Meltdown in religious orthodoxy harmed and de-natured wedlock by destroying more than sexual restraint. As defined by religious tradition, marriage demanded—and taught—a deep capacity for self-sacrifice and selfless service. But self-sacrifice disappeared from the cultural catechism written by the Woodstock Generation. In the same survey, sociologists who limned a decline in religious faith in the 70s and 80s also tracked a sharp rise in “hedonistic values,” an increasing desire for “self-gratification,” and an increasing absorption in the imperatives of “self-actualization.”
This insistent emphasis on Self could only weaken and deracinate wedlock, regardless of whether homosexuals were ever permitted to take vows. But even more astonishing than the widespread rejection of traditional Christian and Jewish doctrines governing marriage and family life was the headlong apostasy of many clergy, particularly in America’s influential mainline Protestant denominations.
As a disgruntled Episcopalian observer has remarked, many mainline Protestant leaders caved in to cultural pressures, riding the turbulent currents of the sexual revolution as they catechized their parishioners in “being tolerant of non-marital liaisons” among heterosexuals and in accepting “new and non-traditional family forms,” including single-parent and cohabiting-parent families.
The loss of the natural anchor of a healthy home economy and the supernatural sanctions of religious doctrine left marriage at the mercy of adverse economic, political, and cultural currents for decades before homosexuals ever sought state and church imprimatur for wedding vows. In curious ways, these currents have combined the wild anarchy of raw individualism with the focused fury of political ideology and corporate greed.
Once an essential element of the natural home economy, the gender complementarity of wedlock was exposed to particularly negative pressures in the 60s and 70s. As the distinguished economist Gary Becker demonstrated in a landmark study published in 1965—just when those negative pressures were gathering strength—marriage draws institutional strength from a complementary husband-wife division of labour.
Such a gendered marital division of labour had, of course, emerged spontaneously in pre-industrial agrarian cultures, but a somewhat artificial breadwinner/homemaker version of this marital division of labour had remained in place for decades in an industrialized United States, as labour unions demanded and employers and government officials acquiesced in a “family wage” system which paid a married father enough to support an at-home wife and their children, while deliberately keeping married women out of the labour market. However, as religion lost cultural strength in the firestorm of the 60s, employers and government officials turned decisively against the “family wage” system and the marital gender roles it protected. Indeed, lawmakers outlawed the deliberate gender discrimination essential to the “family wage” system.
Corporate employers needed no encouragement for abandoning the family-wage system and attacking marital complementarity: these employers had long recognized that bringing wives into the labour market would drive down wages. Politicians turned against marital complementarity for a more complex mix of reasons. Some were simply responding to the lobbying of corporate employers. Others resonated—consciously or unconsciously—to the ideological imperatives of utopian thinkers (Plato, Campanella, Bellamy, Morris, Wells, Skinner) who dreamed of making all citizens completely devoted to the ideal state as they abolished (or at least weakened) the competing loyalties of marriage and family.
The feminist elements of such utopian ideology gained strength in the 70s as doctrinaire gender-egalitarians rallied round the Equal Rights Amendment, drawing intermittent support from confused wives frustrated and disheartened by the economic and cultural marginalization of their homemaking.
Quietly undermined by the continual erosion of the home economy, directly assaulted by feminist egalitarians, and rendered economically precarious by the disintegration of “the family wage,” the economic gender complementarity of marriage disappeared for millions of couples as millions of wives moved out of the home and into paid employment. Hence, long before homosexuals challenged the male-female sexual complementarity of marriage, the economic complementarity of marriage had already disappeared. In economic terms at least, a growing number of American children had two “fathers” long before advocates of homosexual marriage ever attempted to give children two biologically male parents.