Rush to Alter
How Homosexuals Benefit from the Devolution of Marriage
by Bryce Christensen
Only the ideologically blind would deny that homosexual marriage threatens violence against the moral and legal traditions that have defined wedlock for millennia. Homosexual activists have themselves asserted that they aim at more than a “mere ‘aping’” of heterosexual marriage: They want homosexual marriage to “destabilize marriage’s gendered definition by disrupting the link between gender and marriage.” They thus value the homosexual wedding ceremony in part because of the “transformation that it makes on the people around us.”1
But of all those praising or damning homosexuals for breaking the marriage barrier, few have reflected on just what kind of institution homosexuals—who have never wanted marriage in the past—are now claiming for themselves. Indeed, if Americans scrutinize carefully the way the national culture has in recent decades redefined wedlock for heterosexuals, they may well conclude that it is not homosexuals that have changed so much, but rather marriage itself.
Far from being some astonishing development reflecting unprecedented new attitudes among homosexuals, homosexual weddings constitute the predictable (not natural, but entirely predictable) culmination of cultural changes that have radically de-natured marriage. The loss of the natural anchor of a healthy home economy and the supernatural sanctions of religious doctrine left marriage at the mercy of adverse economic, political, and cultural currents for decades before homosexuals ever sought state and church imprimatur for their own wedding vows.
Homosexual marriage looks all too much like the coup de grâce administered only after numerous judges, educators, therapists, activists, and entertainers have already done their worst. It culminates a decades-long attack, rather than initiating a distinctively new assault.
Once defined by religious doctrine, moral tradition, and home-centered commitments to child rearing and sexual complementarity in productive labor, marriage has become a highly individualistic and egalitarian institution, no longer implying commitment to home, to Church, to childbearing, to traditional duties, or even (permanently) to spouse. Gone is the productive bond of husband and wife defined by mutual sacrifice and cooperative labor. It has been replaced by dual-careerist vistas of self-fulfillment and consumer satisfaction.
That homosexuals now want the strange new thing marriage has become should surprise no one: Contemporary marriage, after all, certifies a certain legitimacy in the mainstream of American culture and delivers tax, insurance, lifestyle, and governmental benefits—all without imposing any of the obligations of traditional marriage (which most homosexuals decidedly do not want). Thus, while the attempt to deny that homosexuals have the right to marry is understandable and even morally and legally justified, such an attempt is probably foredoomed if it does not lead to a broader effort to restore moral and religious integrity to marriage as a heterosexual institution.
Unfortunately, even conservatives remain fixed on the novelty of homosexual actions, as though marriage had not already been radically redefined in American culture before homosexuals rather belatedly joined in the assault. Conservative columnist Thomas Sowell, for example, understandably responded to homosexual marriages by decrying the “lawless” acts of a “headstrong minority” convinced that they are “above the law.” But in his appeal for the “rule of law,” he failed to acknowledge that in many ways American law already subverts the institution to which homosexuals are now laying siege.
Once strongly reinforced by both religious doctrine and legal statute, marriage stood for centuries as the socially obligatory institution that shaped the individual for an adulthood of self-sacrifice and cooperative home-centered labor focused especially on the tasks of bearing and rearing children.
For centuries, almost all Americans recognized marriage as a divinely ordained union of husband and wife entailing distinctive but complementary sexual roles (cf. Gen. 2:24; 3:16–19), whose duty to God was to “multiply and replenish the earth” through childbearing (Gen. 1:28). Out of reverence for this sacred marital union, Americans generally decried premarital sexual relations as the sin of fornication and recoiled from divorce as an offense against God.
Nor, until relatively recently, did the imperatives of marital theology lack for this-worldly reinforcement. As the historian Allan Carlson has stressed in From Cottage to Work Station, traditional patterns of “householding” assigned “reciprocal, complementary tasks [to] husbands and wives” engaged in various types of “household production, ranging from tool making and weaving to the keeping of livestock and the garden patch.” Marriage thus defined the very foundation of “a basic economic unit” that “bound each family together” as a “community of work.”
