Blankenhorn on SSM in the Weekly Standard:

David Blankehorn has an interesting article coming out in the Weekly Standard that appears to be a condensed version of some of the arguments made in his new book arguing against gay marriage, The Future of Marriage.

The article is interesting in part because he eschews the argument made by Stanley Kurtz that data from Europe demonstrates a correlation between gay marriage and a decline in marriage and other social ills. From this (flawed) correlation data, Kurtz argues that gay marriage must have caused the problems. Says Blankenhorn: "Neither Kurtz nor anyone else can scientifically prove that allowing gay marriage causes the institution of marriage to get weaker." He suggests "giving up the search for causation." Maggie Gallagher, too, has avoided relying on Kurtz. Robert George of Princeton has seemed agnostic about Kurtz's claims. Now Blankenhorn rejects the Kurtz thesis. It is becoming difficult to find even opponents of same-sex marriage who think Kurtz is right.

Blankenhorn has a new twist on some survey data, however, that he believes does undermine the "conservative case" for gay marriage. Blankenhorn writes that a 2002 survey of attitudes about families and marriage from 35 countries around the world shows that the presence of gay marriage or civil unions in a country correlates strongly with a series of beliefs that he describes as, roughly speaking, anti-marriage. For example, people in countries with gay marriage or civil unions are more likely to agree with statements like, "One parent can bring up a child as well as two parents together," or "It is allright for a couple to live together without intending to get married." Conversely, people in countries with no recognition of gay relationships are more likely to agree with statements like, "Married people are generally happier than unmarried people," or "The main purpose of marriage these days is to have children." (To keep this post relatively short, I won't quibble here with the numbers in the surveys, the methodology, or the age of the data. What would happen to the correlation, for example, if we added a country like South Africa, which recently recognized SSM, to the mix?)

All this seems to show is that the more socially conservative a country is the more likely it is to oppose gay marriage and vice-versa. That's no surprise. It's no accident, for example, that the first states to recognize gay relationships in some form have been blue states, and that the states where the strongest majorities have banned gay marriage have been deep red states.

So what does this correlation mean for the debate? To Blankenhorn, it suggests that support for gay marriage is one of a "cluster" of "mutually reinforcing" beliefs about family life that are anti-marriage. To make this argument he comes up with a revealing analogy:

Find some teenagers who smoke, and you can confidently predict that they are more likely to drink than their nonsmoking peers. Why? Because teen smoking and drinking tend to hang together. . . .

Because these behaviors correlate and tend to reinforce one another, it is virtually impossible for the researcher to pull out any one from the cluster and determine that it alone is causing or is likely to cause some personal or (even harder to measure) social result. All that can be said for sure is that these things go together. To the degree possible, parents hope that their children can avoid all of them, the entire syndrome--drinking, smoking, skipping school, missing sleep, and making friends with other children who get into trouble--in part because each of them increases exposure to the others.

It's the same with marriage. Certain trends in values and attitudes tend to cluster with each other and with certain trends in behavior. . . . They are mutually reinforcing. [emphasis added]

Accept one of the beliefs (e.g., that there's no need to get married if you want to raise kids) and you are likely to accept them all (including support for SSM). Reognize SSM and you are likely to have a populace with anti-marriage views. But this doesn't work well as an argument against SSM.

First, while he convincingly rejects Kurtz's correlation-as-causation argument, Blankenhorn himself slips between correlation and causation. Unless supporting SSM or recognizing SSM in a country somehow causes people to accept anti-marriage views, or at least causes them to be more likely to hold such views, then there is no "mutually reinforcing" "cluster" of beliefs to be worried about. There is only a coincidence of beliefs, which may or may not be causally related. Support for SSM among individuals or recognizing SSM in a country is no more tied to general anti-marriage views than is opposition to the death penalty (which I'd bet is another correlation we would find) or any number of other beliefs that might be correlated in traditionalist and non-traditionalist countries. Blankenhorn picks certain survey results out of all the questions asked and asserts, effectively, "these must go together, they must be part of the same world-view."

To say that these beliefs are "mutually reinforing," as Blankenhorn does, is just another way of saying that one bears a causal relationship to the other. But as Blankenhorn correctly notes, "Correlation does not imply causation. The relation between two correlated phenomena may be causal, or it may be random, or it may reflect some deeper cause producing both."

Second, as Blankenhorn's analogy to teen smoking and drinking reveals, his conclusion that SSM is a bad thing is embedded in his argument. Yes, teens who smoke are more likely to drink and both produce individual and social ills. But we know they produce social ills not because these activities are correlated, but because there is a demonstrated and distinctive harm that each produces. Smoking causes cancer. Drinking causes drunk driving. Similarly, having children out-of-wedlock demonstrably increases risks to them; SSM may or may not produce social ills, but this conclusion is not reached by noting a correlation with practices that do cause harm.

Think of it this way: Suppose I could show that people who attend church regularly are more apt to hold very traditionalist views about the role of women (e.g., that a woman should be a homemaker, not a professional, and should defer to her husband's authority) or are more likely to be racist (e.g., they oppose interracial dating or marriage), and in fact, suppose the survey data further showed that the more often people attend church the more likely they are to harbor racist and sexist beliefs. Would I have shown that attending church is a bad thing?

Bringing this back to marriage, I'd bet that there was a correlation in 1900 between support for ending the marital rape exemption, support for equalizing women's role within marriage, granting women the right to vote, and support for ending marriage altogether. This correlation, if it existed, would tell us nothing about whether ending the marital rape exemption or promoting women's equality or enfranchising women were good ideas.

