Friday, March 30, 2007

Defining Marriage Down

Marriage--what it means and how it's defined--has been hotly debated in the public square and in religious circles, including my denomination the United Church of Christ.

One point argued is whether same-gender marriage weakens the institution of marriage. In other words, in the countries where such marriages are permitted, are there more marriages, numerically speaking? And in those cultures, is marriage valued more or less as means for organizing a family?

In a significant article, "Defining Marriage Down," posted at the Weekly Standard, David Blankenhorn--president of the Institute for American Values and author of the book, The Future of Marriage--argues that its time to quit debating whether same-sex marriage is the direct cause or proof of traditional marriage's decline. You don't need proof because there's plenty of correlating evidence:
When it comes to the health of marriage as an institution and the legal status of same-sex unions, there is much to be gained from giving up the search for causation and studying some recurring patterns in the data...It turns out that certain clusters of beliefs about and attitudes toward marriage consistently correlate with certain institutional arrangements. The correlations crop up in a large number of countries and recur in data drawn from different surveys of opinion.
What Blankenhorn shows is that in countries where same-gender marriage is permitted, there exists a corresponding belief that marriage is not looked upon as a valuable institution:
The correlations are strong. Support for marriage is by far the weakest in countries with same-sex marriage. The countries with marriage-like civil unions show significantly more support for marriage. The two countries with only regional recognition of gay marriage (Australia and the United States) do better still on these support-for-marriage measurements, and those without either gay marriage or marriage-like civil unions do best of all.
So while you can't absolutely prove, per se, that allowance for same-sex marriage causes a numerical decrease in marriage and causes a declining attitude toward marriage, there's no denying that a correlation exists:

Here's an analogy. Find some teenagers who smoke, and you can confidently predict that they are more likely to drink than their nonsmoking peers. Why? Because teen smoking and drinking tend to hang together. What's more, teens who engage in either of these activities are also more likely than nonsmokers or nondrinkers to engage in other risky behaviors, such as skipping school, getting insufficient sleep, and forming friendships with peers who get into trouble.

Because these behaviors correlate and tend to reinforce one another, it is virtually impossible for the researcher to pull out any one from the cluster and determine that it alone is causing or is likely to cause some personal or (even harder to measure) social result. All that can be said for sure is that these things go together. To the degree possible, parents hope that their children can avoid all of them, the entire syndrome--drinking, smoking, skipping school, missing sleep, and making friends with other children who get into trouble--in part because each of them increases exposure to the others.

It's the same with marriage. Certain trends in values and attitudes tend to cluster with each other and with certain trends in behavior. A rise in unwed childbearing goes hand in hand with a weakening of the belief that people who want to have children should get married. High divorce rates are encountered where the belief in marital permanence is low. More one-parent homes are found where the belief that children need both a father and a mother is weaker. A rise in non-marital cohabitation is linked at least partly to the belief that marriage as an institution is outmoded. The legal endorsement of gay marriage occurs where the belief prevails that marriage itself should be redefined as a private personal relationship. And all of these marriage-weakening attitudes and behaviors are linked. Around the world, the surveys show, these things go together.

Blankenhorns' article is significant because it demonstrates a very real correlation: Expanding the definition of marriage doesn't increase the number of marriages nor does it increase a culture's appreciation for it.

Instead, expanding marriage tears it down.

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