sign a statement like “Beyond Marriage,” it is hard to credit), it is hardly within the realm of what could possibly happen as a result of same-sex marriage.
Same-sex marriage advocates often ask the question, “how does it hurt your marriage [that of any heterosexual they are addressing] if two men or two women get married?” This is supposed to be a real argument-killer, because it is hard to give a good answer if one loves one’s wife or husband. It’s not as good a question as they think, since the relevant harm is to an institution, not to any particular relationship. But Rauch seems to fall into the same kind of trap that this question is intended to set. He imagines somehow that the sight of two men or two women getting married will encourage irresponsible young heterosexuals to stop hooking up, having abortions, bearing children without getting married, divorcing one another, etc. If anyone other than Jonathan Rauch believes this for a moment, I would be very surprised.
Marriage as an institution is weaker now than a half century ago. Precisely and only this weakness has made it vulnerable to a new attack in the form of the argument for redefining it (see above) to include same-sex couples. Taking a wounded institution and completing its destruction is not exactly “reinforcing” it.
3. Rauch’s third “myth” is that “a collision with religious liberty is unavoidable.” Absolutely every religious leader of any faith group that holds to the traditional, conjugal understanding of marriage believes this is true. They’re in a position to be informed about what threatens their liberty, and they have a deep interest in being informed. But Rauch thinks it is a myth. Oh wait, except he doesn’t, actually. In fact, he thinks it is “a real problem.” He just thinks it is not an “unmanageable one.” Yet he is remarkably casual about “working out the precise balance.” Probably because the folks doing the working out and the managing will be the ones with the whip hand–the authorities who have brought about the collision with religious liberty that Rauch, after all, concedes is unavoidable. That is, the enforcers of the new normal called same-sex marriage. Somehow I am not reassured.
4. His fourth “myth” is that “the entire country must have the same policy.” He cites the trivial and unimportant differences among the states with respect to consanguinity and age of consent to marry (he mentions divorce too, but just why is a mystery). Meanwhile, the most persistent argument of every same-sex advocate is that their case is exactly like the case of inter-racial marriage, against which quite a few states had laws until the Supreme Court struck them down 45 years ago. It would be nice if Jonathan Rauch were to tell them they’re dead wrong about this, and that the two cases (as I think) could not be more different. But has he ever done this? If he were telling Ted Olson and David Boies to stand down, and calling for litigation of federal claims of a constitutional right to marry to come to a screeching halt because they have no basis in the Constitution, I would believe he means this. But I don’t expect that.
Nor do I expect the advocates of same-sex marriage to support DOMA, and to pester Barack Obama to reverse his position that it should be repealed and the legal defense of it abandoned in federal litigation. If DOMA survives the current legal and political assaults on it–assaults I have never heard Jonathan Rauch denounce, but I might have missed that–then the current shaky status quo of six states-plus-D.C. can be maintained for some indefinite time. Far more likely is that we face the problem Lincoln faced with slavery: that the country must become “all one thing or all the other.” This, by the way, is the very outcome devoutly wished by every other advocate of same-sex marriage I’ve encountered. It’s just where we are, and I don’t know what planet Jonathan Rauch inhabits.
5. Rauch’s fifth myth is that “the battle is almost over.” This is the only myth that is truly a myth in his article.