I suppose Blankenhorn could respond: "Kids shouldn't smoke because this is more likely to cause them to drink, even if smoking itself weren't harmful. Similarly, we shouldn't have SSM because support for SSM is more likely to cause people to believe things that are demonstrably harmful to marriage, even if SSM by itself is not." But this response would itself depend on a conclusion that there is some causal relationship between support for SSM and support for anti-marriage positions, and yet we cannot know this from a correlation.

A person who's generally anti-marriage could believe, quite mistakenly, that SSM too is anti-marriage. Instead of deinstitutionalizing marriage, SSM could be a small part of reinstitutionalizing it, despite the marriage opponent's most fervent hopes. Nothing in a series of correlations in survey data answers that question either way.

In another part of his Weekly Standard article, Blankenhorn quotes from a number of academic supporters of SSM who do indeed see it as a way of deinstitutionalizing marriage. He argues that this also shows that SSM and deinstitutionalizing marriage "are linked." I'll address that argument in a coming post.

UPDATE: Stanley Kurtz agrees with me that, even though Blankenhorn eschews causation from the correlations he presents, in fact he slips into causal arguments. This isn't a problem for Kurtz, of course, but on Blankenhorn's own logic it's a big problem for his own argument.

Blankenhorn and the marriage radicals:

Yesterday I addressed part of David Blankenhorn's argument, relying on international survey data, that support for same-sex marriage is part of a "cluster" of "mutually reinforcing" beliefs that are hostile to traditional marriage. "These things do go together," he writes.

I responded by saying that a correlation between the recognition of same-sex marriage in a country and the views of its people on other marital and family issues (1) could not show that same-sex marriage in that country caused, or even contributed to, those other views, and (2) did not tell us anything very important about whether, on balance, SSM is a good policy idea. SSM might be a small part of a project of reinstitutionalizing marriage -- despite what those who hold a cluster of non-traditional beliefs about marriage may hope for.

I don't deny that people who hold non-traditionalist views about family life and marriage also tend to be more supportive of SSM; I simply maintain that the existence of this cluster in some people is not very important in the public policy argument about SSM. By itself, it tells us nothing about what the likely or necessary effects of SSM will be. It would similarly not be very useful in the debate over SSM to note the existence of other correlations more friendly to the case for SSM, like the fact that countries recognizing SSM tend to be wealthier, more educated, more democratic, healthier, have lower infant mortality rates, longer life expectancy, and are more devoted to women's equality, than countries that refuse to recognize gay relationships.

The second half of Blankenhorn's argument that supporting SSM and opposing marriage "go together" boils down to this:

[P]eople who have devoted much of their professional lives to attacking marriage as an institution almost always favor gay marriage. . . . Inevitably, the pattern discernible in the [international survey data] statistics is borne out in the statements of the activists. Many of those who most vigorously champion same-sex marriage say that they do so precisely in the hope of dethroning once and for all the traditional "conjugal institution."

In a move that has become common among anti-gay marriage intellectuals, Blankenhorn then quotes three academics/activists who do indeed see SSM as a way to begin dismantling traditional marriage and undermining many of the values associated with it. There are many more such quotes that could be pulled from the pages of law reviews, newspaper op-eds, dissertations, college term papers, and the like. They've been gathered with great gusto by Maggie Gallagher and especially Stanley Kurtz, who regards them as the "confessions" of the grand project to subvert American civilization. (Remember the "Beyond Marriage" manifesto that excited Kurtz so much last summer? Not many people do.)

I do not deny that there are supporters of SSM who think this way, including some very smart and prominent academics. I wince when I read some of what they write; in part because I know these ideas will be used by good writers like Blankenhorn to frighten people about gay marriage, in part because I just think they're wrong normatively and in their predictions about the likely effects of SSM on marriage. But mostly I wince because if I believed they were correct that SSM would undermine marriage as an institution, if I thought there was any credible evidence that this was a reasonable possibility, I would oppose SSM -- regardless of whatever help it might give gay Americans and the estimated 1-2 million children they are raising right now in this country.

So I wince, but I am not persuaded that either correlations from international surveys or statements from marriage radicals show that "gay marriage clearly presupposes and reinforces deinstitutionalization [of marriage]."

First, as Blankenhorn well knows, it is not necessary to the cause of gay marriage to embrace the "cluster" of beliefs he and I would both regard as generally anti-marriage. One could, as many conservative supporters of gay marriage do, both support SSM and believe that (1) marriage is not an outdated institution, (2) divorce should be made harder to get, (3) adultery should be discouraged and perhaps penalized in some fashion, (4) it is better for children to be born within marriage than without, (5) it is better for a committed couple to get married than to stay unmarried, (6) it is better for children to be raised by two parents rather than one, and so on.

Second, a policy view is not necessarily bad because some (or many) of the people who support it also support bad things and see those other bad things as part of a grand project to do bad. Some (many?) opponents of gay marriage also oppose the use of contraceptives (even by married couples), would recriminalize sodomy, would end sex education in the schools, and would re-subordinate wives to their husbands. And they see all of this -- including their opposition to SSM -- as part of a grand project to make America once and for all "One Christian Nation" where the "separation of church and state" is always accompanied by scare quotes and is debunked by selective quotes from George Washington. These are, one might say, a "cluster" of "mutually reinforcing" beliefs that "do go together." But it would be unfair to tar opponents of SSM with all of these causes, or to dismiss the case against SSM because opposing SSM might tend to advance some of them.

Third, in citing and quoting these pro-SSM marriage radicals, Blankenhorn and other anti-gay marriage writers ignore an entire segment of the large debate on the left about whether marriage is a worthwhile cause for gays. While there are many writers on the left who support SSM because they believe (erroneously, I think) that it will deinstitutionalize marriage, there are many other writers on the left who oppose (or are at least anxious about) SSM because they think it will reinstitutionalize it. Let me give a just a few examples that Blankenhorn, Gallagher, and Kurtz have so far missed.

