Rethinking the future of marriage

David Blankenhorn was an outspoken opponent of gay marriage. He writes in the New York Times how he came to change his mind.

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.

I have written these things in my book and said them in my testimony, and I believe them today. I am not recanting any of it.

But there are more good things under heaven than these beliefs. For me, the most important is the equal dignity of homosexual love. I don’t believe that opposite-sex and same-sex relationships are the same, but I do believe, with growing numbers of Americans, that the time for denigrating or stigmatizing same-sex relationships is over. Whatever one’s definition of marriage, legally recognizing gay and lesbian couples and their children is a victory for basic fairness.

Another good thing is comity. Surely we must live together with some degree of mutual acceptance, even if doing so involves compromise. Sticking to one’s position no matter what can be a virtue. But bending the knee a bit, in the name of comity, is not always the same as weakness. As I look at what our society needs most today, I have no stomach for what we often too glibly call “culture wars.” Especially on this issue, I’m more interested in conciliation than in further fighting.

A third good thing is respect for an emerging consensus. The population as a whole remains deeply divided, but most of our national elites, as well as most younger Americans, favor gay marriage. This emerging consensus may be wrong on the merits. But surely it matters.

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.

Category : The Lead

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7 Comments
  1. Pmgentry

    Richard Kim at The Nation has a great rebuttal to the conservatism of Blankenhorn’s “evolution.”

    http://www.thenation.com/blog/168545/whats-still-matter-david-blankenhorn

    While I’m not holding my breath, I hope that someday there will be more room in the church to consider positions like Kim’s decentering of marriage. Similar to Andrew Sullivan’s advocacy, I find Blankenhorn’s vision of the institution of marriage to be deeply concerning, even if it is expanded to include same-sex couples.

    Phil Gentry

  2. E B

    Hi Phil. Thank you for the link to the article on Blankenhorn. One question, though: Can you clarify for us what your specifric concerns are? Please understand–I don’t necessarily disagree with you. Just want to make sure I understand your point correctly.

    Thanks very much.

    Eric Bonetti

  3. This is a quite remarkable turnaround for a former Evangelical opponent of Same-Sex Marriage. However, it seems that the author has been willing to recognise the distinct advantage of faithful monogamous relationships – as against the problems of lack of commitment to a single partner. As he reminds us, all loving has something of God in it.

    Ron Smith (added by ~ed.)

  4. Dave Paisley

    What’s still scary? Maybe this:

    “Once we accept gay marriage, might we also agree that marrying before having children is a vital cultural value that all of us should do more to embrace? Can we agree that, for all lovers who want their love to last, marriage is preferable to cohabitation? Can we discuss whether both gays and straight people should think twice before denying children born through artificial reproductive technology the right to know and be known by their biological parents?”

    Kim’s summary: In other words, Blankenhorn once thought gay marriage could be a useful instrument to instill his regressive, archaic and punitive views on marriage in the public and in the law. He still thinks that. He’s just made a political calculation that gays are more valuable now as recruits than as scapegoats.

  5. Kevin Montgomery

    Dave,

    Could you explain what you think is so “regressive, archaic and punitive” here?

  6. Pmgentry

    Dave says it well, in that one of Blankenhorn’s main goals here is to impose punitive measures on single parents (let alone other non-traditional households). Although he tends not to publicize this stuff as much, he also wants to get rid of no-fault divorce laws, end the use of sperm donors, etc. This all connects to his other activism that tends to dress up standard conservative positions, against social welfare and in various middle east policy interventions, in vague and non-threatening language.

    As a matter of social policy, I find all that to be rubbish from my left-wing perspective. But I think theologically what most grates at me is this vision of marriage as something which maintains the bourgeois social order—or at least, the particular social order of the so-called “nuclear family” in the early Cold War and the American 1950s. Marriage, in the hands of Blankenhorn and Sullivan, is about keeping people in line. Personally I want something more from my sacraments, even a minor one!

    Phil Gentry

  7. Dave Paisley

    That last para on my comment was from Richard Kim’s article linked in the first comment.

    What I find objectionable in Blankenhorn’s position still is the marginalizing of family structures that aren’t Leave it to Beaver-ish.

    Sure, two loving parents is optimal, but setting public policy against anything else is going too far.

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