David Blankenhorn thinks the gay marriage debate has reached a dead end. He wants it to go in a new direction. Thus A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage , a manifesto of sorts from the Institute for American Values.
Blankenhorn wants to form a coalition of the willing to renew the culture of marriage in America. I’m sympathetic, having written in the “The Future of Marriage” (January 2013) that we need to challenge the proponents of gay marriage to support the marriage part of the agenda and not just the gay part.
But I’m skeptical about the Call.
First there’s the pejorative way it describes the “current conversation” as a “at a dead end.” And the current question? It’s “Should gays marry?” So the Call is pretty clear: people like me should stop contributing to the “dead end conversation,” which means stop rejecting the notion that gays should marry. How, exactly, is that a “new conversation”? On the contrary, that’s the gay rights side of the old conversation.
Second, there’s the way in which the Call describes the “new conversation.” It’s not about, say, changing divorce laws, or introducing a pro-marriage curriculum into public education. Nor is it about criticizing high profile celebrities who flaunt marriage norms and have children out of wedlock. That would be an “agenda,” not a “conversation.”
But what’s worse, the leading topic of this “new conversation” is “Who among us, gay or straight, wants to strengthen marriage?” That’s pretty empty, because it all depends on what it means to “strengthen marriage.”
As I argued in “The Future of Marriage,” we should be willing to join forces with anyone who will do what it takes to rebuild the culture of marriage. Coalitions to achieve specific goals don’t need to agree about everything, and there’s no reason why Jonathan Rauch, a board member of the Institute for American Values and signer of the Call, can’t join with me to roll back no-fault divorce—or impose a divorce tax, as I’ve suggested in the past.
What does it mean to use the “who among us” rhetoric, without any specific proposals? What does it mean when that’s married (sorry) to a rhetoric that describes one way of strengthening marriage—the defense of traditional marriage—as taking us to a “dead end”?
As I’ve written elsewhere, gay marriage is a luxury good for the rich, paid for by the poor. Not everybody in the “new conversation” has to agree with my claim, but any serious discussion of marriage has to reckon with the antinomian symbolism of gay marriage. To rule it out as taking us to a “dead end” because it’s inconsistent with the new politically correct orthodoxy means that the “new conversation” is a limited one.
There are some defenders of marriage that are so bitter about liberalism’s insouciance about the basic building block of society that they won’t in fact join forces with anyone who supports gay marriage, even to change divorce laws for the better, or to launch an advertising campaign championing the benefits of marriage. I hope I’m not among them, but they exist.
But the plain fact of the matter is that it’s been the progressive left that has been absent from the pro-marriage cause. (To call gay marriage activism “pro-marriage” isn’t serious: it’s a gay rights project, not a pro-marriage one.) I wish David the best of luck in bringing them into his new conversation, but I’m not optimistic. The antinomian symbolism of gay marriage is accepted and affirmed, because our progressive politics is focused on personal liberation. Marriage doesn’t fit well into that politics, because it binds and limits.