The institution of marriage is in a strange state. Traditionalists are fighting against strong odds to preserve its classical formulation while progressives actively work to redefine what they consider to be an outdated definition. No matter where you look it's hard to find anyone that is happy with the establishment marriage as it now stands.
Over the space of three generations marriage has gone from a broadly accepted well-defined establishment—indeed, the only socially legitimate way to organize a family—to an optional arrangement that can easily be dissolved and that many now accept as being open to just about any two consenting adults regardless of gender. While most adults still think that it's unacceptable for first cousins or siblings to marry, many other marital taboos are evaporating.
How did this transition occur? Divorce was once rare. People shunned its possibility even when marital relationships were rocky. Now people dump their spouses with nary a thought. Out of wedlock births that were once minimized due to social stigma are now more common than in-marriage births. The idea that two people of the same sex could marry each other seemed ludicrous at the beginning of this century. Now it is broadly accepted among the younger generation. It is quite possible that opposition to this altered definition of marriage will literally die out over time.
Is there a way to re-enthrone traditional marriage in broader society? Wall Street Journal Editor James Taranto doesn't think so. But any road to that destination, he says in this article, requires challenging the main cause of the decline of traditional marriage. What is that main cause? Taranto answers with profound political incorrectness that "The institution of marriage has been a casualty of contemporary feminism--specifically of the idea of sexual equality."
It used to be that "a husband and a wife" writes Taranto, "each brought something distinctive to the marriage." The long-term push to raise the status of "women relative to men has blurred these sex roles." The redefinition of marriage is a natural result of the redefinition of sex roles.
Taranto explains, "If men and women are at the deepest level interchangeable, then there's nothing to distinguish a "husband" from a "wife" and no reason that a "marriage" has to consist of one of each rather than two of one or the other." It becomes simply a matter of preference. Thus, the feminist goal of redefining sex roles naturally reduces the need for marriage to exist only as the union of a man and a woman.
The problem for traditionalists, writes Taranto, is that "the fundamental assumptions of contemporary feminism ... are very deeply ingrained in both elite and popular culture." Feminism has been tremendously successful in broadly instilling the concept of sexual equality in society—so successful, in fact, that many have difficulty drawing any distinct line delimiting the interchangeability of the sexes. Those that insist on clear boundaries are regarded as retrograde bigots.
Is Taranto wrong about this? Think of your own perceptions, how they have evolved, and about what you are willing to say on the matter in the company of those that don't share your views. Taranto can't see how we're ever going to get the traditional marriage genie back in the bottle.
Taranto believes that gays are mainly interested in same-sex marriage as a tool for achieving moral and social equivalence with heterosexuals. A great deal of research backs him up on this. He also seems to believe that this goal will ultimately be achieved.
Unlike Taranto, I believe that polygamy could become legal not long after same-sex marriage becomes widely legal. It is true that gays currently show little interest in polygamy and that polling shows strong opposition to polygamy among the general population. But gays are not the only party interested in redefining marriage.
Once marriage is no longer bound by a pattern of biological reproductivity, arguments against alternative marital arrangements will quickly melt away. On what logical basis could multi-partner unions be opposed? Nor does the current general animosity toward polygamy present any long-term bulwark against its future acceptance. Note how rapidly attitudes regarding same-sex marriage have changed.
Some argue that allowing same-sex marriage and even polygamous marriage will strengthen the faltering institution of marriage, not further weaken it. Evidence is contrary on this. Gay unions tend to be far less monogamous than heterosexual unions. Where same-sex marriage is legal gays divorce at substantially higher rates than heterosexuals.
Marriage rates have dropped precipitously in countries that permit various marital arrangements. Marriage is now widely considered by those populations to be separated from childbearing. Thus, the traditional primary purpose of marriage—to provide stable family environments likely to enable children to become productive members of society—has been replaced with an organization focused mainly on adult fulfillment. Evidence shows that this shift has ill served children and has created a greater drain on public resources.
There are some bright spots. Marriage is still quite strong among the more educated and higher earning segments of the U.S. population. And even while cohabitation and divorce rates have skyrocketed among the less educated and lower earning segments, most still view a good marriage as the ideal and a goal that they want to achieve. More than 95% of American adults marry at some point during their lifetimes. But there's no telling how long these patterns will hold.
Traditionalists see the decline of traditional marriage leading to broader social decay, which in turn will lead to greater economic dysfunction and cause a host of serious national problems. They know that their children and grandchildren are likely to follow national trends and to end up in relationships that research convincingly shows are less fulfilling and less healthy than traditional marriage.
What are traditionalists to do about the decay of traditional marriage? Are they fighting a losing battle? If so, is it a battle worth fighting anyway? If the battle can be won, how is it to be done?
I suspect Taranto is partially right. There are other causes too, related to children, that have played a significant role. Meagan McArdle wrote a remarkable post about this several years ago which I'm sure you'd enjoy. The post is at http://www.janegalt.net/blog/archives/005244.html but you may have to google it and pull it from the cache since the site seems to be down right now.
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