Decade in Review: Marital Norms Erode

The transformation of our legal system as to marriage was rapid and top-down. Changes in law brought changes in culture, and they're not all rainbows.

Same-sex marriage didn’t create these problems. Many in America had unwisely already gone along with the erosion of marital norms in the wake of the sexual revolution—with the rise of cohabitation, nonmarital childbearing, no-fault divorce and the hookup culture. It was no surprise that many would then question the relevance of the male-female norm. Legal redefinition is a consequence of the cultural breakdown of marriage.

 

A decade ago, President Barack Obama affirmed that marriage unites a man and woman. So did 45 states and the federal government. The only states to redefine marriage had done so through activist court rulings or, in 2009, legislative action. At the ballot box, citizens had uniformly voted against redefinition. A majority agreed with Obama.

Then, in 2012, Obama “evolved,” and the Supreme Court took cases involving marriage law. Nothing in the Constitution answered the actual question at hand: What is marriage? The court should have left the issue to the people. But in 2013, it struck down the federal definition of marriage as a male-female union in a 5-4 ruling.

The court also punted on a challenge to a state definition of marriage adopted in a 2008 constitutional referendum by which a majority of Californians—yes, Californians—overturned an activist court. Only in 2015 did the Supreme Court, breaking 5-4 again, redefine marriage for the nation, provoking four irrefutable dissents.

Same-sex marriage advocates told the public that they sought only the “freedom to marry.” Same-sex couples were already free to live as they chose, but legal recognition was about the definition of marriage for all of society. It was about affirmation — by the government and everyone else.

It’s unsurprising that once a campaign that used to cry “live and let live” prevailed, it began working to shut down Catholic adoption agencies and harass evangelical bakers and florists. This shows it was never really about “live and let live” — that was a merely tactical stance.

Family, Marriage—Redefined

While these were the early effects of redefinition, the more profound consequences will be to marriage itself. Law shapes culture; culture shapes beliefs; beliefs shape action. The law now effectively teaches that mothers and fathers are replaceable, that marriage is simply about consenting adult relationships, of whatever formation the parties happen to prefer. This undermines the truth that children deserve a mother and a father—one of each.

It also undercuts any reasonable justification for marital norms. After all, if marriage is about romantic connection, why require monogamy? There’s nothing magical about the number two, as defenders of “polyamory” point out. If marriage isn’t a conjugal union uniting a man and a woman as one flesh, why should it involve or imply sexual exclusivity? If it isn’t a comprehensive union inherently ordered to childbearing and rearing, why should it be pledged to permanence?

Marriage redefiners could not answer these questions when challenged to show that the elimination of sexual complementarity did not undermine other marital norms. Today, they increasingly admit that they have no stake in upholding norms of monogamy, exclusivity and permanence.

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