Both cathedrals and social institutions take a long time to build and are not easily brought down. Like a building damaged from all sides, marriage has weakened dramatically from cultural blows in ways that few anticipated.
A vague memory of how to "do marriage" still survives. Couples speak wistfully of the enduring marriages of their grandparents, even if they do not know how to replicate them. Marriage has reached a stunning state of fragility.
A look at the significant factors that have contributed to the virtual collapse of marriage over the last 40 years gives perspective on how gay activists have maneuvered into position to launch a frontal assault on the very definition of marriage.
The Sexual Revolution. In the 1960s, two new sexual standards emerged. A moderately liberal approach urged that sexual intercourse should be confined to "loving relationships." A still more radical stance claimed that sex should be enjoyed whenever desired, as long as there was "mutual consent."
These two approaches still jostle for mainstream dominance today, with the sex-only-within-marriage crowd still present but quite marginal. The biblical view of sex is often considered an archaic medieval leftover.
The sexual revolution began to separate sex from marriage, so the movement's cutting edge now lies elsewhere. Advocates for full acceptance of homosexuality, whose voices began to sound in the 1970s, now occupy a place near the cultural mainstream. On the fringes, we find advocates for adult-child sex. And in the intervening years, pornography has grown into a $40 billion industry whose tentacles reach into most American homes via the Internet. Child pornography is its most appalling manifestation.
The Contraception and Abortion Revolutions. Birth control, of course, helped jump-start the sexual revolution. Opposition to the easy availability of birth control for the unmarried was intense but ultimately proved futile. A 1972 Supreme Court decision required states to extend access to contraceptives to the unmarried.
It is no coincidence that the sexual and birth control revolutions were accompanied by the acceptance of abortion with the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. The ensuing revolution, in which for a time one out of every three U.S. pregnancies ended in elective abortion (before "settling down" to one out of four or five today), carries profound social consequences that extend well beyond the killing of more than 1 million developing children per year.
First, relocating full authority for the abortion decision into the hands of pregnant women helped marginalize both men and marriage. Abortion within marriage—without a husband's consent or even over his objections—not only drove a wedge between marriage and childbearing, but also displaced the husband from the oneness of matrimony. Ironically, it also encouraged unmarried men who would otherwise pressure their partners to get abortions to walk away, saying "It's your problem—you take care of it."
Second, the abortion license constitutes a fateful diminution of the rights and interests of children over against those of adults. Roe v. Wade communicated in the most fundamental way that the interests of children must give way to the interests of adults. This has resulted in a more egocentric way in which parents view marriage and family. Among other things, it is a major factor in people's unwillingness to see marriage as essentially about children, rather than essentially about companionship or intimacy.
The Illegitimacy Revolution. About 33 percent of children in America are born to unwed mothers. This rate has held fairly constant since 1994 but contrasts strikingly to figures from 1970 (10.7 percent), 1980 (18.4 percent), and even 1990 (28 percent).
Forty years after the pill was supposed to have eliminated unwanted pregnancy, an estimated half of all U.S. pregnancies are unintended. If 22 percent of all pregnancies end in abortion, according to the most recent statistics, then we can well imagine how many of the unintended pregnancies do so. And many of the remaining unintended pregnancies carried to term contribute to the 33 percent out-of-wedlock birthrate.
Sometime in the 1970s, describing this phenomenon as "illegitimacy" came to be viewed as insensitive or oppressive. Sometime in the 1980s, it also became viewed as prehistoric to describe this out-of-wedlock birth phenomenon as a problem. By the mid-1990s, the findings of social scientists about the diminished life-chances of out-of-wedlock children and their mothers made it respectable, in some circles at least, to begin questioning the circumstances of such births again.
But by then, damage to marriage as an institution had been done. If one of marriage's key purposes had been to provide a framework of family relations for a child's world, then the illegitimacy revolution marked the crumbling of this pillar.
Rebellion in Waves
The Cohabitation Revolution. Related to all of the above was the simultaneous cohabitation revolution. Today more than 4 million U.S. unmarried couples live together. Many do so as a trial run for matrimony, but, sadly, cohabitation fails to prepare couples well for marriage.
According to Linda Waite, a leading researcher on this issue, "Cohabitation isn't marriage, and cohabitating people don't act the same way as married people do. They don't have the same characteristics; they don't get the same benefits; and they don't get to pay the same costs."
Studies show that many couples expecting to marry never do—the average length of a cohabitation relationship is a little more than a year. Those live-in relationships that do result in marriage are much more likely than other marriages to end in divorce. Cohabitating partners suffer higher levels of conflict, domestic violence, abuse, and infidelity than married partners do.
