One of the interesting features of the otherwise exhaustingly predictable debate over gay marriage is how it is being framed, by both sides, as a question of order. Opponents say legalizing homosexual marriage imperils the "institution" of marriage, invoking an abstract infrastructure whose sturdiness cannot really be determined, much less debated, but has the right dramatic effect (even though what's really bugging them is the mental picture of, as Rick Santorum would say, man-on-man action)(see footnote one). Advocates, meanwhile, say gay marriage is a step toward more structured societal partnerships. Adam Haslett, in a fine history of marriage recently in the New Yorker, cites the arguments of gay conservative Jonathan Rauch. In an age in which individual gratification and consumer choice are squashing the concepts of sacrifice, mutual obligation, and civic life--and marriage is, in turn, declining while cohabitation becomes more prevalent--Haslett paraphrases Rauch as saying that "letting gays marry will actually help marriage by relieving the pressure to create alternatives." (David Brooks echoes this argument.) So the case for gay marriage is not just that it's wrong to devise legal blockades to the flourishing of romance (which, as Haslett notes, has been legally defined as a civil right); the bottom line is: gay marriage is good for marriage.
What makes me wonder is just how admirable this principle of marital order is as a formative bone of the civic skeleton. To go from merely describing--marriage stabilizes society, just as that tree branch is currently suspending a navigationally challenged skydiver--to prescribing--marriage should stabilize society, in the way this steel beam should stabilize the new house--seems to me to demean marriage. Whenever order and not love has been pursued as the ultimate end of married partnerships in history, it's been bad. Usually for women. My chief qualification to say this is that I played Tevye in my high school production of Fiddler on the Roof, and I had to ponder (in the middle of hoping my mustache wouldn't fall off) the protests of Tevye's daughters--the first one pleas for an alternative choice of husband, the second rejects Tevye's, er, right to choose, the third marries a Gentile. In each case, a point of order is at stake--1) the father's choice stands, 2) the father has a choice 3) no marrying outside Judaism. Were Tevye to rule against his daughters, he would be saying that the maintenance of these points of order takes precedence over his daughters' individual happiness and fulfillment. His choices are fascinating; he goes with his daughters on 1 and 2, since they really only affect him personally, but disowns his daughter on point number 3, since it concerns not just patriarchy but religious purity. The musical shows how marriage, for so many centuries of human history, has been run by males for the benefit of males--daughters seldom had any say and were usually considered mere property and pauns in social (or in the case of royalty) political chess games.
But damn it, at least marriage was orderly! So argue the traditionalists. Today we are in a chaotic period in which the honorable principle of individual freedom and the less honorable impulse toward instant gratification have combined to create a maritally tumultuous time of fickle commitments, gender role confusion, and stagnated relational growth. Here those high-minded (if vague) appeals to the "institution" of marriage become understandable: the i-word connotes a stately ivy-covered administration building, whose prestige demands that change be met with indignation. So Rauch's approach, which I believe is indeed his conviction and not a manipulative device, has the advantage of appopriating the ivy and the indignation while arguing the other side.
I'm in favor of gay marriage, not primarily for Rauch's reasons but rather because I believe religious conservatives' objections, based as they are in Levitican sexual ethics, are inapplicable to secular legal questions. If the church wants to perform gay marriages, that's another matter (one on which I'm more ambivalent), but if the state wants to do it, Christians don't have any good reason to stand in its way--that "institution" business won't cut it. Since the state has defined marriage as a legal right, only political inconvenience prevents lawmakers from adopting gay marriage. (And since conservatives just love slippery slope arguments, let's say you can only marry other people, so Senator Santorum's man-on-dog arrangements stay confined to his imagination.)
