It’s better to have same-sex marriage than to privatize it: preserving marriage as a public commitment

In a controversial op-ed in the New York Times prominent traditional marriage defender David Blankenhorn has given up his opposition to same-sex marriage. I was not planning on commenting on this piece, but a friend urged me to consider it more seriously. I want to make a few comments with reference to those thoughtful conservatives who think government should simply get out of the business of marriage and leave it to private organizations, as well as to those thoughtful liberals who think supporting the basic institution of marriage is more important than defining it traditionally.

Blankenhorn’s op-ed is striking because he begins by reaffirming the basic tenants of his defense of traditional marriage. Few critics of same-sex marriage could make the argument as well as Blankenhorn does.

I opposed gay marriage believing that children have the right, insofar as society makes it possible, to know and to be cared for by the two parents who brought them into this world. I didn’t just dream up this notion: the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force in 1990, guarantees children this right.

Marriage is how society recognizes and protects this right. Marriage is the planet’s only institution whose core purpose is to unite the biological, social and legal components of parenthood into one lasting bond. Marriage says to a child: The man and the woman whose sexual union made you will also be there to love and raise you. In this sense, marriage is a gift that society bestows on its children.

At the level of first principles, gay marriage effaces that gift. No same-sex couple, married or not, can ever under any circumstances combine biological, social and legal parenthood into one bond. For this and other reasons, gay marriage has become a significant contributor to marriage’s continuing deinstitutionalization, by which I mean marriage’s steady transformation in both law and custom from a structured institution with clear public purposes to the state’s licensing of private relationships that are privately defined.

Well put. And Blankenhorn declares that he still believes all of this. So why is he now reversing his position on same-sex marriage? Simply put, it seems that he is disillusioned with the traditional marriage cause because it is not making these sorts of arguments and it is not making its opposition to same-sex marriage part of a serious effort to strengthen marriage generally. Rather, it is relying on anti-homosexual bigotry.

I had hoped that the gay marriage debate would be mostly about marriage’s relationship to parenthood. But it hasn’t been. Or perhaps it’s fairer to say that I and others have made that argument, and that we have largely failed to persuade. In the mind of today’s public, gay marriage is almost entirely about accepting lesbians and gay men as equal citizens. And to my deep regret, much of the opposition to gay marriage seems to stem, at least in part, from an underlying anti-gay animus. To me, a Southerner by birth whose formative moral experience was the civil rights movement, this fact is profoundly disturbing.

I had also hoped that debating gay marriage might help to lead heterosexual America to a broader and more positive recommitment to marriage as an institution. But it hasn’t happened. With each passing year, we see higher and higher levels of unwed childbearing, nonmarital cohabitation and family fragmentation among heterosexuals. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to the reconceptualization of marriage as a private ordering that is so central to the idea of gay marriage. But either way, if fighting gay marriage was going to help marriage over all, I think we’d have seen some signs of it by now.

I have to say, there is something in Blankenhorn’s argument here that resonates with me. What is the point of being opposed to same-sex marriage if more than half of our children are born out of wedlock? Why waste so much money and energy on this issue if those resources could actually be directed to strengthening marriage and recommitting ourselves to ensuring that all children are raised by their two biological parents?

In short, and here I agree with Blankenhorn, it is better to affirm same-sex marriage and save the institution as a public commitment than to oppose same-sex marriage by advocating its privatization. There is simply too much at stake. Too many of our children are having their lives destroyed by selfish adults committed to sex, pleasure, and having their own way rather than to caring for others in the context of justice and accountability. It is a crime against the next generation to allow the institution of marriage to be destroyed (i.e., abandoned by the government, whose responsibility is to ensure a basic modicum of justice for the most vulnerable members of our society) for the sake of purism. Marriage is absolutely fundamental to the survival and development of both individuals and of society generally. It is patently unjust for Christians or liberals to damage the public commitment to the institution of marriage by defending its privatization.

About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 25, 2012, in Children, Marriage and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on It’s better to have same-sex marriage than to privatize it: preserving marriage as a public commitment.

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