More than a third of all cohabitating couples share their homes with children under the age of 15, according to 1998 Census Bureau statistics. These domestic arrangements are rarely placid. Relationships between live-ins and the children of their partners are less stable and satisfying, and far more prone to sexual and physical abuse (including assault and murder), than in families where the adults are married to each other. In a study by Leslie Margolin of the University of Iowa, boyfriends were 27 times more likely than natural parents to abuse a child.
Whatever the dynamics driving this pattern of abuse, the results are clear, as Heather MacDonald so memorably puts it: "The risks to children living outside a two-parent home go beyond social failure, as [we] witness [in] New York City's never-ending cortege of tiny coffins containing children beaten, suffocated, and scalded by their mothers' boyfriends."
The Reproduction Revolution. Since 1978, when the first test-tube baby was born through in vitro fertilization, dozens of assisted reproduction techniques have been developed. While the failure rate remains quite high, this industry offers enough successes to continue to attract tens of thousands of anxious and hopeful couples each year.
These technological breakthroughs, however, have also further separated childbearing from marriage. Assisted reproduction (AR) makes conceiving children possible for any person or combination of persons willing to pay for it: two men, two women, an unmarried couple, a single woman or man. Or two men and one woman. And so on.
AR still primarily enables married heterosexual couples to have children, but ar companies do not limit their services to such couples. Nor have state or federal governments attempted to limit them. The result is a further weakening of the connection between marriage and parenting, not to mention the link between sex and procreation.
The Divorce Revolution. Prior to the 1960s, divorce (and its more cautious colleague, separation) had always existed as a kind of small exit hallway out of the marriage cathedral.
But during the same period in which the other revolutions were occurring, the divorce emergency exit grew beyond recognition. Imagine a bulldozer gouging massive chasms in the south, east, and west sides of our cathedral, with signs afterwards posted: "Exit here, please."
Both in law and in cultural attitudes, divorce moved from rare exception to routine practice. Indeed, it can be argued that divorce emerged as an alternative cathedral; that is, a new social institution thriving as marriage weakened, somehow absorbing much of the cultural energy that once was given to marriage itself.
With the rise of divorce came the related rise of remarriage, blended families, and a practice that came to be called serial monogamy: having a series of spouses, one at a time. Most divorced people later cohabit or eventually remarry; two-thirds of divorces involve children, who are brought along (in one way or another) into cohabitation and remarriage. Statistically, remarriages and especially cohabitation relationships are even less enduring than first marriages, further multiplying cases of serial monogamy.
Contemporary marriage involves the mixing and matching, mending and blending of human families into loosely tethered fragments. The statistics tell the tale. The combination of nonmarital childbearing, cohabitation, and divorce, among the other factors discussed here, has rocked the institution of marriage to its foundations. A nearly 50 percent divorce rate, 33 percent illegitimacy rate, and 50 percent of all couples cohabiting before marriage have made the married two-parent family with their own resident children an increasingly rare phenomenon in U.S. life.
The anthropologist Margaret Mead once shrewdly wrote, "There is no society in the world where people have stayed married without enormous community pressure to do so." Attaining strength through social sanction, marriage has helped govern human passions and restricted their expression in ways intended ultimately to serve the best interests of most wedded partners, their children, and society.
The Gay Rights Revolution. Prior to the mid-1970s, medical professionals understood homosexuality to be a psychological disorder requiring research and treatment.
Under significant pressure from increasingly organized gay pressure groups, the American Psychiatric Association voted in 1973 to remove homosexuality from its list of disorders. This step was significant in mainstreaming homosexuality in medicine, and eventually in popular culture.
The damage homosexuality does to marriage takes two forms. First, promiscuous gay sex represents yet another demolished boundary (gender) in the sexual revolution. Second, the move on the part of many in the gay community to press for full civil equality for their relationships, even "marriage," assaults the very definition of the institution.
Gays sometimes present the demand for marriage as a socially conservative move, even as a defense of marriage. While this argument has not yet prevailed in our culture, it is making great inroads. The net result is less certainty about whether marriage is necessarily a bond uniting one man and one woman—a bewildering challenge to the historic understanding of the institution.
All these revolutions, however, raise the suspicion that deeper forces are at work. Our metaphor may need to shift a bit.
So far we have pictured the cathedral of marriage being hammered by a variety of outside forces. It may be that these revolutions are more effect than cause. The marriage cathedral may have collapsed not from a few generations of external blows, but from the slow rotting of its foundations and support beams by spiritual powers over many generations.
