In a column in yesterday’s New York Times, Ross Douthat tries to wrap his head around the fact that marriage equality is going to eventually win, but he doesn’t like it, and he tries to come up with some sociological explanation for the sudden shift in acceptance of it.
Since [David] Frum warned that gay marriage could advance only at traditional wedlock’s expense, the marriage rate has been falling faster, the out-of-wedlock birthrate has been rising faster, and the substitution of cohabitation for marriage has markedly increased. Underlying these trends is a steady shift in values: Americans are less likely to see children as important to marriage and less likely to see marriage as important to childbearing (the generation gap on gay marriage shows up on unwed parenting as well) than even in the very recent past.
But there is also a certain willed naïveté to the idea that the advance of gay marriage is unrelated to any other marital trend. For 10 years, America’s only major public debate about marriage and family has featured one side — judges and journalists, celebrities and now finally politicians — pressing the case that modern marriage has nothing to do with the way human beings reproduce themselves, that the procreative understanding of the institution was founded entirely on prejudice, and that the shift away from a male-female marital ideal is analogous to the end of segregation.
Now that this argument seems on its way to victory, is it really plausible that it has changed how Americans view gay relationships while leaving all other ideas about matrimony untouched?
So it’s the gays’ fault that straight marriage has been having a tough time for the last few generations? Huh? How does that even make sense even if you grant that people who once got married for the wrong reasons — unplanned pregnancy, for instance — or to prove to their families and themselves that they really aren’t gay (and end up with profiles on gay dating sites noting that they’re “discreet”) are now getting divorced or not getting married in the first place? Straight marriage has been under attack by itself for the last 100 years without any help from the gay community. The fall in the childbirth rate is thanks to the advances in contraception and education, and yet there still seem to be plenty of overcrowded classrooms. Cohabitation without benefit of marriage has been going on long before Stonewall, and people have been having sex because it feels good since, well, they first discovered that it felt good.
Mr. Douthat, like a lot of conservatives who don’t embrace the Baby-Jesus-wept argument, is trying to justify his dislike for marriage equality with the last bastion of the concern troll: the “what does it do to the fabric of our society?” trope. How will we cope with the new paradigm of societal challenges? Will it harm the churches and the soccer teams? The same arguments were made about desegregation and civil rights long before Mr. Douthat was born, and the same arguments were made about women getting the right to vote when my grandmother wasn’t old enough to vote. They were dead wrong then, and they’re wrong now.