THE BLANKENHORN DEBATE

Thanks to all of you who listened to it and wrote me your responses. I was struck by two points. A reader makes one:

I enjoyed listening to your debate with David Blankenhorn. However, I was jarred by one, what appeared to me large, flaw in David’s logic. If marriage is “translegal” and exists as a social institution despite the governng law, how can changing the law to include more married couples have the catastrophic effect on marriage that David and his coterie suggest it will? I know you alluded to the fact briefly during a rebuttal, but it would appear to me a paradox that David will need to think long and hard about before engaging in similar debates in the future.

This is indeed a critical issue. It’s clear that opponents of marriage rights for gay couples have been frustrated in trying to show why those couples do not meet the current standard of what civil marriage is. If the legal standard is that Britney Spears gets to exercize a civil right for 55 hours but a committed 55-year long lesbian couple do not, then you have a hell of a case to make, without appearing to be, well, just prejudiced against the lesbians. So they switch to a “translegal” standard, which, of course, can mean anything they want it to mean. But if it’s trans-legal, why would changing the law, as in Massachusetts, affect it in any way?

THE SHIFTING DEFINITION: At the same time, the opponents of marriage rights for gay couples now argue that child-rearing is the central purpose of civil marriage, that such child-rearing must include a father and a mother, and that therefore the current exclusion of even committed gay couples with children is justified. (They do not fully explain why childless heterosexual marriages nevertheless qualify, except that they “symbolize” the ideal and so get a pass. In fact, of course, childless heterosexual marriages represent the exact opposite of the ideal. They represent a heterosexual couple fully capable of the ideal – but choosing to go against it. Gay couples have no such choice.) But as this blogger points out, making procreation and child-rearing the sine qua non of civil marriage has not, as Blankenhorn would have it, always been the main argument of the gay marriage foes. A few weeks ago, Blankenhorn argued that

Talking about heterosexual intercourse, child bearing, and child well-being is not something that some of us just thought up five minutes ago in response to a political controversy. Instead, you simply can’t talk accurately about marriage without talking about these very things …

Hmmm. Blankenhorn’s own Institute put out a “Statement of Principles,” only five years ago on what marriage is. It has “six important dimensions.” Five of them do not mention children at all. The one dimension in which children do appear – the sixth and last dimension listed – says the following:

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.

Notice how children are optional, not essential. In the statement, the first definition is that “marriage is a legal contract.” Five years later, Blankenhorn is insisting that it is a “trans-legal” institution. Maybe this new argument is a product of five years of deeper thinking. Or maybe it is indeed “something that some of us just thought up five minutes ago in response to a political controversy.”

THE MEANING OF MARRIAGE: Blankenhorn was, of course, right in the first place. The notion that marriage isn’t marriage without procreation and children is far from being the traditional view. Here, for example, is John Milton, hardly a milque-toast Christian, on what marriage is fundamentally about. A reader sent me the passage from Milton’s “Doctrines and Disciplines of Divorce”:

“And what his [God’s] chiefe end was of creating woman to be joynd with man, his own instituting words declare, and are infallible to informe us what is mariage, and what is no mariage, unlesse we can think them set there to no purpose: It is not good, saith he, that man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him. From which words so plain, lesse cannot be concluded, nor is by any learned Interpreter, then that in Gods intention a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and the noblest end of mariage: for we find here no expression so necessarily implying carnall knowledge, as this prevention of lonelines to the mind and spirit of man.”

Here, in the seventeenth century, is a Christian arguing that the divine, “trans-legal” meaning of marriage, its central meaning, is companionship. Sex is peripheral, let alone procreation. And Blankenhorn and Gallagher would have you believe that the idea of marriage as a form of lasting faithful friendship built out of romantic love, in which children are optional, is something invented in modern times. Hooey.

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