It may be that there are termites in the marriage cathedral, weakening it (and the various cultural values and practices that sustain it) so profoundly from the inside that it took little more than a few pushes from without to make it collapse.
Marriage has faded as a social institution in American life. If marriage is a cathedral, we stand among its partial ruins.
David P. Gushee is the Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. Excerpted and adapted with permission from his Getting Marriage Right: Realistic Counsel for Saving & Strengthening Relationships (Baker, 2004).
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today's past coverage of the gay marriage debate includes:
What God Hath Not Joined | Why marriage was designed for male and female. (Aug. 20, 2004)
The Next Sexual Revolution | By practicing what it preaches on marriage, the church could transform society. (Aug. 27, 2003)
My Two Dads? Not in Florida | U.S. Circuit Court upholds ban on gay adoption (March 11, 2004)
Speaking Out: Why Gay Marriage Would Be Harmful | Institutionalizing homosexual marriage would be bad for marriage, bad for children, and bad for society. (Feb. 19, 2004)
Let No Law Put Asunder | A constitutional amendment defending marriage is worth the effort. (Jan. 26, 2004)
Massachusetts Court Backs Gay Marriage | Christians say gay activists will overturn marriage laws (Dec. 10, 2003)
'A Man and a Woman' | Activists say the Federal Marriage Amendment will be the defining issue in the next election. (Nov. 24, 2003)
The Marriage Battle Begins | Profamily and gay activists agree: Texas decision sets significant precedent. (Aug. 11, 2003)
Canada Backs Gay Marriages | Conservatives say decision could put pressure on dissenting churches. (July 16, 2003)
Marriage in the Dock | Massachusetts case on gay marriage could set off chain reaction. (April 25, 2003)
Christian Conservatives Split on Federal Marriage Amendment | Law would protect marriage from courts, but legislatures could still extend marital benefits to same-sex unions. (July 20, 2002)
Defining Marriage | Conservatives advocate amendment to preserve traditional matrimony. (October 1, 2001)
No Balm in Denver | Episcopalians defer debate over same-sex blessings for another three years. (July 17, 2001)
Marriage Laws Embroil Legislatures | New Englanders push for domestic-partner benefits. (April 26, 2001)
Presbyterians Propose Ban on Same-Sex Ceremonies | Change to church constitution, which passes by only 17 votes, now goes to presbyteries. (July 5, 2001)
Sticking With the Status Quo | United Methodists reject gay marriage, ordination. (May 15, 2000)
Presbyterians Vote Down Ban on Same-Sex Unions | Opponents say vague wording led to defeat. (March 29, 2001)
States Consider Laws on Same-Sex Unions California to vote on 'limit on marriage' in March (Jan. 10, 1999)
Presbyterians Support Same-Sex Unions (Dec. 10, 1999)
Pastor Suspended in Test of Same-Sex Marriage Ban (Apr. 26, 1999)
Same-Sex Rites Cause Campus Stir (Aug. 11, 1997)
State Lawmakers Scramble to Ban Same-Sex Marriages (Feb. 3, 1997)
Clinton Signs Law Backing Heterosexual Marriage (Oct. 28, 1996)
The Alliance for Marriage site includes a section on its proposed marriage amendment. The site also has collected press excerpts on the amendment.
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) does two things: it provides that no State shall be required to give effect to a same-sex marriage law of another state, and it defines the words "marriage" and "spouse" for purposes of Federal law. It was passed in 1996.
In a 1996 Christianity Today column, Charles Colson said that "accepting same-sex relationships as the moral and legal equivalent of marriage will transform the very definition of marriage—with far-reaching repercussions."
Concerned Women for America have an archive of articles in response to the same-sex marriage issue.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingChristian and Missionary Alliance Will Ordain WomenMinisters may now use the title “pastor” regardless of gender.
- From the MagazineOur Worship Is Turning Praise into Secular ProfitWith corporate consolidation in worship music, more entities are invested in the songs sung on Sunday mornings. How will their financial incentives shape the church?español
- RelatedUnited Methodists Lose 1,800 Churches in Split Over LGBT StanceThe initial departures, mostly concentrated in the South, represent around 6 percent of the denomination—not as dramatic as the “schism” some feared.
- Editor's PickPCA’s 50th Anniversary Comes During a Season of GriefPresbyterians expect less fight and more fatigue as they gather following the Covenant shooting and the deaths of Harry Reeder and Tim Keller.