Social conservatives who oppose gay marriage have suffered a series of losses as voters have embraced gay marriage in state referenda and in public polling. The argument that gay marriage “harms” heterosexual marriage is not one that has found resonance with most Americans. They just don’t buy it.
That is not to say that marriage isn’t in trouble. Mona Charen has written extensively on the subject. She finds:
Until about 1970, the percentage of the adult population in America that was married never dipped below about 93 percent. Since then, marriage has been steadily declining. Today, about half the population is single. The unmarried represented about 40 percent of the electorate, and they broke heavily for Obama — by 16 percentage points among single men and 36 percentage points among single women — giving him two-thirds of his margin of victory. (By contrast, Romney prevailed among married voters by 56-42.)
The marriage gap is also an education gap in America. Those with little or no college, and particularly those without a high-school diploma are shunning marriage in favor of cohabitation. The college-educated, by contrast, are still marrying at close to the rates they did in the 1950s (though later in life, which contributes to lower fertility). Stable families among the elites perpetuate their status, providing their children with the financial and emotional stability necessary to lead fulfilling lives. Highly unstable families among the less educated lock in inequality as well, prompting Charles Murray to call upon the elites to “preach what they practice.”
For the first time we have more unmarried households than married households, and more single than married women. That has ramifications for mental health, the economy, politics, childhood development and a slew of other known and unknown aspects of American life.
We know some of the reasons for this stampede toward singlehood is voluntary (more working women delaying marriage and children), but that does not mean the atomization of American life makes us a more stable, happy and prosperous country. It doesn’t.
It seems that much of the focus on traditional marriage has consisted of hectoring gays who want to get married and deploring the breakdown the family with little discussion of policy or the role that churches, synagogues and other mediating institutions play. Rather than weirdly blame gay couples for undermining traditional marriage, perhaps heading into the new year and beyond social conservatives can focus on public policy and private efforts to increase marriage and positively promote intact families. The tax code ( marriage penalties, child credits) is one area. Labor laws (allowing flexible work schedules that don’t trigger overtime requirements) is another. And, more to the point, social conservatives should understand the primacy of local communities, religious and civic institutions and families themselves in promoting and assisting in marriage. We’ve had campaigns aimed at teens to say no to drugs and yes to celibacy, but not much about yes to marriage and how to stay out of poverty (finish high school, don’t have kids outside marriage, don’t abuse drugs,etc.).
We have a societal problem that is vast and serious and an organized political-social movement that, to be blunt, needs something constructive to do. Dare I say this might be a match made in heaven?
Ironically, with gay marriage and with the Obama economy (lots of young adults now living at home with mom and dad), we may begin to improve the numbers of married households. But economic decline is not a strategy. For all the time, money and energy spent on preventing gays from marrying, imagine if all those efforts were spent trying to encourage and improve the economics of marriage? Now that would be a joyous endeavor.