Paula Ettelbrick, in a very influential and widely quoted essay written at the outset of the intra-community debate over SSM, worried that SSM would reassert the primacy of marriage, enervate the movement for alternatives to marriage, and traditionalize gay life and culture:

By looking to our sameness and de-emphasizing our differences, we don't even place ourselves in a position of power that would allow us to transform marriage from an institution that emphasizes property and state regulation of relationships to an institution which recognizes one of many types of valid and respected relationships. . . . [Pursuing the legalization of same-sex marriage] would be perpetuating the elevation of married relationships and of 'couples' in general, and further eclipsing other relationships of choice. . . .

Ironically, gay marriage, instead of liberating gay sex and sexuality, would further outlaw all gay and lesbian sex which is not performed in a marital context. Just as sexually active non-married women face stigma and double standards around sex and sexual activity, so too would non-married gay people. The only legitimate gay sex would be that which is cloaked in and regulated by marriage. . . . Lesbians and gay men who did not seek the state's stamp of approval would clearly face increased sexual oppression. . . .

If the laws change tomorrow and lesbians and gay men were allowed to marry, where would we find the incentive to continue the progressive movement we have started that is pushing for societal and legal recognition of all kinds of family relationships? To create other options and alternatives?

Since When is Marriage a Path to Liberation?, Out/Look, Fall 1989, at 8-12 (emphasis added).

Professor Michael Warner of Rutgers argues in his book, The Trouble With Normal (1999), that SSM would augment the normative status of marriage, reinforce conservative trends toward reinstitutionalizing it, and thus be "regressive" (all of which for him would be bad things):

[T]he effect [of gay marriage] would be to reinforce the material privileges and cultural normativity of marriage. . . . Buying commodities sustains the culture of commodities whether the buyers like it or not. That is the power of a system. Just so, marrying consolidates and sustains the normativity of marriage. (P. 109) (emphasis added)

The conservative trend of shoring up this privilege [in marriage] is mirrored, wittingly or unwittingly, by the decision of U.S. advocates of gay marriage to subordinate an entire bundle of entitlements to the status of marriage. (P. 122) (emphasis added)

In respect to the family, real estate, and employment, for example, the state has taken many small steps toward recognizing households and relationships that it once did not. . . . But the drive for gay marriage [] threatens to reverse the trend [toward progressive change], because it restores the constitutive role of state certification. Gay couples don't just want households, benefits, and recognition. They want marriage licenses. They want the stipulative language of law rewritten and then enforced. (P. 125) (emphasis added)

The definition of marriage, from the state's special role in it to the culture of romantic love -- already includes so many layers of history, and so many norms, that gay marriage is not likely to alter it fundamentally, and any changes that it does bring may well be regressive. (P. 129) (emphasis added)

As for the hopes of pro-SSM marriage radicals (like those Blankenhorn quotes) that gay marriage would somehow radicalize marriage, Warner counters that "It seems rather much to expect that gay people would transform the institution of marriage by simply marrying."

Many other activists and intellectuals have written a stream of editorials and position papers over the past two decades expressing a similar "assimilation anxiety" (William Eskridge's phrase) about SSM. Here are just a few:

"[Same-sex] Marriage is an attempt to limit the multiplicity of relationships and the complexities of coupling in the lesbian experience." Ruthann Robson & S.E.Valentine, Lov(hers): Lesbians as Intimate Partners and Lesbian Legal Theory, 63 Temp. L. Q. 511, 540 (1990).

"[I]n seeking to replicate marriage clause for clause and sacrament for sacrament, reformers may stall the achievement of real sexual freedom and social equality for everyone. . . . [M]arriage -- forget the gay for a moment -- is intrinsically conservative.... Assimilating another 'virtually normal' constituency, namely monogamous, long-term homosexual couples, marriage pushes the queerer queers of all sexual persuasions -- drag queens, club crawlers, polyamorists, even ordinary single mothers or teenage lovers -- further to the margins." Judith Levine, Stop the Wedding!, Village Voice, July 23-29, 2003.

"As an old-time gay liberationist, I find the frenzy around marriage organizing exciting, but depressing. . . . Securing the right to marry . . . will not change the world. Heck, it won't even change marriage." Michael Bronski, "Over the Rainbow," Boston Phoenix, August 1-7, 2003.

"But the simple fact remains that the fight for marriage equality is at its essence not a progressive fight, but rather a deeply conservative one that seeks to maintain the social norm of the two-partnered relationship -- with or without children -- as more valuable than any other relational configuration. While this may make a great deal of sense to conservatives . . . it is clear that this paradigm simply leaves the basic needs of many people out of the equation. In the case of same-sex marriage the fight for equality bears little resemblance to a progressive fight for the betterment of all people." Michael Bronski, "Altar ego," Boston Phoenix, July 16-22, 2004.

So, David Blankenhorn, I see your three marriage radicals and raise you three!

Seriously, here's another "cluster" of beliefs to add to the mix: gay marriage will enhance the primacy of marriage, take the wind out of the sails of the "families we choose" movement, cut off support for the creation of marriage alternatives (like domestic partnerships and civil unions), de-radicalize gay culture, gut the movement for sexual liberation, and reinforce recent conservative trends in family law. So say what we might roughly call the anti-SSM marriage radicals.

These anti-assimilationist writers (some of whom have actually opposed SSM and some of whom, to be fair, are just very uncomfortable about it) have not gotten as much attention in the press as other writers because they greatly complicate an already complex debate. And indeed it's fair to say they have kept themselves fairly quiet for fear that their concerns would be seen as undermining gay equality and thwarting gay marriage, a cause that has broad support among gays. They don't want to be seen as opposing benefits for gay people (which in fact they do not oppose).

