The essay struck me as interesting in part because it sought to root a conservative position on this issue in something other than thinly-veiled (or not-so-thinly-veiled) religious arguments. Specifically, Hymowitz tries to argue that the American Founding Fathers' vision of marriage--and the conception of marriage that continued to prevail through the 19th and into the 20th centuries--is fundamentally at odds with same-sex marriage. But according to Hymowitz, this isn't because the founders were deliberately appropriating from their religious heritage certain moralistic ideas about what intimate life partnerships should be like. It was, rather, because they saw marital unions as a providing a very fundamental social unit, one on which the success of their republican project might stand or fall.
Hymowitz's argument, in brief, seems to be this: A democratic republic of the sort the Founding Fathers sought to build requires citizens suited to that kind of society--citizens who embrace the democratic notion that each citizen is an autonomous participant in government who has both the liberty and the responsibility to take an active role in shaping society. If a democratic society requires such civicly engaged and autonomous citizens, then the success of that society depends on a child-rearing environment conducive to creating the these civic virtues.
This fact led to an interest in shaping the institution of marriage to reflect democratic ideals of autonomy and self-governance--so that, for example, marriages were entered into by consenting adults who chose their own life partners, rather than by children in unions arranged by their parents; and marriages were not confined to partners of the same social class or clan, but could be freely entered into in defiance of these kinds of non-democratic divisions.
But underlying this progressive reshaping of marriage, according to Hymowitz, is the foundational assumption that the marital unit exists for the sake of rearing the next generation. The entire reason why we should care about the character of the marital relationship is because it is the context within which the next generation is reared.
Marriage, in short, exists for the sake of providing a framework or context within which the next generation is shaped--for better or worse--for participation in civil life. As such, the government has a stake in marriage as an institution. There's a reason why the state is in the marriage business, we might say. And participation in marriage, by extension, becomes more than just a private contract with another person. It becomes, instead, an act of participation in a crucial social institution on which democratic society depends. But it is insofar as the marriage is the context for child-rearing that it serves this social role--and hence, it is insofar as it is a context for child-rearing that it imposes responsibilities on citizens rather than merely affording them a right of association.
In this light, Hymowitz sees changes in marriage patterns and policies over the last half century as posing a serious threat to the original understanding of marriage's role in society. Insofar as marriage has come to be seen as nothing but a contract between two individuals, one that can be broken by mutual consent at any time, it has ceased to be the vehicle through which individuals in their private lives contribute to the wider social life. Hymowitz blames the "severing" of the relationship between marriage and reproduction, between the private pair bonding and the social responsibility of child-rearing--a severing epitomized by no-fault divorce and its concomitant dismissal of the parents' shared commitment to acting as partners in the rearing of healthy and productive members of society.
Hymowitz sums up her argument in the following way:
Gay marriage gives an enfeebled institution another injection of the toxin that got it sick in the first place: it reinforces the definition of marriage as a loving, self-determining couple engaging in an ordinary civil contract that has nothing to do with children. That's no way for marriage to get its gravitas back. It is marriage's dedication to child rearing, to a future that projects far beyond the passing feelings of a couple, that has the potential to discipline adult passion. "The gravity of marriage as an institution comes from its demand that love be negotiated through these larger responsibilities [surrounding procreation]," Shelby Steele has written in response to Andrew Sullivan. Ignore those responsibilities and you get, well, you get the marital meltdown that this generation was hoping to transform.
I say this is an interesting argument. I do not, however, think it is ultimately a convincing one. As I was reading Hymowitz's essay, I could not help but think about the infertile heterosexual couple who, before they say their vows, know that they are never likely to have children. Or the elderly couple, both widowed, who meet at the community center and decide to get married (although both are far past their child-bearing years). Or the lesbian couple raising two children together, deeply aware of their responsibilities as parents to nurture and guide their children into a productive and healthy adulthood.