The sociologist Arland Thornton had in view the same kind of economically autonomous traditional marriages when he remarked that in the pre-industrial world, “there were few economic enterprises outside the home; and the family was the basic organizational unit for many important activities, including production and consumption.” Within this “family economy,” Thornton pointed out,
The historian Steven Ozment, in his book on early modern Germany, Flesh and Spirit, sees married couples as the very heart of a traditional family enjoying cultural as well as economic autonomy. Such a family, he remarks, “supported, educated, blessed, and entertained itself with minimal external instruction and coercion.”
Sustained by their religious beliefs and absorbed in the labors of maintaining an autonomous home, American couples made their wedding vows both fruitful and durable. The fruitfulness of the traditional American marriage accounts for the words of a nineteenth-century American congressman proudly inviting a foreign visitor to
Note that the nineteenth-century congressman assumed that after thirty years the typical husband and wife would still be together: a safe assumption given that (as Thornton noted) in the second half of the nineteenth century only one American marriage in twenty ended in divorce.
In The “American Way”: Family and Community in the Shaping of the American Identity, Carlson has shown that even in the twentieth century, religious conviction and inherited cultural traditions still encouraged lifelong marriages that produced “child-rich families” devoted to what Teddy Roosevelt identified as the nation’s “great primal work of home-making and home-keeping.” Roosevelt spoke for a culturally united people when he praised the married couples producing the country’s “best crop,” its “crop of children” and when he denounced “easy divorce” as “a menace to the home.”
By the middle of the twentieth century, the American supports for marriage had weakened in a number of ways—none of them involving advocates of homosexual marriage.
The transformation of America from a primarily agricultural country into a primarily industrial nation meant that the life of the family and the life of work were torn apart, producing what one historian called “a veritable sea-change in social history.” Most men left behind the traditional household economy that had reinforced wedlock for millennia, leaving their wives to work alone in a functionally diminished home. Immediately, advertisers, manufacturers, and educators conspired to take advantage of the social and economic isolation of the homemaking wife by making her into a “machine operative” and “general purchasing agent” for a home that had lost much of its productive function.
By the 1950s the home’s surrender of productive functions had become so complete that the Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin saw the home becoming a “mere incidental parking place” for consumption and relaxation, as he put it in his book Social and Cultural Dynamics. Many wives consequently experienced what one social historian labeled the “festering contradiction of modern womanhood” as their traditional homecrafts lost economic value and cultural legitimacy,3 so threatening to reduce their social status to that of menial parking-place attendants.
Still, Sorokin’s parking-space metaphor need have been nothing more than hyperbole. The average American family of the fifties and sixties resisted in significant ways the economic pressures undermining the home economy that had traditionally reinforced marriage.
Most mothers still cooked family meals rather than relying on restaurants or take-out; many still sewed some of their husbands’ and children’s clothing. Almost all mothers cared for their own young children rather than turning this task over to a paid surrogate. Fathers not only provided for their wives and children financially, but also performed many of the home repair and maintenance tasks. Though it had surrendered much, the American family still retained a significant core of its traditional autonomy and self-reliance.
Had America’s policymakers and lawmakers in the fifties and sixties made preserving that core a high priority, they could have developed aggressively pro-natalist policies (tax credits and child subsidies in particular) to support married parents producing America’s “best crop.” They could have explored ways to bring technologically mediated work back into the home for both husbands and wives. Policymakers and legislators might even have restored some of the domestic autonomy that Ozment finds so admirable in pre-modern families by encouraging families to home-school their children.
More fundamentally, had the nation’s cultural elite cared deeply about wedlock, they could have deployed the persuasive powers of rhetoric, literature, and entertainment to (as Carlson put it) summon “both men and women . . . to relearn and recommit to the deeper meanings of the ancient words husbandry and housewifery.”