But these anti-SSM marriage radicals comprise a significant perspective among what I would call "queer" activists, those who observe that the gay movement is pursuing traditionalist causes in traditionalist ways, who think it is endangering sexual liberation, and who fear it is making gay people just like straight people (who are, by implication, all boring, uncultured philistines who couple up, vote Republican, and live in the suburbs). And they think these are bad things.

The point is not to argue that any of these writers are correct that gay marriage will have the significant reinstitutionalizing effect they think it will have. I think both the anti-SSM marriage radicals and the pro-SSM marriage radicals Blankenhorn cites are far too taken with the transformative power of adding an additional increment of 3% or so to existing marriages in the country. So are anti-gay marriage activists generally. I think all of them -- including Blankenhorn -- are mistaken if they imagine that straight couples take cues from gay couples in structuring their lives and relationships, if they think straight couples may stop having children, or if they predict straight couples will be more likely to have babies outside of marriage because gay couples are now having and raising their children within it.

The point is that both support for and opposition to SSM well up from a variety of complex ideas, fears, hopes, emotions, world-views, motives, and underlying theories. The debate will not be resolved by dueling quotes from marriage radicals. SSM will have the effects it has -- good or bad -- regardless of what marriage radicals with one or another "cluster" of beliefs hope it will have.

I should add that I have begun reading Blankenhorn's book, The Future of Marriage. So far, I find it lively, engaging, subtle, interesting, happily free of jargon, and deeply wrong. It is probably the best single book yet written opposing gay marriage.

Blankenhorn (round 2):

Last week I responded to an article by David Blankenhorn in the Weekly Standard arguing that support for SSM and non-traditional views of marriage "go together" and are "mutually reinforcing." He based this conclusion on international survey data that shows, he claims, a correlation between recognition for SSM in a country and non-traditionalist beliefs. He also quoted from a few pro-SSM marriage radicals in academia who literally embody the tendency of these views to "go together": they support SSM because they think it will undermine traditional marriage. I responded that, for a number of reasons, this was not a winning argument.

Now Blankenhorn has defended his argument against my criticisms. (1) First, he denies that he has "eschewed" the argument of Stanley Kurtz, based on claimed correlative data, that gay marriage has contributed to the decline of marriage in Europe. Instead, he says that he "embraces" Kurtz's argument, and is trying only to "build" on it. (This has come as a relief to Kurtz, who initially suggested there might be some disagreement between them.) (2) Second, he argues that it is unfair of me to require him to "scientifically demonstrate" that gay marriage is contributing to non-traditional beliefs about marriage when the correlative data allow us "to make reasonable (if qualified, and modest) inferences about a likely causal relationship" between the two. (3) Third, he claims that while there may be a few anti-SSM marriage radicals who believe gay marriage will actually strengthen marriage, "the dominant, most influential idea about gay marriage" on the left is represented by the marriage radicals he cites and not those I cite. (4) Finally, he challenges me to cite a "prominent supporter" of SSM who has publicly committed to otherwise traditionalist beliefs about marriage (e.g., we should make divorce harder, discourage out-of-wedlock births, stigmatize adultery).

Let's take these responses one at a time.

(1) The whole point of Kurtz's work has been to show, mainly through the use of correlations, that gay marriage has caused marital decline in Europe. (Even Kurtz's correlations are faulty, incomplete, and unpersuasive -- but that's another matter.) In his book, Blankenhorn said flatly, "These correlations [between SSM and non-traditional attitudes] do not prove that gay marriage causes marriage to get weaker. I am not trying to prove causation." (p. 232) (emphasis original) In his Weekly Standard article, he suggests "giving up the search for causation" and looking for "recurring patterns" in the data instead.

It seemed to me that Blankenhorn was trying to distance himself, at least rhetorically, from Kurtz. I thought it was a wise decision.

(2) It is now clear that Blankenhorn's argument is structurally and conceptually the same as Kurtz's, only weaker. Here's why.

There are a couple of ways one might argue that gay marriage is hurting marriage. First, one might argue that gay marriage has caused problems to marriage itself, like rising cohabitation and unwed childbirths. That is what I'd call a strong and direct claim about the harm of gay marriage. Second, one might argue that gay marriage has caused people to have beliefs about marriage that might, in turn, cause concrete harms to marriage itself. This is an indirect and weaker claim about the harm of gay marriage. Kurtz presents the former, stronger and more direct, form of the argument. Blankenhorn, it turns out, is presenting the latter, weaker and more indirect, form of the argument. Blankenhorn's argument is thus a poor cousin of Kurtz's.

Except for that, the arguments are basically the same. Like Kurtz, Blankenhorn relies on what he claims is a correlation to "infer" a "likely causal relationship." (Blankenhorn is, to his credit, rhetorically more modest than Kurtz about the strength of his own argument.)

What do we make of Blankenhorn's use of correlations? I don't think correlations are useless. They might indicate something important is going on. By itself, a correlation could be a starting point for further investigation. It's a clue that two seemingly unrelated phenomena may be related. But it might also seriously mislead us unless we're very careful.

Consider the case of smoking as a cause of cancer, which Blankenhorn uses to show that correlations can be valuable because they can help show causation. Yes, there's a correlation between smoking and cancer. But we know smoking causes cancer not simply because of this simple correlation. Instead, we know smoking causes cancer because decades of careful, replicated, peer-reviewed, and methodologically sound medical research has revealed (1) a correlation (2) that sequentially matches the harm (e.g., lung cancer often follows smoking), (3) we've controlled for confounding variables and (4) ruled out multiple other plausible causes of the harm (e.g., auto exhaust or coal-fired plants), (5) and we've identified the agent or mechanism (over 70 chemicals in tobacco) that (6) causes a harmful result (tobacco carcinogens damage DNA inside lung cells).

