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Tuesday, May 18, 2004

'Only marriage will really do.'

Gay Marriage by Jonathan RauchLight blogging this week — many deadlines! — but with so much media attention on gay marriage in Massachusetts I thought I should put in a plug for the book I'm currently reading: Jonathan Rauch's Gay Marriage: Why It's Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, an eloquent, moving argument for strengthening marriage by extending it (gradually, state-by-state) to same-sex couples.

The Washington Monthly excerpted part of the book in April — read "Dire Straights" — and for Unitarian Universalists, ministers, and the rest of us, it makes more compelling reading than the policy prescription taken from the book in the Atlantic Monthly excerpt, "A More Perfect Union."

The super-short version of his argument is this:

There is no substitute for marriage, and trying to concoct one is a hazardous business. Civil unions and other forms of non-marital partnership cannot give gay couples the essential social benefits of marriage, even if the legal benefits are comprehensive. Conservatives may argue that allowing gay marriage endangers matrimony for straights; in fact, creating alternatives to marriage, such as civil unions, is far more likely to undermine the institution of marriage. Both for gays and for society, only marriage will really do. Only marriage is marriage.

He describes marriage as a remarkable "social technology," and explains:

For most people, marrying, especially for the first time, is a very big decision. Not for everyone: Some people exchange vows in Las Vegas as a lark. But for most, getting married is a life-changing event, one which demarcates the boundary between two major phases of life. Why should marrying be such a big deal? Partly because the promise being made is extraordinary. That answer, however, begs the question. Why do people take this promise so seriously? The law has made it ever easier for two people to marry, no questions asked, no parental approval needed, no money down. Divorcing is easier, too. Under today's laws, young people could casually marry and divorce every six months as a way of shopping around, but they don't. Most people can expect that marriage will result in parenthood, and parenthood is certainly a momentous thing. Yet even people who, for whatever reason, do not want or cannot have children take marriage seriously. So the questions remain. Why do we see marrying as one of life's epochal decisions? What gives the institution such mystique, such force?

I believe the answer is, in two words, social expectations.

When two people approach the altar or the bench to marry, they approach not only the presiding official, but all of society. They enter into a compact not just with each other but also with the world, and that compact says: "We, the two of us, pledge to make a home together, care for one another, and, perhaps, raise children together. In exchange for the caregiving commitment we are making, you, our community, will recognize us not only as individuals but also as a bonded pair, a family, granting us a special autonomy and a special status which only marriage conveys. We, the couple, will support one another. You, society, will support us. You expect us to be there for each other and will help us meet those expectations. We will do our best, until death do us part."

In every marriage, social expectations are an invisible third partner. Friends, neighbors, parents, and in-laws heap blessings and congratulations on newlyweds, but their joy conveys an implicit injunction: "Be a good husband or wife. We're counting on you." Around the pair is woven a web of expectations that they will spend nights together, socialize together, make a home together—behavior that helps create a bond between them and makes them feel responsible for each other. ("It's one a.m. Do you know where your spouse is?" Chances are you do.) Each spouse knows that he or she will get the first phone call when the other is in trouble or in need, and each knows that the expected response is to drop everything and deal with the problem.

In the book (but not in the article), he goes on to identify the crucial social function of marriage by quoting the famous wedding vow that has been part of the English-speaking world since the Book of Common Prayer was written in the 16th century — the promise each spouse makes to the other "to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part."

Rauch contends that "marriage-lite" options like civil unions, domestic partnerships, private contracts, and similar innovations (popular in Europe and among many left-liberals in the U.S.) essentially give away the benefits of marriage without imposing the obligations. In many parts of the country, these halfway measures may be the only way to extend some legal recognition to gay couples anytime soon, but as a long-term measure they threaten marriage much more than allowing same-sex couples to wed.

Instead of having to decide whether to jump across a boundary society sets for you (marriage), what if you could just pass from one sort of arrangement to the next, with society adjusting to whatever boundaries you set as you go along? Wouldn't it be nice if there were a halfway house? A way to get health insurance without having to say "till death us do part"? Actually, a lot of people, gay and straight, would like a halfway house: or, to be more blunt about it, a free ride. Throughout most of history, society has been smart enough to deny it to them.

Rauch was also interviewed by the Boston Globe on Saturday; see "Writer urges civility on gay marriage." Sarah Cohen interviews him for the Atlantic in "A modest (marriage) proposal."

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 18 May 2004 at 5:44 PM

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May 19, 2004 04:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

Excellent summary of Rauch's position, Chris, and I think he makes an important point. But he also points up the difficulty of making the honest case for gay marriage: if marriage is a social project between a couple and society which society wishes to support, then we have to get past mere tolerence of marriage for gays to actual support for their unions. Society is getting close to tolerence, actual support is a ways further off.

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