Lamentably, during the sixties and seventies, America’s cultural and political elite—none of whom were activists promoting homosexual marriage—chose to subvert rather than renew marriage. In large part, they chose to subvert marriage simply by acquiescing to the economic processes tearing apart the traditional home economy.
After decades of such acquiescence, Wendell Berry could in 1990 fairly characterize the “typical modern household” created by a married heterosexual couple as something very like the “mere incidental parking place” that Sorokin had worriedly anticipated decades before—with exceedingly malign consequences for marriage. “The modern household,” Berry wrote in What Are People For?,
The marital and domestic world Berry describes could hardly be further removed from the marital and domestic world in which the family once “supported, educated, blessed, and entertained itself with minimal external instruction and coercion.”
But the assault on wedlock during the sixties and seventies reflected cultural forces deeper than economics, cultural forces at work long before homosexuals began their strange parade to the wedding altar. Although its immediate effects remained confined to a relatively small elite, the intellectual atheism that had emerged for the first time in the United States in the late nineteenth century became by the mid-twentieth century a relatively potent force, one that “dis-integrated” our national culture by denying religious belief its traditional function as a unifying and defining element.
Without question, the fading of religious belief would eventually embolden homosexuals by weakening the cultural authority of theological prohibitions against homosexuality. But most of the atheists who first warred against the country’s Judeo-Christian marital and family traditions were free-thinking heterosexuals advocating sexual “freedom” and new forms of family life of the sort that finally helped incubate the New Left’s counterculture of communes, drugs, free love (overwhelmingly heterosexual), and rock music.
The sixties dramatically reduced the power of traditional religious faith in America and therefore the sanction and support it provided for traditional marriages. Religion lost the cultural status and authority it had held until then, and the numbers of people claiming no religious affiliation rose sharply. Even Americans who continued to go to church developed dubious new religious attitudes.
The Gallup poll reported in the eighties that many Americans who professed religious beliefs were beginning to “dodge the responsibilities and obligations” traditionally associated with such beliefs. Those still filling the pews were increasingly inclined, Thornton wrote, to interpret “their religious commitments and beliefs in individualistic terms and less in terms of institutional loyalty and obligation. They [were] now looking to religion more for its personal meaning and less for its moral rules.” This was true even of American Catholics, previously distinctive for their deference to hierarchy and tradition.
Because so much of the traditional understanding of marriage rested upon religious doctrines, eroding popular commitments to those doctrines could only undermine marriage and family life. Sociologists predictably see a close linkage between declining church attendance among young Americans and a rising willingness to engage in premarital sex, for example. Whereas only 29 percent of college-age females reported having had premarital intercourse in 1965, that percentage had skyrocketed to 63 percent by 1985. In the post-sixties world, young Americans were clearly taking their behavioral cues from someone other than St. Paul.
By the 1980s—still long before homosexual couples challenged the religious doctrines denying them the right to marry—millions of heterosexual couples would flout the religious doctrines forbidding fornication: Over two million unmarried heterosexual couples were living together in 1986, and 44 percent of all American heterosexual couples who married between 1980 and 1984 had cohabited before taking vows.4 Thus, many heterosexual couples had made a bad cultural joke of the traditional symbolism of the white wedding dress long before homosexuals tried to make optional a wedding dress of any sort.
Even when heterosexual couples did wed in the post-sixties world, an increasing number did so unencumbered by the scriptural prohibition against adultery: In a 1983 survey of over 3,500 couples, 15 to 26 percent allowed for “nonmonogamy under some circumstances,” while a parallel 1989 British study of married adults found that “of those surveyed under age 35, over one-fifth (22 percent) entered their first marriage with no belief in sexual fidelity.”5
In 1991, British sociologist Paul Mullen warned that adultery was fast becoming “a participation sport indulged in by the masses,” as “citizens increasingly assume the right to change and vary their erotic attachments.”6 The authors of a 1995 American study reported that “many married persons continue to search for an intimate partner, or at least remain open to the possibility of forming extramarital relationships, even while married.”7
But the sixties meltdown in religious orthodoxy harmed and de-natured wedlock by destroying more than sexual restraint. Marriage as defined by the Christian religious tradition demanded—and taught—a deep capacity for self-sacrifice and selfless service (see Eph. 5:22–33), but self-sacrifice disappeared from the cultural catechism written by the Woodstock Generation. As religious faith declined in the seventies and eighties, “hedonistic values” sharply rose and people showed an increasing desire for self-gratification and an increasing absorption in the imperatives of self-actualization. This insistent emphasis on self could only weaken marriage, regardless of whether homosexuals were ever permitted to take vows.