When it comes to gay marriage "causing" harm by leading to non-traditional attitudes about marriage, Blankenhorn gives us only the first of these six. He has only correlation. And even this, it turns out, is suspect.

I'm not just playing with words here and I'm not requiring "scientific proof" analogous to demonstrating pathological processes in the body. I'm asking for a standard degree of reliability in inferences and an accounting when the correlations seem explicable by numerous other factors and are sequentially all wrong (more on that below). There's good reason to be suspicious of an argument that a correlation allows us to infer a causal relationship. There's a correlation between people who buy ashtrays and people who get lung cancer, but this hardly proves that buying ashtrays causes lung cancer. If we relied on correlation, we'd think all sorts of crazy things were causally related.

Consider what can be done with a correlation used to "infer" a "likely causal relation." People in countries without same-sex marriage are more likely to believe women should stay at home and not work, that men should be masters of their households, that there should be no separation of church and state, that people should not use contraception when they have sex, that divorce should never be permitted, and that sodomy should be criminalized. If these correlations exist, have I demonstrated the existence of a "cluster of beliefs" that reinforce one another and "go together," undermining the arguments against SSM?

Or consider the more sympathetic correlations to SSM that Blankenhorn ignores. Countries with SSM are richer, healthier, more democratic, more educated, more liberal, have more egalitarian attitudes about women, etc. Have I shown that the absence of SSM is likely causing harm in those unfortunate backward countries that refuse to recognize it?

Here's another correlation helpful to the conservative case for SSM: countries with SSM are enjoying higher marriage rates since they recognized it. Have I shown that SSM likely caused this?

Even Blankenhorn's correlation is suspect, in a way very similar to Kurtz's. Non-traditional attitudes about marriage in countries with SSM preceded the recognition of SSM, just as signals of marital decline in Europe preceded SSM. Though I haven't gone back and checked the previous international surveys from the 1980s and 1990s, I'll bet my mulberry tree they show that. Besides, even the survey data Blankenhorn relies on show that he's got a problem. In one survey, the data comes from 1999-2001, before any country had full SSM. In the other survey, the data comes from 2002, when only one country (the Netherlands) had full SSM.

How could SSM have caused a decline in traditional marital attitudes before it even existed? Of course, Blankenhorn is still free to argue that non-traditional attitudes greased the way for SSM, but this doesn't show that SSM caused or even reinforced non-traditional attitudes. What Blankenhorn needs, even as a starting point, is some evidence that non-traditionalist views rose after SSM. He doesn't have that.

Of course, even if he had the sequence right, he'd still have the problem of trying to deal with the existence of multiple other factors that have plausibly fueled non-traditionalist attitudes. Here, too, Blankenhorn has the same problem as Kurtz. Just as we can plausibly surmise that factors like increased income, longer life spans, more education, and women's equality -- rather than SSM -- have caused actual marital decline, so we can plausibly surmise that factors like these have caused a rise in non-traditionalist attitudes about marriage. And even if the data showed a rise in non-traditional attitudes after SSM, that might well only be a continuation of pre-existing trends. Kurtz has that problem, too, when he tries to show marital decline.

(3) I demonstrated in my last post that there are quite a few marriage radicals who are uncomfortable with gay marriage (either oppose it or very reluctantly support it) because they think it will strengthen marriage. That was just the tip of an iceberg, believe me. Blankenhorn says that he is familiar with these authors and cites them in his book.

But wait a second. While he mentions Michael Warner, for example, it is not to present Warner's concern that gay marriage will reinstitutionalize marriage but as evidence of the bad reasons gay couples seek marriage (see p. 142). And while he quotes from Tom Stoddard (pro-SSM marriage radical) in the noteworthy early debate Stoddard had with Paula Ettelbrick (anti-SSM marriage radical), he omits even mentioning Ettelbrick's influential concerns about SSM expressed in the same debate he quotes from (p. 162). (I quoted from her essay in my last post, "Blankenhorn and the Marriage Radicals".)

Apologies if I missed it, but I can't find any acknowledgment from Blankenhorn of the marriage radicals' deep unease with gay marriage, an unease that is present in the writings of even those marriage radicals who favor gay marriage. This is a significant and strange omission, one that henceforth opponents of gay marriage must know will not go unchallenged.

Blankenhorn may now say that the authors I have cited and the concerns they have expressed are a minority on the left. I don't know what the basis is for that claim, so I don't know how to assess it. But frankly, it is hard to credit such an observation when his book demonstrates no familiarity with these quite common anti-SSM concerns among marriage radicals.

And why do we care what marriage radicals think anyway? Though prolific in academic journals, they're a small group and are not very influential in public policy. They won't be able to control how heterosexuals or homosexuals think of their marriages or how they practice them. Gay marriage will have its effects, whatever they hope for.

Blankenhorn defends his reliance on their writings in his book this way (p. 128):

I believe that my nightmare can even be expressed as a sociological principle: People who professionally dislike marriage almost always favor gay marriage. Here is the corollary: Ideas that have long been used to attack marriage are now commonly used to support same-sex-marriage. (emphasis original)

We could have a lot of fun with "sociological principles" like that. How about this:

People who professionally dislike feminism almost always oppose gay marriage. Here is the corollary: Ideas that have long been used to attack feminism are now commonly used to oppose same-sex marriage.

Or this:

People who professionally dislike homosexuality almost always oppose gay marriage. Here is the corollary: Ideas that have long been used to attack homosexuality are now commonly used to oppose same-sex marriage.

(4) Blankenhorn challenges my claim that conservative supporters of SSM generally believe the following:

(1) marriage is not an outdated institution, (2) divorce should be made harder to get, (3) adultery should be discouraged and perhaps penalized in some fashion, (4) it is better for children to be born within marriage than without, (5) it is better for a committed couple to get married than to stay unmarried, (6) it is better for children to be raised by two parents rather than one

He thinks such people don't really exist and asks me to name a prominent one. OK, here goes.

As I thought was clear in my post, I believe these six things (though I may not count as a "prominent" SSM supporter). Though I'd prefer to let him speak for himself, I know that Jon Rauch unequivocally supports 1, 4, 5, and 6. On 2, he certainly supports the goal of reducing the divorce rate, but isn't sure how to do it. On 3, he supports discouraging adultery socially ("stigmatizing it," as Blankenhorn aptly puts it), but doesn't want the law to penalize it. And while Andrew Sullivan can certainly speak for himself, I also know that he supports all six, though he also doesn't want the government investigating or penalizing people for adultery. (Like Rauch and Sullivan, I don't support criminalizing adultery but am open to proposals for attaching some form of civil disadvantage to it. I suggested as much reviewing William Eskridge's book Gaylaw six years ago.) I'd bet David Brooks, a conservative supporter of SSM, agrees with all or most of these ideas in some form — but I frankly haven't asked him. I'm certain there are others in this pro-SSM traditionalist camp. Maybe conservative pro-SSM writers and bloggers will challenge Blankenhorn's suspicion that they're a fiction.

Where have we said all these things? I don't know that each of us has written about each of them in precisely these terms or in the somewhat different terms Blankenhorn insists we should have. But these views are at the very least implicit in the conservative case, and in some cases they've been made explicit. The conservative case for SSM is now almost 20 years old, going back to Sullivan's pathbreaking New Republic article, and continuing through his book Virtually Normal, Rauch's voluminous writings and book arguing that marriage should be the gold standard for commitment and raising children, and my own work.

I don't have time to chase down sources and quotes for Blankenhorn, but for my own work he could start with the Traditionalist Case for Gay Marriage or look at some of the many columns I've written on the subject. If he really cares what I think, he can look forward to a law review article I'll be writing soon on traditionalism and gay marriage. I don't know how one could come away from all this with the impression that I think marriage is outdated, that high divorce rates are good (I've criticized them in numerous debates on the subject with St. Thomas Professor Teresa Collett, BYU Professor Lynn Wardle, etc), that children's well-being is unrelated to marriage, etc.

As Blankenhorn correctly puts it, we really do "operate[] from a very important shared intellectual and moral framework," which is what makes the SSM debate among conservatives so much more interesting than the tired debates between the pro-SSM marriage radicals and anti-SSM marriage traditionalists. They really have nothing useful to say to each other. By contrast, I've suggested ten principles upon which conservatives, both pro- and anti-SSM, can agree. They give us a lot of common ground.

In conclusion (!), I wouldn't usually use this many electrons responding to a single article or book. But Blankenhorn's book is unusually well-written. And intellectual guilt-by-association has an easy appeal that may make his argument that these bad things all "go together" an anti-gay marriage mantra in the future. Like Kurtz's superficially frightening correlations, now largely ignored on both sides of the debate, Blankenhorn's argument has to be carefully unpacked to show how unsatisfying it is.

P.S.: If you haven't had enough, see some further thoughtful comments about Blankenhorn's argument by St. Thomas Law School's Robert Vischer.

P.P.S.: Rauch has now finished reading Blankenhorn's book and calls it "the best piece of work that the anti-gay-marriage side has yet produced, containing much to admire despite its flaws."

P.P.P.S.: Maggie Gallagher weighs in: "The question is: what is the main idea SSM advocates are asking us to embrace and what implications over the long term will accepting this core idea about gay marriage have for our ideas about marriage in general?"

Blankenhorn (Round 3):

David Blankenhorn and I are continuing an exchange about his arguments opposing gay marriage, expressed in an article for the Weekly Standard and in his new book The Future of Marriage. In his latest posts, he has responded here, asking me to identify weaknesses in the case for gay marriage and strengths in the opposition to it, and here, asking whether I agree that society should take steps to increase the likelihood that children are raised by their married biological parents and refrain from taking steps that make that less likely.

These are fair questions and I'll respond below. But first I want to emphasize something unique and valuable in Blankenhorn's work. In The Future of Marriage, Blankenhorn says he believes homosexuality "is closer to being a given than a choice," that he "disagrees" with the parts of the Bible that are commonly interpreted to condemn homosexuality, and that Jesus' teachings are inconsistent with the condemnation of gay people. (P. 210) I'm told that in a recent debate with Jon Rauch, Blankenhorn actually affirmed "the equal dignity of homosexual love." He also said that he "agonized" over the real harm done to gay couples by prohibiting them from marrying. The debate occurred at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank for religious and social conservatives, which shows he's unafraid to say these things in environments potentially hostile to them.

If there were more advocates on both sides in the mold of David Blankenhorn, we'd have a much more civil and fruitful debate over gay marriage. It would be terrific if gay-marriage supporters would occasionally acknowledge that it's at least possible (though very unlikely) that some unintended harm might occur if marriage is expanded to include same-sex couples and that not all anxiety about gay marriage arises from base hatred of gay people. And it would be terrific if gay-marriage opponents could at least acknowledge that they are asking gay couples and families to bear the burden of not running that cultural risk.