But the general question of marital order--or order as a marital virtue--remains troubling to me on a personal level. I've been married almost two years now, and I've come to see that while the romance never really fades completely from view, the most powerful inertial force in marriage is order. Everyone, in the heat of some moment, wants out at one point or another in your first year or two of marriage, and at those points, nursing anger or bitterness, I found that what usually popped into my head was: but just think how disruptive divorce would be in my life! My place to live, my finances, the number of meal servings to calculate from recipes, my ambiguous ownership of half our DVD collection, all these fixtures in my life would suddenly wobble (isn't it funny how strong emotion can make us think some of our most mundane thoughts?)(see footnote two). (Laura Kipnis cleverly illustrates these fixtures of order, giving them tongue-in-cheek oppressive overtones, in the October '03 Harper's; unfortunately the piece is unavailable online.) Don't get me wrong: not only do I love my wife, but I think we're really romantic and have an exceptionally long time to go before we're one of those boring married couples (yes, all newlyweds feel this way, but part of this feeling is the presumption of exclusiveness). And nearly two years in, I can acknowledge that marital growth happens when you stick with it for no other demonstrable reason, sometimes, than sticktoitiveness. This is why arranged marriages can sometimes be the best ways to "grow" a marriage (as I've read, and also sang about, as Tevye, with Golde). As Rauch says of marriage, "no other institution has the power to turn narcissism into partnership, lust into devotion, strangers into kin.” When you remove the illusion of romantic magic as the main fuel of a marriage, people wisely tend to more enduring traits of loving relationships. One article I read said that people in arranged marriages think of building toward a peak 25 years into the marriage. In our culture, the peak is considered to be the honeymoon. As I wrote last year on Valentine's Day 2003 (second item here), this is the scandal of romantic comedies, with their preoccupation on premarital goosebumps. How much better off would we be if our defining stories of love actually dealt with the dramas, tensions, subtleties, and changes we experience in long-term loving relationships rather than just that initial tease?
Footnote one: Here's Malcolm Gladwell, in the New Yorker, on the convenient connotations of "institution": “'Marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman,' [said President Bush in response to the Massachusetts Supreme Court]. There’s that word again, and notice how the sentence doesn’t quite make sense. It should read: 'a sacred bond between a man and a woman.' But the President had to say 'institution,' because nobody imagines that the court’s decision will actually jeopardize the personal bond between any particular man and any particular woman." "Appeals to the institution of marriage, and institutions [in general]," Gladwell said, are "arguments of expediency ... [they] are where we hide when we can’t find our principles." link
Footnote two: Jonathan Franzen articulates this feeling in The Corrections (p.205 of the hardcover): "For a moment, after he hung up, Gary let himself imagine being divorced. But three glowing and idealized mental portraits of his children, shadowed by a batlike horde of fears regarding finances, chased the notion from his head."
Footnote three: I think there's a parallel here to having a relationship with God. I don't like that phrase, which is popular with evangelicals, because, for one thing, it is unbiblical, and for another, it make cozy spiritual feelings normative. But as with my marriage, I wish my faith were a little more "cozy" these days and a little less the product of sterile instruments of order: church services, theological deliberations, and so on. I know there's a function to the instruments--you can't sustain deep-rooted faith on fuzzy feelings--but sometimes I resent them.
Footnote four: From Paul Tournier's "The Meaning of Persons": "Marriage thus becomes a great school of the person, through the level of personal commitment it entails and the exacting quality of the dialogue it demands. ... What marriage really means [is] helping one another to reach the full status of being persons, responsible and autonomous beings who do not run away from life."
The history of marriage from the New Yorker
The history of marriage from The Week
Rauch on gay marriage from the Atlantic
The problem with marital counseling from the Melbourne Age
Is marriage holy? by Henry James, from the Atlantic in 1875
The case against gay marriage from the Center for Public Justice
David Brooks on gay marriage "in a culture of contingency," from the NY Times
Why families are good for the economy from the New Yorker
Economically, marriage may not be all it's cracked up to be from the Wash.Post
Men and separation from the Melbourne Age
The new American infidelity from Newsweek
The historical flexibility of the institution of marriage by William Saletan in the NY Times:
Republicans ... proposed a Constitutional amendment ''protecting'' current marriage laws, which they said were grounded in ''more than two centuries of American jurisprudence, and millennia of human experience.'' But this is a fiction. As Chauncey and Wolfson demonstrate, the rules of marriage have changed constantly. In biblical days, adulterers could be put to death. In ancient Rome, people got hitched by shacking up and got unhitched by moving out. A century ago, 14 states barred marriages between whites and Asians. The Supreme Court didn't strike down bans on interracial marriage until 1967. Marriage used to mean that women had no legal identity apart from their husbands; now it doesn't. Spousal rape used to be a contradiction in terms; now it's a crime. States used to ban contraception, on the theory that marriage was for procreation; now they can't. At the time, these changes were condemned as perversions. Now we call them traditions.
• Previous Thought: Is the world dramatic?
Followup: In an earlier Thought I wondered about the consistency of wisdom, and the dilemma we face when embracing some teachings of a wise person while rejecting others as foolish. How can such wisdom and folly exist in the same person, and how are we qualified to sort it out? This is the dilemma of Vincent Bacote, writing in Comment of his appreciation of Abraham Kuyper's theology but horror at his racism. Can a racist be wise? (via the blog of Comment editor Gideon Strauss)