For good reason, sociologists Howard Bahr and Kathleen Bahr express dismay that the kind of self-sacrifice that once served as “the essential glue of a moral society,” particularly within marriage and family, came to be widely regarded as a “self-defeating behavior” or even a deplorable “personality defect” by modern commentators who were guided by “the assumption of self-interest and . . . the logic of utilitarian individualism.”8 By the end of the twentieth century, many Americans no longer worshiped the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob—the Deity who summoned husbands and wives to selfless devotion within the conjugal bonds of marriage—but rather adored only the Sovereign Self, unfettered by religious or moral restraints.
Anarchy & Fury
As was said at the beginning, the loss of the natural anchor of a healthy home economy and the supernatural sanctions of religious doctrine left marriage at the mercy of adverse economic, political, and cultural currents for decades before homosexuals ever sought state and church imprimatur for wedding vows. In curious ways, these currents have combined the wild anarchy of raw individualism with the focused fury of political ideology and corporate greed.
Once an essential element of the natural home economy, the sexual complementarity of wedlock was exposed to particularly negative pressures in the sixties and seventies. As the distinguished economist Gary Becker demonstrated in a landmark study published in 1965—just when those negative pressures were gathering strength—marriage draws institutional strength from a complementary husband-wife division of labor. Such a marital division of labor had, of course, emerged spontaneously in pre-industrial agrarian cultures, but a somewhat artificial breadwinner/homemaker version of this marital division of labor remained in place for decades in an industrialized United States, as labor unions demanded and employers and government officials acquiesced in a “family wage” system that paid a married father enough to support an at-home wife and their children, while deliberately keeping married women out of the labor market.
Scriptural sanction for a sexual division of labor in marriage (see Gen. 3:16–19; Tit. 2:4–5) fostered acquiescence so long as religion remained a powerful force in American public life. However, as religion lost cultural strength in the firestorm of the sixties, employers and government officials turned decisively against the family-wage system and the marital sexual differences it protected. Indeed, during the sixties and seventies, lawmakers outlawed the deliberate sexual distinction essential to the family-wage system.9
Corporate employers needed no encouragement for abandoning the family-wage system and attacking marital complementarity: These employers had long recognized that bringing wives into the labor market would drive down wages. Politicians turned against marital complementarity for a more complex mix of reasons. Some were simply responding to the lobbying of corporate employers.
Others resonated—consciously or unconsciously—to the ideological imperatives of utopian thinkers (from Plato to B. F. Skinner) who dreamed of making all citizens completely devoted to the ideal state as they abolished (or at least weakened) the competing loyalties of marriage and family. (See my “The Family in Utopia,” published in the journal Renascence in 1991.) The feminist elements of such utopian ideology gained strength in the seventies as doctrinaire gender-egalitarians rallied round the Equal Rights Amendment, drawing intermittent support from confused wives frustrated and disheartened by the economic and cultural marginalization of their homemaking.
Quietly undermined by the continual erosion of the home economy, directly assaulted by feminist egalitarians, and rendered economically precarious by the disintegration of “the family wage,” the economic sexual complementarity of marriage disappeared for millions of couples as millions of wives moved out of the home and into paid employment. Hence, long before homosexuals challenged the male-female sexual complementarity of marriage, the economic complementarity of marriage had already disappeared.
Among these couples—as sociologist Steven Nock pointed out—“being a ‘good’ mother” had come to mean “the same thing . . . as being a ‘good’ father [had] . . . for years—the provision of adequate material/financial resources” for the family.10 In economic terms at least, a growing number of American children had two “fathers” long before advocates of homosexual marriage ever attempted to give children two biologically male parents.
However, the transformation of wives into economic clones of their husbands had the entirely predictable effect of sweeping away most of the remnants of the home economy, as harried employed women increasingly relied on the restaurant for meal preparation and the day-care center for child care. But the obliteration of the economic distinction between husband and wife also inevitably suppressed the biological event that most forcibly defined sexual complementarity: childbirth. Marital fertility plummeted in the seventies, pushing overall fertility in the United States below replacement level, and the number of DINK (Double Income, No Kids) marriages multiplied.
Certain groups rejoiced in the disruption of the cultural pattern that traditionally made marriage the foundation for a “child-rich” family. For policymakers and judges in thrall to the Malthusian scare propaganda of a population explosion, the child-poor family was the ideal. In order to discourage married couples from having children, Malthusian policymakers deliberately turned tax policy against large families. Meanwhile, an activist Supreme Court joined in the war against childbearing directly by creating a legal right to elective abortion in the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973.
Further, three years later in Planned Parenthood of Missouri v. Danforth, the Court undermined the marital integrity that had previously given a married father legal standing in life-death decisions about his unborn children. By making childbearing entirely a female decision, the High Court’s decisions helped make the shotgun marriage a rarity, as the percentage of children born out of wedlock rose from just 5 percent in 1960 to 33 percent in 1998. The rise in the illegitimacy rate accelerated under welfare policies, making Uncle Sam a reliable surrogate spouse. By the eighties, “mother-state-child” families predominated in some inner-city areas.
Judge-made policy not only helped sever the link between childbearing and marriage, but it also helped further weaken the already severely compromised link between marriage and sexual activity. Seven years before the High Court legalized abortion, it exacerbated the growing effects of the sexual revolution by giving pornographers a startling victory in its notorious Fanny Hill decision of 1966.
A Private System
Even if not subverted by pornography and licentiousness, sterile marriages of economic clones became contentious and unstable in post-sixties America. As Berry pointedly remarked in What Are People For?, when marriage became merely “two careerists in the same bed,” it degenerated into “a sort of private political system in which rights and interest must be constantly asserted and defended.” Such a system actually turned marriage into a “form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.”
The sixties and seventies did in fact see divorce rates skyrocket, rising by 145 percent between 1960 and 1980. Rather than resist this trend, state legislators—urged on by a well-organized coterie of activists—enacted “no-fault” divorce laws, laws that reduced marriage to less than the weakest contract-at-will and put the state for the first time in alliance with the spouse who wanted the divorce (often a calculating betrayer) against the spouse who wanted to preserve the marriage.
As marriage became more insubstantial and impermanent, the family that couples formed through marriage ceased to create the kind of autonomy Ozment found so admirable in early modern families. Rather than being the foundation of a sphere of autonomy independent of the state, the divorce-prone modern marriage—bereft of a healthy home economy, frequently devoid of children, and threatening to dissolve at any moment—metamorphosed into merely a convenient social arrangement for securing and regularizing the benefits of dependency on insurance, employment, and government aid (such as Social Security).
The radical redefinition of marriage during the latter decades of the twentieth century—its legal, economic, and cultural decimation—largely accounts for the sharp drop in the marriage rate after the sixties. By the nineties, marriage had lost so much of its cultural substance that it hardly seemed worth the bother to many young Americans. Between 1970 and 2000, the marriage rate dropped an astonishing 40 percent, according to Census Bureau data. Marriage became so culturally and socially marginal for Americans— heterosexual Americans—that in 1998 one social scientist declared that, in a development that was “novel, perhaps even unique, in human cultural history,” marriage had ceased to be “the definitive criterion for the transition to adulthood” in American society.11
It is in truth the cultural devaluation of marriage that explains why some homosexual activists have reacted to the recent push for homosexual marriage by asking, as one put it, “Why should we scramble to get onto a sinking ship?” But most homosexual couples now seeking to be married are doing so precisely because so much of the traditional freight of marriage—complementary sexual roles, work in a real home economy, childbearing, sexual fidelity, permanence—has been thrown overboard as the marital ship has settled ever lower in the water.