These cases highlight two fatal oversights in Hymowitz's argument. The first oversight neglects a distinction of real importance, one which is blurred by Hymowitz's use of such phrases as "the fraying of the marriage-child rearing bond". She blames this "fraying" for "increased poverty and inequality"--but in making her case for this harmful effect she doesn't show how married couples who don't have children contribute to this problem, but focuses instead on children growing up without the benefit of married parents:
Too often, single-parent families, whether divorced or never married, are poor—and very much poorer than their two-earner counterparts. Instead of being the self-reliant units the Founders envisioned, too many of them are dependent on a powerful nanny state, either for welfare payments or for determining custody and tracking down child support. And instead of being the self-governing institutions of republican theory, nurturing sturdy, self-governing citizens, too many single-parent families, as many studies have shown, bring up kids who as adults do markedly less well on average in school, career, and marriage than those who grew up in intact two-parent families.Hymowitz concludes this line of argument with the following flourish: "Think of the past several decades of high rates of divorce and illegitimacy as a kind of natural experiment testing the truth of the Founders' vision. The results are in: if we forget that marriage is both a voluntary union between two loving partners and an arrangement for rearing the next generation of self-reliant citizens, our capacity for self-government weakens."
But it is only by equivocation that Hymowitz can get to the conclusion she wants here. There are two ways to sever the connection between loving partnerships and childrearing. One can have children outside the context of such voluntary, loving partnerships--and one can have such voluntary loving partnerships without children. It is the former, not the latter, which is the source of the "increased poverty and inequality" that Hymowitz bemoans.
Let me put the point this way. If Hymowitz is right about early American thinking about the institution of marriage, much of that thinking was shaped by a desire to ensure that this institution embodied characteristics that would, when children are born into them, create productive citizens. But it is one thing to have children outside the context of such an institution. It is something else again to have this context in place without children entering into it. The latter poses no threat to the creation of productive citizens. Put simply, it's not marriages without children that are the problem. It's children growing up without the stability and partnership that committed marriage can help to foster.
But there's a nuance to Hymowitz's argument that I'm overlooking here. Hymowitz thinks that without the expectation of children in a marriage--without the idea that having and raising children goes with getting married--marriage loses its "gravitas." In short, she thinks that the character of the marital relationship changes, ceasing to have the properties that contribute to healthy child-rearing, once people stop thinking of it as inextricably bound up with having children. If having children is optional rather than expected, marriages will lose--even in those cases where couples do have children--the traits that make a marital relationship so conducive to producing productive and healthy citizens.
This is an interesting claim. Is it true? I don't know, but I'm skeptical. I know from my own life that my marriage took on a new meaning and significance once their were children. In fact, I've been married twice. The first, entered into when I was quite young (early twenties), ended in divorce before there were children--before there were even thoughts of children. The second is still, I am happy to say, going strong. I'd like to think it would still be going strong even if there had been no children, but my point is this: Our marriage became about something more than the two of us when we started having children. Staying together became about more than just the happiness we found in each others' company. It became about our shared commitment to raising these two precious children. My participation in a marriage that did not involve children in no way diminished the broader significance that my present marriage has for me because children are involved.
And so, based on this anecdotal evidence, I'm a bit skeptical of the claim that the existence of marriages which don't involve children or the expectation of children somehow diminishes the society-building virtues of those marriages in which children are a part. Admittedly, this evidence is wholly anecdotal, but I doubt Hymowitz can do better for her contrary view. It would certainly be much harder for her to muster up the wieghty kind of evidence that she is able to muster up in support of the idea that having children outside of marriage is problematic. This may explain why Hymowitz relies so heavily on blurring the distinction between children-without-marriage and marriages-without-children, making her case against the latter rest on the negative effects of the former.
But whatever we think about this, there is a second crucial oversight in Hymowitz's article, based on a second failure to make important distinctions. I have in mind the distinction between making babies and raising them. Married couples who can't make babies can still raise them. As such, married same-sex couples can still participate in raising the next generation. Many do. Many more want to. For many gay and lesbian friends of mine, marriage is about raising children in the sense that they see the finding of a life partner as bound up with the hope of raising a family.
The fact is that same-sex marriage would increase the number of married couples who cannot readily produce babies of their own to raise. But in a world where so many children lack the kind of stable partnership for child-rearing that marriage helps to create, this implication of same-sex marriage would hardly be the negative one that Hymowitz links to "fraying" the connection between marriage and raising children. In the end, her argument rests entirely on a blurring of distinctions.