Having said all that, I'm a bit disappointed by Blankenhorn's lack of response to my specific criticisms of his argument. I challenged on several grounds his claim that gay marriage in Europe is contributing to a miasma of anti-marriage attitudes. Blankenhorn offers no defense against the criticism that his argument rests on correlation alone and that this is insufficient to show gay marriage has caused anything bad to happen. He makes no response to the observation that non-traditional attitudes about marriage and family life in pro-SSM countries preceded gay marriage and so could not have been caused by gay marriage. He says nothing about how several other long-term and deep systemic factors likely caused non-traditional attitudes about marriage in Europe long before SSM entered the picture. He ignores correlations in countries with gay marriage that cut in favor of the reform (like rising marriage rates). He passes by correlations in countries without gay marriage that cut against his opposition (less respect for women's equality, less commitment to individual rights, etc., in countries like Saudi Arabia). He still demonstrates no real familiarity with the complexity of the debate on the left over the effects of gay marriage, and particularly the concerns expressed by many marriage radicals that gay marriage will reaffirm the normativity of marriage.

His only response is that there's nothing new to respond to. He's a busy man, so I don't entirely fault him for this. But it seems to me he has left a lot on the table. That's his right, and like him I'm content to let readers decide whether he has more to answer at the very heart of his empirical arguments.

Blankenhorn and the purposes of marriage:

In addition to the important procreative and child-raising purpose of marriage that David Blankenhorn and others opposed to gay marriage have emphasized, marriage has other functions arising from our history, tradition, and actual practice that are served by allowing people to marry even if they never have children.

So what does marriage do? What is it for? Marriage does at least six important things. I put these here in block text for ease of reference:

(1) Marriage is a legal contract. Marriage creates formal and legal obligations and rights between spouses. Public recognition of, and protection for, this marriage contract, whether in tax or divorce law, helps married couples succeed in creating a permanent bond.

(2) Marriage is a financial partnership. In marriage, "my money" typically becomes "our money," and this sharing of property creates its own kind of intimacy and mutuality that is difficult to achieve outside a legal marriage. Only lovers who make this legal vow typically acquire the confidence that allows them to share their bank accounts as well as their bed.

(3) Marriage is a sacred promise. Even people who are not part of any organized religion usually see marriage as a sacred union, with profound spiritual implications. "Whether it is the deep metaphors of covenant as in Judaism, Islam and Reformed Protestantism; sacrament as in Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy; the yin and yang of Confucianism; the quasi-sacramentalism of Hinduism; or the mysticism often associated with allegedly modern romantic love," Don Browning writes, "humans tend to find values in marriage that call them beyond the mundane and everyday." Religious faith helps to deepen the meaning of marriage and provides a unique fountainhead of inspiration and support when troubles arise.

(4) Marriage is a sexual union. Marriage elevates sexual desire into a permanent sign of love, turning two lovers into "one flesh." Marriage indicates not only a private but a public understanding that two people have withdrawn themselves from the sexual marketplace. This public vow of fidelity also makes the married partners more likely to be faithful. Research shows, for example, that cohabiting men are four times more likely to cheat than husbands, and cohabiting women are eight times more likely to cheat than spouses.

(5) Marriage is a personal bond. Marriage is the ultimate avowal of caring, committed, and collaborative love. Marriage incorporates our desire to know and be known by another human being; it represents our dearest hopes that love is not a temporary condition, that we are not condemned to drift in and out of shifting relationships forever.

(6) Marriage is a family-making bond. Marriage takes two biological strangers and turns them into each other's next-of-kin. As a procreative bond, marriage also includes a commitment to care for any children produced by the married couple. It reinforces fathers' (and fathers' kin's) obligations to acknowledge children as part of the family system.

I suppose some people would dismiss these sentiments as the product of "adult-centered" thinking about marriage, with all the emphasis here on legal contracts, finances, sacred promises, sexual fulfillment, and private personal bonds. I suppose some would say I've missed the central importance of marriage as the place for child-rearing. After all, I've placed any procreative and child-rearing function at the very end. It doesn't even make the Top 5. I suppose others would say I've placed marriage in a largely private context and given little attention to the existence of marriage as a public institution with public purposes.

David Blankenhorn would not be among those people. He drafted these very claims about marriage as part of a "Statement of Principles" by the marriage movement in 2000, at a time when gay marriage was barely a blip on the radar. In the block text above, I have copied the statement word-for-word, except that in #4 I have substituted "the married partners" for "men and women." (The statement can be found here.)

Blankenhorn has also explicitly rejected the anachronistic and reductive view that the only public purpose of marriage is to encourage procreation and child-rearing. Marriage is a "multi-dimensional, multi-purpose institution," he acknowledges. "It is not true therefore to say that the state's only interest in marriage is marriage's generative role," he wrote a couple of years ago. "Instead, marriage's role as a pro-child social institution is only one, albeit the most important, of these legitimate state interests." (Emphasis original.)

Blankenhorn has been criticized for a "change of tune" -- for emphasizing procreation and biological parenthood in the context of the gay-marriage debate, while he did not emphasize these things before the debate took center stage. He has defended himself on this point by saying that it is only in the context of the gay-marriage debate that some people have insisted there's no connection between marriage and family-making. I suppose he could also say that the six dimensions of marriage are valuable only because they serve the family-making purpose of marriage by cementing the bond between two biological parents. But that is not how I read the statement and I don't think it fits the idea of marriage as a "multi-purpose" institution.

Blankenhorn, who has long been concerned about fathers leaving their families, is not necessarily being hypocritical by now emphasizing the role of marriage in bringing biological parents together. Nothing in the statement he endorsed seven years ago is inconsistent with the view that the central and important purpose of marriage is to encourage procreation and child-rearing within marriage. But that's the point: even if you erroneously thought gay marriage had nothing to do with benefiting children, and everything to do with, for example, a "personal bond" that "represents our dearest hopes that love is not a temporary condition," it would not be a threat to marriage.

