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Will the sky fall in Massachusetts?

By W. James Antle III
web posted May 17, 2004

By the time you read this, Massachusetts will have begun issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The state will then serve as the main laboratory in the American experiment with gay marriage.

Within only a few days, if even that long, activists will declare this experiment a resounding success and point to the Massachusetts experience as conclusive evidence that the redefinition of marriage nationwide can proceed without any ill effect.

After all, they will triumphantly proclaim, the sky did not fall. This has become a major talking point in favor of this family-law revolution: People who are reluctant to change the terms of marriage, a fundamental building block of society, are Chicken Littles and the sky will not fall. Powerhouse pundit Andrew Sullivan, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, framed the issue characteristically: "Will heterosexuals now stop marrying because gay people can? Will the birthrate plummet? Will the sky fall?"

I was recently confronted by someone who assured me that "society won't crumble" after May 17. Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) has said that efforts to amend the state constitution will fail once voters realize "they sky won't fall" with the arrival of same-sex marriage.

Perhaps the bar for sweeping change in a vital institution ought to be set a little higher than whether it will result in imminent social catastrophe, but this seems a little simplistic. We were assured that the sky would not fall if divorce became more commonplace. A generation later, there is ample social-science data to confirm what many people already knew based on tradition and common sense – the resultant weakening of family life would do palpable harm to children.

Did the sky fall when out-of-wedlock birth rates among African-Americans approached 70 percent annually? How about when fatherless families proliferated throughout the country? Scarcely anyone now disputes the mountains of evidence that these two phenomena of family breakdown have brought with them increases in poverty, crime, illiteracy, drug abuse, welfare dependency and other social pathologies.

What do these facts have to do with gay marriage? First, they show the risks inherent in tampering with the institution of marriage. Second, they demonstrate that it takes time before the full consequences of social changes can be known.

Americans are very conflicted about marriage and the family. On the one hand, they realize that children need both mothers and fathers and that family breakdown has negative consequences for the nation. On the other hand, due to their awareness of their own imperfections and a desire not to offend other people they care about by appearing judgmental toward their lifestyles, they are reluctant to take any steps to do anything about it. I understand why some people desire gay marriage and find it hurtful that others disagree.

Yet we cannot say that parents of children should get married and aspire to children being raised by mothers and fathers as the ideal while simultaneously providing identical support and recognition to every other conceivable arrangement. Our society needs a mechanism for bringing fathers and mothers together in families rearing the next generation. Traditionally, that mechanism has been marriage. But what will serve that purpose once the meaning of and reason for marriage has been changed? Looking at European countries that already have full or de facto gay marriage, there is not much evidence of a thriving marriage culture.

Too often, the debate bogs down over whether gays are "worthy" of marriage. Many same-sex marriage opponents argue that they are not, while proponents speak of the need to expand marriage to realize the loves and relationships of a marginalized minority. But same-sex marriage does not simply open marriage to an excluded group. It changes the very definition of marriage and alters its reason for being.

Don Browing and Elizabeth Marquhardt wrote in an op-ed piece for the New York Times that same-sex marriage reduces matrimony "primarily to an affectionate sexual relationship accompanied by a declaration of commitment. It then gives this more narrow view of marriage all of the cultural, legal and public support that marriage gained when its purpose was to encourage and temper a more complex set of goals and motivations." Gay nuptials would not be the first innovation to have this effect on marriage, but before we undertake another we should ask whether this trend has reinforced or undermined the institution's central purpose.

Is same-sex marriage compatible with the ideas of a marriage culture, based on fatherhood and motherhood, or is it, in syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher's words, "the triumph of the most radical ideas of the sexual revolution: that gender doesn't matter, children are secondary, expressing your authentic sexual self is more important than, well, practically anything else"?

If only we could rely on a sign as unambiguous as whether or not the sky fell to ascertain the full implications of the Bay State's experiment. But when it comes to changes of this nature, our children and grandchildren are often in a better position than we are to identify the Chicken Littles.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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