Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

My dear friend and intellectual collaborator Dan Kelly argues today that “marriage is dead.” I respect Dan as a man who says what he thinks without fear or favor; that’s why I value both his friendship and his co-labor. He’s not going to start pretending liberalized divorce is a good idea just because he sees its continued dominance as inevitable. But I feel a need to register my dissent from his forensic diagnosis.

As I have written in this space before , I think marriage is gravely threatened but the battle to save it is winnable. That hasn’t always come through to some people, because I’ve challenged the marriage movement’s strategy and language on some issues. But I do think marriage can be saved. Without the time to go into a lengthy discourse, here are my reasons for dissenting from my good friend and intellectual comrade.

Firstly, I agree with Dan that homosexuality is a distraction; the root cause of our problem is liberalized divorce laws. Liberalized divorce establishes fully and indisputably that marriage is a meaningless piece of paper. (This was the transformative insight I got from Maggie Gallagher’s The Abolition of Marriage , of which I’ve written before.) In my opinion, it is only because liberalized divorce has established that marriage is a meaningless piece of paper that gay marriage makes deep intuitive sense to people, while opposition to gay marriage seems like it could have no cause but irrational hatred. I take it from his comments Dan would more or less agree. Kevin Williamson’s famous comments about gay marriage from earlier this year include some mistaken thinking and conclusions, but he was right to argue that liberalized divorce is the only issue that ultimately matters:

I might be more interested in the politics of [gay] marriage if the legal standing of the institution were not already degraded to the point of triviality. Here is an experiment: Imagine that you have a marriage that you wish to escape and $50,000 of credit-card debt that you do not wish to pay — which claim do you imagine will prove more enduring? Or try unilaterally canceling a contract with an employee, without showing any fault on his part, simply because he no longer suits your taste. Your contract with your cell-phone provider is legally enforceable, and your marriage vows — “forsaking all others until death do us part” and all that — are not. Our present-day defenders of the sanctity of marriage aren’t exactly Thomas More standing up to Henry VIII; they are huddled around the husk of an institution long debased.

Now we come to disagreements. Dan argues that “marriage is dead” because “there is a broad and deep consensus that we are well rid of it, and we don’t want it to come back.” I take him to mean, not that the culture never affirms marriage in the abstract as a value, but that there is a “broad and deep consensus” for liberalized divorce laws.

I agree that there is a broad consensus for liberalized divorce laws, but I do not think it is “deep.” Indeed, I think it is shallow and fragile. It can be broken, if we have the wisdom to redirect our efforts toward breaking it.

The forces at the top of the culture are already waking up on these issues . They have recognized that the breakdown of marriage threatens all their most cherished values: equality of opportunity for all and especially for the poor, equality of dignity across social strata (what some call “social equality”), and protection of the interests of women and children. This has been growing for some time and to my view (these things are subjective) it looks ready to reach a tipping point.

Admittedly, the dominant cultural forces are not yet willing to take that final, Rubicon-crossing step and retract their support for liberalized divorce. But that step is “final” in two senses. It is final in the sense that it is the step that ultimately matters, which is why their failure to take it looks so irreversable in Dan’s eyes; but it is also final in the sense that it comes at the end of a long journey. They have been moving toward it for a generation. Ten years ago, who would have expected the New York Times to run a long think piece about how the breakdown of marriage inevitably creates a two-class society? So who is to say the momentum can’t continue?

They have not yet taken the only step that matters, but they can be made to take that step. That’s why I say the broad consensus for liberalized divorce is fragile. And there is a logical path to breaking it.

It’s to rub their noses in the failure of their preferred solutions. They’ve admitted this is a big problem - indeed, a dire one. But their solutions don’t work. The next step is to offer a solution that manifestly does work and then demand to know: “if not this, what?” There are challenges to doing this effectively - you have to do it in such a way that they don’t feel like they have to sacrifice their position at the top of the culture, their credibility as cultural leaders, by adopting your solutions. We don’t want to displace them from the top of the culture, we want to force them to co-opt our preferred solution and pretend it was their idea all along . That can be done. Numerous social movements have done it on other issues in the past. This is where my concern to “deinstitutionalizing enmity” comes in - we want to defeat liberalized divorce, not conquer our unbelieving neighbors and subjugate them to Christianity.

I also think Dan - characteristically - overestimates the relative importance of the law’s coercive function and underestimates its teaching and formative function. Dan argues marriage has been hollowed out legally because we changed our conception of what it was. I think the causation runs just as much the other way - the hollowing out of our conception of what marriage is has been driven to a large extent by raising several generations successively in a country where marriage’s status as a meaningless piece of paper is not a mere cultural idea floating out there in the ether but an incontrovertable institutionalized fact . Obviously there have always been forces outside the law involved in forming moral expectations, but the change in the law was a huge factor. This implies victories against liberalized divorce, if we won them, would help move the ball back in the direction of marriage not only in terms of institutional arrangements but in terms of what makes deep sense to people and what is seen as irrational and bigoted .

Not having time or space to write a lengthy treatise, that’s my piece for now. I’m sure Dan will continue the dialogue over on Hang Together and we’ll both have much to say.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles