Putting the “Other” Marriage Equality Problem on the Agenda

12.20.2012, 8:19 AM

Linda C. McClain is Paul M. Siskind Research Scholar and Professor of Law at Boston University.

Does President Obama need a “marriage agenda”? If so, what should it be? A notable feature of the recent 2012 presidential election – by contrast to the 1992 or even the 2008 election — was the comparative absence of rhetoric about family values, family policy, and the relationship between strong families and a strong nation. Certainly, the party platforms addressed these issues; in the debates, however, the candidates spoke mostly about the economy, health care, taxes, and foreign policy. Remarkably, perhaps because President Obama had already declared his support for the right of same-sex couples to enter into civil marriage, marriage equality also did not feature as a fiercely contentious issue in these debates. Again, the party platforms did address the issue: Democrats supported same-sex marriage and opposed the Defense of Marriage Act; Republicans supported “traditional” marriage and a federal marriage amendment, and faulted the Obama Administration for failing to defend DOMA. Thus, the new The State of Our Unions 2012 Report, “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent,” accurately observes: “family structure and child well-being were seldom mentioned during the October 2012 presidential debates.” Also apt is its observation that: “an active public debate about the right to gay marriage has occupied American minds and the media in recent years, becoming arguably the most covered, and most contested, marriage issue of our time.” That marriage issue, in my view, is one of basic fairness, justice, equality, and rights. I support opening up civil marriage to same-sex couples.

SOOU 2012 proposes to change the subject — to shift attention from this highly visible marriage equality issue to what we might call “the other marriage equality problem” in the United States: the growing marriage gap between more affluent and educated Americans and other Americans, or between the marriage haves and have nots. The report warns that the gap is not simply the previously observed divide between the affluent and the poor; it also separates the more educated from the “moderately” educated people who make up Middle America – the “forgotten sixty percent” to which the report refers. Another troubling gap is between marital aspirations and actual practice in Middle America. That gap, too, is familiar from influential work on low income men and women and why they value marriage but often do not marry. The report asserts that Middle America experiences that same disconnect. Increasingly, people separate marriage from parenthood, postponing or simply forgoing the former, but not the latter. As the report notes, Charles Murray tells this story in his book Coming Apart. Journalist Hanna Rosin also details it in her book, The End of Men and the Rise of Women.

Family inequality has implications for children. This is a reason The State of Our Unions 2012 urges a national marriage agenda. Prominent sociologist Sara McLanahan has warned about the “diverging destinies” of children due to diverging patterns of family life. Other powerful phrases capturing this concern over children are “the reproduction of inequalities” and the “intergenerational transmission” of advantage and disadvantage.

We should care about this other marriage equality problem. Why? Across the political spectrum, there is recognition, as I elaborate in my new book, Ordered Liberty: Rights, Responsibilities, and Virtues (with James Fleming), that our political order assumes that families and civil society play a role in generating and sustaining the American experiment in “ordered liberty.” Families carry out social reproduction – nurturing children and preparing them for capable and responsible lives as good persons and good citizens. Other institutions of civil society and government also have responsibilities for this task and for supporting families in their efforts as well. Hence, it is important to have family policy – at the state and federal level.

I do not endorse every item on The State of Our Unions 2012’s “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent.” However, I share the report’s conviction that family inequality warrants attention. I give the authors credit for calling attention to how economic factors shape this family inequality, even if I would not draw exactly the same conclusions they do as to remedies. What is refreshing about this report is that it does not engage in scapegoating by somehow linking the progress made by gay men and lesbians in gaining access to civil marriage to the weakening of a “marriage culture.” While the report, regrettably (in my view), does not follow the lead of Institute for American Values president David Blankenhorn in explicitly embracing marriage equality and saying it is time to start talking about the goods that may flow from same-sex marriages, it takes a step forward by not including opposing same-sex marriage on its “marriage agenda.” Indeed, some assertions are encouragingly inclusive: “It’s important to recognize that marriage is good for all kinds of families.” Perhaps even those formed by same-sex couples

The State of Our Unions 2012 calls for public service announcements “that convey the truth about marriage, family stability, and child well-being to the next generation of parents.” To its credit, but to the dismay of Ryan Anderson (in his post for this symposium and elsewhere)*, it does not proclaim that the “truth” to convey is that only conjugal marriage, rooted in male-female sexual complementarity, is “true” marriage and that the state should only recognize such marriages. For Anderson, this dooms the report’s marriage agenda: it is impossible to have an agenda unless public policy can get the “nature” of marriage right. However, the view of the “truth” of marriage that he and his co-authors Robert George and Sherif Girgis have repeatedly and provocatively propounded simply does not mesh with how much of contemporary family law envisions the institution of civil marriage, even it accurately reflects certain theological understandings. To me, it is a sign of progress that The State of Our Unions 2012 does not insist that defending that particular, teleological view of marriage should be a plank in a national marriage agenda aiming at addressing the other marriage equality problem. Clearly, it is not a plank that President Obama could – or should — embrace.

*Note from the Editor: Ryan Anderson published his symposium piece on December 18, 2013. Other symposium participants did not have access to each other’s responses prior to Thursday December 20th outside of Anderson’s published piece.

9 Responses to “Putting the “Other” Marriage Equality Problem on the Agenda”

  1. David Blankenhorn says:

    Linda: I agree.

  2. Elizabeth Marquardt says:

    I can’t wait to read Ordered Liberty. The tension inherent in freedom, that it requires among other things self-governance, is something I want to learn more about and be better able to talk about.

  3. Jason Jackson says:

    The core of the marriage problems is how one views sex. Marriage was meant until channel sex into productivity. As such, Anderson, et. al. have it right. We should not be having a discussion of marriage without a a discussion of sex.

  4. Jason Jackson says:

    As the 2011 report said:

    Throughout history, marriage has first and foremost been an institution for procreation and raising children. It has provided the cultural tie that seeks to connect the father to his children by binding him to the mother of his children.

  5. mythago says:

    Jason, while I would disagree with the report’s definition of marriage, you’re making a logical error to conclude that marriage is therefore about limiting sex.

  6. Ned Flaherty says:

    Jason Jackson says that marriage is sex-based, and also says that marriage problems are sex-based. (This experienced view from someone who prefers abstinence!)

    But the majority of other people’s marriage problems are not sex-based, even if Jason’s own marital imperfections may be.

    The national marriage model has far more depth, breadth, complexity, and variety than that. His simplistic, ethnocentric, nationalistic view, if adopted, would doom discussion of the universe of marriage problems to a recitation of sex techniques.

    Those checklists were wrapped up a whole generaiton ago [See Books in Print, circa 1970.]

  7. Diane M says:

    @Ned Flaherty – I think Jason Jackson was talking about “marriage problems” at a society level, not an individual therapy one.

    Anyhow, do you see it as a problem if we have the middle class has a high divorce rate? Is it a problem if an increasing percentage of children are being born to unmarried parents?

    If so, what solutions do you think make sense?

    I would avoid talking about nationalistic, ethnocentric models of marriage, though. Outside the US and Western Europe, people don’t get divorced, children born outside of marriage are stigmatized, parents play a role in choosing your mate, everybody is supposed to get married, and girls are supposed to wait until marriage or at least an engagement. There’s a lot of variation, but it doesn’t particularly support the modern American model of relationships.

  8. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: Outside the US and Western Europe, people don’t get divorced, children born outside of marriage are stigmatized, parents play a role in choosing your mate, everybody is supposed to get married, and girls are supposed to wait until marriage or at least an engagement

    That’s true of Asia to a large extent, and possibly to some extent of Africa (though it’s changing rapidly), but certainly not of ‘everywhere outside the US and Western Europe’). I assume you were just using that as a broad term for ‘Asia and Africa’.

    Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc skipped straight to ‘modernist’ ideas about sex and marriage pretty quickly with the advent of Marxism, and Latin America and the Caribbean have traditionally had much higher rates of unmarried chilbearing than the United States or Western Europe (and their attitudes about premarital sex are pretty similar to North America). Melanesia, of course, is pretty famous for Malinowski’s studies of the Trobrianders and their sexual ethics.

    Even within Asia, at this point in history, the reality isn’t quite what you might claim.

  9. Ned Flaherty says:

    Diane M: Well, of course the high divorce rate and children born to unmarried parents are problems.

    The single biggest threat to marriage is its opposite: divorce. And the single best cure for divorce is education and planning by couples prior to marrying in the first place.

    The over $100 million dollars spent (so far) in opposing same-gender marriages for loving, committed couples was a complete waste of money. Those resources should have been spent preparing couples (all couples) for marriage so as to avoid divorce later on.