Ross Douthat and the Marriage Ideal
Revised as of 8/13
In Monday’s column, Ross Douthat contrasted the Judeo-Christian ideal of marriage as a lifelong union involving child-rearing with the modern conception of marriage as “optional celebrations of romantic love, only tangentially connected to procreation.” In his characteristic manner, Douthat provided little in the way of argumentation beyond a few generalizations about how his preferred ideal offers “something distinctive and remarkable,” and how heterosexual unions and gay relationships are “similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.”
How such impressionistic prose amounts to a defense of heterosexual monogamy, I’m not sure. But Douthat did manage to ruffle a number of feathers in the blogosphere — including those of Glenn Greenwald, Noah Millman, and (predictably) Andrew Sullivan. Douthat’s rebuttals to Greenwald and Millman are brilliant. And I wholeheartedly agree with Douthat’s contentions that the benefits of the sexual revolution have been oversold — particularly to the working class — and that law and culture cannot possibly be separated to the extent Greenwald desires.
What’s missing, however, is a clear explanation on Douthat’s part as to why a gay couple should not qualify for his preferred ideal. Yes, everyone knows that gays are not “two sexually different human beings” and therefore cannot procreate. But they can adopt. And they can form lifelong unions. Isn’t that what really counts? Isn’t what matters the potential of the family unit to provide stability and lasting love for each of its members, and to act as a bulwark against big business and state bureaucracy alike?
Allowing every gay or straight couple to invest marriage with its own set of meanings has undoubtedly tended to trivialize the institution. So by all means, let’s carve out a place for Douthat’s ideal alongside the less robust, but already normative “civil” marriage. At the same time, it is clear that the Judeo-Christian ideal had flaws no less significant than those of civil marriage. And by defending those flaws, Douthat actually does his ideal a disservice. If Douthat truly cherishes the old ideal, as I do, a better approach would be to reevaluate it — to imagine what it might look like devoid of gender essentialism and a fixation on biology.
Perhaps gay people could even be a part of reviving Douthat’s ideal. Here is Andrew Sullivan describing the positive impact gays have had on civil marriage:
Who else is celebrating civil marriage today the way gay couples are? Have not gay people actually affected the culture recently in ways that celebrate rather than demean civil marriage? And have we not also in many ways adopted tradition as opposed to radicalism in this respect? My own vows, for example, were quite specific: till death do us part. I am sure we will have bumps on the road, and we are both human and will fail. But we committed to be there for one another for ever. We meant it. We are not alone. In this, many gays are actually embracing an ideal of civil marriage that many straights do not. Why can this not fit into an understanding of the social impact of this reform?
Now “civil” marriage is obviously an ideal that Douthat rejects. But I’m not sure that the substance of Sullivan’s remarks matches that description, so much as it matches Douthat’s description of the Judeo-Christian marriage ideal. If straights can’t commit to indissoluble marital vows, perhaps gays will.