No prominent American commentator anticipated the rapid sequence of events that in early 2004 brought hundreds of homosexual couples—in Massachusetts, California, New York, Oregon, and elsewhere—before religious and public officials who were willing to pronounce them married.
But amid all of the many pundits praising or damning homosexuals for breaking the marriage barrier, few have reflected on just what kind of institution homosexuals—who have never laid hold of marriage in the past—are now claiming. Indeed, if Americans scrutinize carefully the way the national culture has in recent decades re-defined wedlock for heterosexuals, they may well conclude that it is not homosexuals that have changed so much, but rather marriage itself.
Once defined by religious doctrine, moral tradition, and home-centred commitments to child rearing and gender complementarity in productive labour, marriage has become a deracinated and highly individualistic and egalitarian institution, no longer implying commitment to home, to Church, to childbearing, to traditional gender duties, or even (permanently) to spouse.
That homosexuals now want the strange new thing marriage has become should surprise no one: contemporary marriage, after all, certifies a certain legitimacy in the mainstream of American culture and delivers tax, insurance, life-style, and governmental benefits—all without imposing any of the obligations of traditional marriage (which homosexuals decidedly do not want).
Thus, while the attempt to deny homosexuals the right to marry is understandable and even morally and legally justified, such an attempt is probably foredoomed if it does not lead to a broader effort to restore moral and religious integrity to marriage as a heterosexual institution.
Only the ideologically blind would deny that homosexual marriage threatens violence against all the moral and legal traditions that have defined wedlock for millennia. Homosexual activists have themselves asserted that they aim at more than a “mere ‘aping’” of heterosexual marriage: they want homosexual marriage to “destabilize marriage’s gendered definition by disrupting the link between gender and marriage.” They thus value the homosexual wedding ceremony in part because of the “transformation that it makes on the people around us.” But the disruptions in marriage and the accompanying transformations of the American people hardly began with homosexuals or homosexual marriage.
The history of a sea change
To recognize how profoundly mainstream American culture had changed the institution of marriage before a single wedding license had been issued to any homosexual couple is to realize that homosexual marriage culminates a decades-long attack, rather than initiates a distinctively new assault.
Once strongly reinforced by both religious doctrine and legal statute, marriage stood for centuries as the socially obligatory institution that shaped the individual for an adulthood of self-sacrifice and cooperative home-centred labour focused especially on the tasks of childbearing and child rearing.
For centuries, almost all Americans recognized marriage as a divinely ordained union of husband and wife entailing distinctive but complementary gender roles. Nor, until relatively recently, did the imperatives of marital theology lack for this-worldly reinforcement. As historian Allan Carlson has stressed, traditional patterns of “householding” assigned “reciprocal, complementary tasks [to] husbands and wives” engaged in various types of “household production, ranging from tool making and weaving to the keeping of livestock and the garden patch.” Marriage thus defined the very foundation of “a basic economic unit” which “bound each family together” as a “community of work.”
Sustained by their religious beliefs and absorbed in the labours of maintaining an autonomous home, American couples made their wedding vows both fruitful and durable. The fruitfulness of the traditional American marriage accounts for the words of a 19th-century American Congressman proudly inviting a foreign visitor to:
“visit one of our log cabins… There you will find a strong, stout youth of eighteen, with his Better Half, just commencing the first struggles of independent life. Thirty years from that time, visit them again; and instead of two, you will find in that same family twenty-two. That is what I call the American Multiplication Table.”
By the middle of the 20th century, the American supports for marriage had weakened in a number of ways—none of them involving advocates of homosexual marriage. By the 1950s the home’s surrender of productive functions had become so complete that Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin saw it becoming a “mere incidental parking place” for consumption and relaxation. Many wives consequently experienced what one social historian labelled the “festering contradiction of modern womanhood” as their traditional home crafts lost economic value and cultural legitimacy, so threatening to reduce their social status to that of menial parking-place attendants.