“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . .” That Dickensian chestnut sums up the state of traditional marriage today. Surveys confirm that Americans have less use for the institution than ever. More of us are now single than married. Few progressives get excited about weddings unless they are between two men or two women—in which case they’re not merely exciting but at the spear’s point of social reform.
Which leads me to an ironic prediction. Before long, cultural conservatives may wind up forced to hail same-sex marriage. LGBTs’ new zest for matrimony may be all that rescues this antediluvian custom from extinction.*
In its May-June issue, the Pacific Standard—a West Coast thinkpiece magazine formerly known as Miller-McCune—inaugurated its new Obituary department, devoted to chronicling the demise of formerly relevant societal ideas. Its headline: “Traditional Marriage: 1600–2011?” Editor Maria Streshinsky summarized a Niagara of survey data showing to what degree matrimony has lost its hammerlock on our culture. “Single parenthood has skyrocketed” and has lost most of its social stigma, she noted, though the economic and developmental challenges dogging one-parent families remain. In one 2010 Pew Research Center Study, four in ten respondents said they already considered marriage obsolete.
Increasingly, matrimony has lost its power as the default state/religious apparatus for sanctioning pair-bonds. “The institution is dying—for the poor,” Streshinsky declared, while for wealthier Americans it has come to serve less as a normative rite than a design platform for celebratory excess.
As I’ve often written, secular humanists—indeed, Enlightenment individualists generally—should hail these developments. There’s something deeply wrong with the idea that free individuals should require the public sanction of the state—or even of their families and friends—to make their choice of a life-partner “legitimate.” And we should be no less queasy with matrimony’s historic cargo. At its roots it’s a disturbing amalgam of state and religion, a separationist’s nightmare entangled in its pedigree as a sacrament of the church. Anyone who views women as men’s equals should recoil from marriage’s origins as an arrangement for transferring property rights in the bride from her father to her husband. (Which is why the father traditionally “gives away” the bride.) For all these reasons, since the nineteenth-century Golden Age of Freethought, a strain of dogged resistance to matrimony has run through much atheist and, later, secular-humanist activism.
So, is traditional marriage taking its final blindfolded random walk through a potter’s field of open graves, the lawn between them thickly strewn with banana peels? Surprisingly, probably not. And the institution’s rescue may come from the unlikeliest of quarters: the LGBT community.
However clumsy its timing, however guarded its language, President Barack Obama’s May 9 declaration that he favors same-sex marriage underscored how far the marriage-equality movement has progressed. As several pundits noted, no expansion of rights championed by a sitting president has ultimately failed to become the law of the land.
Fifteen years ago, no LGBT advocate could have imagined that we would be where we are today. Back then, gay activists hoped not to reform marriage but to respond to its presumably irredeemable bigotry and narrowness by supplanting it. They dreamed not of same-sex marriage but of civil unions.
To be frank, civil unions had much to recommend them. Given time and focused activism, it is likely that they would have grown to confer most or all of the same rights granted by traditional matrimony: parental rights, sickroom visitation, health-care decision-making, community property, the right to inherit, and so on. What secular humanists especially liked about civil unions was that they would represent a brand-new institution constructed entirely within the domain of secular law. Civil unions would be as free of matrimony’s tangled roots as they were of its historical negatives. The activists of fifteen years ago dared to hope for a future, perhaps a couple of decades ahead, when robust civil unions might be available to same-sex couples across the land.
What was wrong with that vision? Today, civil unions are widely derided as insufficient, as a second-class “gay ghetto” institution that divides same-sex couples from more favored opposite-sex couples. But don’t judge so quickly. Let’s turn back to the past and consider what many civil-union supporters (myself included, in those days) expected to happen next. Once robust civil unions were the law of the land for same-sex couples, this thinking went, there would follow legal activism by opposite-sex couples seeking to give their unions the protection of law without having to resort to marriage. When that was accomplished, civil unions would be available to all. They would stop being a gay-ghetto phenomenon. And traditional matrimony’s centuries-long monopoly over the authentication of romantic bonding would be shattered. At last there would be a new, wholly secular, historically untainted way for any couple, gay or straight, to seal shared commitment.
That’s the future many activists expected . . . that matrimony might be replaced rather than reformed. As realization spread that the grand prize—genuine, bona fide marriage for all—might be attainable, LGBT activists switched gears. With stunning speed they went from being matrimony’s most formidable enemies to its most enthusiastic advocates.
And so it is the best of times and the worst of times for traditional matrimony. Straights have less use for marriage than ever. Increasingly, only more prosperous couples go through its motions, yet it serves them less as sacrament than potlatch. The groups that now take marriage most seriously are LGBTs—for themselves—and progressives who champion primarily its availability to others.
It now seems all but inevitable that same-sex marriage will become legal across the nation. Of course this is a triumphant expansion of human rights, a worthy successor to women’s suffrage, the legalization of interracial marriage, and the civil rights movement. Yet it’s also a victory for traditional matrimony that is in many ways regrettable. LGBTs having taken up this institution so eagerly before straights could quite finish discarding it, marriage’s monopoly over the authentication of pair-bonds remains intact.
This leads, of course, to the greatest irony of all. The LGBT movement was the only social reform movement powerful enough to have shattered matrimony’s monopoly, and it essentially co-opted itself. As a result, traditional marriage—hoary old church-entwined man-buys-woman institution that it is—ducked a bullet. Decades from now, cultural conservatives will still have matrimony around, and they’ll have the LGBT community to thank for it.
*This represents partial fulfillment of predictions I made in two past FI op-eds: “Mixed Blessings,” December 2003/January 2004; and “Two Cheers for Same-sex Marriage,” August/September 2009. Part of this essay appeared as my Center for Inquiry blog “What We’ve Gained—and What We’ve Lost,” May 10, 2012.
Tom Flynn is the editor of FREE INQUIRY and the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.