Gay marriage can very clearly meet five of the six dimensions of marriage Blankenhorn himself has endorsed: it can benefit the couple with legal advantages that help "create a permanent bond"; it can facilitate the formation of a financial interdependence that "creates its own kind of intimacy and mutuality"; it helps the couple find values, including religious ones, that go beyond the mundane and everyday and that may be "a fountainhead of inspiration and support when troubles arise"; it can "elevate sexual desire into a permanent sign of love" and be more likely than cohabitation to lead the couple to withdraw themselves from the sexual marketplace; and of course it can be a deep personal bond between two people who share the common human desire for permanence and attachment to one other person.

Gay marriage can also serve the sixth, family-making, function identified by Blankenhorn seven years ago. A gay couple can't procreate as a couple, it's true. But they can fit and benefit from all of the dimensions listed above in the same way a sterile straight couple could. Marriage can turn gay couples, unrelated biologically, into next-of-kin, as it can for opposite-sex couples. It can reinforce parents' (and parents' kin's) "obligations to acknowledge children as part of the family system," just as it can for second-marriage couples and for sterile opposite-sex couples who adopt or use some method of assisted reproduction.

Even if they never have children, married gay couples will hardly be outside the bounds of marriage as it is actually practiced and as Blankenhorn described it in 2000. By choice or by necessity, lots of marriages never result in children. We do not think less of these marriages, do not think they transform marriage into something wholly adult-centered, and do not worry that they represent a threat to "the future of marriage" by making biological parents think family structure is unimportant. There are already far many more such childless opposite-sex marriages than there will be gay marriages. We recognize that these childless marriages fit the additional dimensions of marriage that Blankenhorn beautifully articulated seven years ago and that, in doing so, they do not undermine the important family-making purpose of marriage.

Many opponents of gay marriage would deny that homosexual couples can meet even the five companionate (non-generative) dimensions of marriage. But based on his public statements about homosexuality, I think Blankenhorn would have to agree that for gay Americans marriage would be "a personal bond," the "ultimate avowal of caring, committed, and collaborative love"; that gay persons equally share the deep human yearning "to know and be known by another human being"; and that they too possess "our dearest hopes that love is not a temporary condition."

If that's good enough reason to let childless straight couples marry, to let sterile couples adopt or reach outside their sexual union to produce a child, why is it not good enough for gay couples? The answer to that question might be found in moral or religious objections to homosexuality, in a desire to avoid placing society's imprimatur on homosexual relationships, or in ugly and unfounded stereotypes about gay people as hopelessly hyper-promiscuous or unstable. But it cannot easily be found in a world-view that affirms, as Blankenhorn recently did, "the equal dignity of homosexual love."

Blankenhorn is no flake. He's a serious scholar and thinker. He has thought long and hard about the needs of heterosexuals for marriage. He has challenged the idea that family structure is irrelevant. He has said that our ethical and moral traditions require that we place the needs of children above adult needs where they're in conflict. He has been right about all of this.

But for all his integrity and sincere opposition to anti-gay bigotry, I don't think he has thought very hard about the needs of gay families. That's why, for example, he and many others opposed to gay marriage could imagine that protecting gay families in law means placing the needs of adults ahead of children — as if we don't already have many childless marriages and as if thousands of gay families don't already include children whose welfare the gay parents place before their own.

Perhaps, just perhaps, Blankenhorn will one day see that marriage offers gay people and their families, at no cost to heterosexuals, the best hope that they too will not be "condemned to drift in and out of shifting relationships forever." They will have the prospects for permanence and stability enhanced but not guaranteed in their lives and in the lives of any children they may raise. That's all marriage can do.

Rauch on Blankenhorn:

Jonathan Rauch has written a characteristically generous, thoughtful, and engaging review of David Blankenhorn's recent book arguing against gay marriage, The Future of Marriage. Rauch writes:

[Blankenhorn] wants to lift the gay-marriage debate from its isolation in the mud-pit of the partisan culture wars and place it within a larger theory of marriage. He also wants to put an end to the days when gay-marriage advocates can say that there is no serious case against gay marriage. In both respects, he succeeds.


Blankenhorn has painted himself into a corner, one where the American public will never join him. If, as he insists, we cannot sustainably mix and match values and policies--combine adult individualism with devoted parenthood, for example, or conjoin same-sex marriage with measures to reduce divorce--then we must choose whether to move in the direction of the Netherlands or Saudi Arabia. I have no doubt which way the public would go. And should.

In fact, however, the public will reject the choice Blankenhorn offers as a false one; and, again, the public will be right. . . . People in countries recognizing same-sex unions are more accepting of co-habitation and single parenthood than Blankenhorn and I would prefer; but their project is not to reject marriage, except perhaps on Blankenhorn's reductionist account of it, but to blend and balance it with other values of liberal individualism.

States are experimenting with reforms to strengthen marriage and reduce unnecessary divorce, and the proportion of African-American children living in two-parent, married-couple homes has stabilized or increased. Those modest but heartening improvements come at precisely the time when gay Americans in the millions--the ordinary folks, not the academicians--have discovered and embraced marriage and family after years of alienation from both.

. . . From his new book, I've learned that the public's view of both marriage and society is nonetheless richer, wiser, and more humane than David Blankenhorn's--and possibly, for that matter, than my own. Which gives me hope that, whatever the experts say the real purpose of marriage is or is not, the public can ultimately get it right.

For my critique of Blankenhorn's argument, see here.