The strangely de-natured and deracinated thing that marriage has become now appeals to homosexuals because it now offers insurance, employment, lifestyle, and government benefits, while imposing no obligations.
A Public Mockery
Opponents of homosexual marriage speak the truth when they protest that America makes a mockery of wedlock if it licenses vows for couples who can never bear children (without resorting to surrogate mothers or sperm donors), will not resist the temptations to extramarital affairs, and will not preserve their union for a lifetime.
But the mockery of wedlock began decades ago when hundreds of thousands of heterosexual DINK couples started buying basset hounds rather than bassinettes, started indulging in extramarital affairs, and started fulfilling divorce attorneys’ dreams of avarice. It was indeed by trivializing the marital traditions of fertility, fidelity, and permanence that heterosexuals so completely changed the character of marriage that homosexuals finally wanted to claim the very odd thing it had become.
Thus, commentators miss the point when they oppose homosexual marriage on the grounds that it would undermine the traditional understanding of marriage. It is only because traditional understandings of marriage have already been severely undermined that homosexuals are now laying claim to it. The Catholic writer David Carlin assessed the situation astutely when he asserted in Homiletic and Pastoral Review that homosexual marriage is
Though restoring substance to marriage will entail many legal, political, economic, and cultural tasks, it will require above all two things: (1) restoring substance to the marital home economy, and (2) reinvigorating religion as a basis for marital and family life. Berry clarified what will be required to restore marriage to a healthy home economy when he wrote about how
The renewing of religion, on the other hand, will require deeper and more challenging changes. However, the prophet Isaiah holds out the promise that “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles” (Is. 40:31). Eagles, it should be recalled, mate—male and female—for life.
A longer version of this essay with extensive documentation can be found at http://www.profam.org/pub/fia/fia_1804.htm.
1. Barbara J. Cox, “A (Personal) Essay on Same-Sex Marriage,” National Journal of Sexual Orientation Law 1.1 (1995).
2. Arland Thornton, “Reciprocal Influences of Family and Religion in a Changing World,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 47 (1985).
3. Stuart Ewen, Captains of Consciousness (McGraw-Hill, 1976), pp. 164–167.
4. See Arland Thornton, “Cohabitation and Marriage in the 1980’s,” Demography 25 (1988); Patricia A. Gwartney-Gibbs, “The Institutionalization of Premarital Cohabitation,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 48 (1986); Martha Farnsworth Riche, “The Postmarital Society,” American Demographics (November 1988).
5. Arline M. Rubin and James R. Adams, “Outcomes of Sexually Open Marriages,” Journal of Sex Research 22 (1986); Annette Lawson and Colin Samson, “Age, Gender, and Adultery,” The British Journal of Sociology 39 (1988).
6. Paul E. Mullin, “Jealousy,” British Journal of Psychiatry 158 (1991).
7. Scott J. South and Kim M. Lloyd, “Spousal Alternatives and Marital Dissolution,” American Sociological Review 60 (1995).
8. Howard M. Bahr and Kathleen S. Bahr, “Families and Self-Sacrifice,” Social Forces 79 (2001).
9. Allan Carlson, “Gender, Children, and Social Labor: Transcending the ‘Family Wage’ Dilemma,” Journal of Social Issues 52.3 (1996).
10. Steven L. Nock, “The Symbolic Meaning of Childbearing,” Journal of Family Issues 8 (1981).
11. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, “Learning to Stand Alone,” Human Development 41 (1998).
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“Rush to Alter” first appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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