The New York Times described David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, as a "consensus builder for a moral base in society," and he is true to form in The Future of Marriage (Encounter, 2007). He marshals strong secular arguments against proponents of same-sex marriage and undermines their rhetorical claim-but are those arguments strong enough?
WORLD: You write that "across cultures, marriage is above all a procreative institution. It is nothing less than the culturally constructed linchpin of all human family and kinship systems." What is some of the anthropological evidence for that?
BLANKENHORN: To write this book, I spent a year studying what the great anthropologists have concluded about marriage. In particular, I wanted to learn what, if any, are the common features of marriage across human societies. What is always a core purpose of marriage, in every known human society? Here is the answer: Everywhere, marriage exists in large part to ensure that the woman and the man whose sexual union makes the child, stay together in a cooperative union to raise the child. Another way to put it is that, through marriage, biological parents also become legal and social parents. This finding is widely shared-it is not really controversial-among the leading scholars of marriage in the modern period.
WORLD: You write that Judith Stacey, an NYU professor who was the Barbra Streisand Professor of Contemporary Gender Studies at USC, "has suddenly found her pro-marriage voice." So have other advocates of gay marriage. Why do you doubt them?
BLANKENHORN: Judith Stacey has spent her entire lifetime arguing that marriage is a terrible institution and should be overturned. Now, all of a sudden, she has finally found something about marriage that she can like! What she likes is same-sex marriage. She has become a real crusader on the issue, including offering "expert" testimony in court cases about the benefits of (gay) marriage. Why? Has she changed her mind about marriage as a social institution? Not at all. She is convinced-and I believe she is correct-that adopting same-sex marriage will undermine and help to overturn the institution of marriage as we have known it. For her, that would be a good day's work.
WORLD: Advocates of gay marriage say they are the successors to those who struggled for the right of whites and blacks to marry. You argue that today's gay rights activists are more like the segregationists than the civil rights pioneers. Why?
BLANKENHORN: Yes, both groups-yesterday's advocates of segregation, and today's advocates of gay marriage-seek to use marriage to achieve a social goal that is essentially unrelated to marriage. For one, the goal was racial separatism, and to achieve that goal they were willing to say that a black person of one sex could not marry a white person of the other sex-an explicit violation of marriage's main form, which is to bring together men and women, not keep them apart!
For the other group, the goal is reducing homophobia, and to achieve that goal they are willing to say that marriage is no longer based on bridging the male-female sexual divide, but should instead be organized on the basis of sexual orientation. The problem is, marriage in human history has never had anything to do with sexual orientation. Marriage has always and everywhere been about bringing together the male and the female for procreation and a common life.
Most people today agree that racial separatism is a despicable goal, so there is no problem in realizing that yesterday's segregationists were wrong to try to use marriage in the way that they tried to use it. But many people today-and I am one of them-believe that reducing homophobia is in fact a worthy, important goal, and so there is real conflict in how we evaluate the current push for gay marriage. The issue is not good versus bad, but good versus good-that is, one good goal, protecting marriage, in conflict with another good goal, reducing homophobia. To me, in this trade-off, it's ultimately more important, when it comes to marriage, to try and protect and strengthen the institution, primarily because of how it affects children. That's why, with some reluctance, I oppose same-sex marriage.
WORLD: An academic gathering you chaired in 2004 came up with 23 positive consequences of gay marriage and 24 negative consequences. How do you expect such a scoreboard to convince the powerful societal advocates of gay marriage?
BLANKENHORN: Well, in the book, I offer what I think is a strong, sustained argument against gay marriage. But in this debate, I think it's important to wrestle with the fact that both sides have a case. There are, in my view, plenty of valid reasons to favor gay marriage. If for some people that seems too complicated, or too much like a scoreboard-well, so be it. I didn't make it that way. It just is that way.
WORLD: You point out how important it is for more marriages to succeed and fewer children to be born out of wedlock, and you present 13 ideas for pushing the success rate for first marriages back up to 75 percent (from the current 60 percent) and the rate of unwed childbearing back down below 30 percent (from the current 36 percent). Which several are most important?
BLANKENHORN: There is no one magic bullet-or even two or three! We need to make lots of changes, at every level, from the kitchen table to the halls of Congress. I personally would like to start with rethinking no-fault divorce laws, which I think are unfair, since they automatically put the law on the side of whoever wants a divorce, irrespective of circumstances, and irrespective of who in the marriage has or has not remained faithful to the marriage vows, and since these laws have almost certainly contributed to higher rates of divorce. Obviously, I also think it's important to resist the push for gay marriage. I suppose, if I had to name the one most important social change that we need, it would be to agree as a society that unwed childbearing is morally wrong.
WORLD: One of your 13 ideas is to "encourage churches and other houses of worship to incorporate marriage mentoring as a regular part of congregational life," but you don't say anything about whether those most at risk will be coming to churches. What changes in religious belief, if any, may be needed to preserve and strengthen marriage?
BLANKENHORN: I don't think we need any changes in religious belief-our religious traditions already teach us very clearly about the meaning and importance of marriage. Maybe we just need to pay more attention to the teachings.
At the level of the institutional church and of practical ministry, however, I do think that a lot of churches could do a lot better. Just one example: When my wife and I married in 1986, we composed our own vows. They were pretty good! But looking back, I think it's better for couples to use the vows of their faith community, rather than make up their own. If you make up your own vows, the not-so-subtle message is that the couple is bigger than the vow-the couple, in that sense, is the God of their marriage.
But isn't it more true and beautiful to say that the vow is bigger than the couple? That the vow makes the couple, rather than the other way around? I wish more ministers who officiate marriages would insist that the couple, in this sense, try to conform to the vow rather than imagining that they are creating the vow.
WORLD: You write, "I am a Christian. I take the Bible seriously." Yet your book tries to make an exclusively secular argument against gay marriage. Why did you take that path, and is it necessary when discussing an issue of this sort to downplay the biblical case?
BLANKENHORN: For people of faith, it is certainly not necessary to downplay the biblical case for marriage. Quite the contrary. The church and its teachings are probably our society's most important custodians of marriage as a social institution.
In my book, I wanted to enter the broad public square and speak to everyone-Christians, Jews, Muslims, non-believers, everybody. I wanted to make as broad a case for marriage as possible. If I were to speak only as a Christian, citing mainly Christian and biblical texts and offering basically theological reasons for my conclusions, that would be effective communication for many Christian readers, but probably not for others. So I chose to make essentially secular, and not religious, arguments in this case.
WORLD: You argue that marriage "was not created by religion, and it certainly does not owe its definition or existence to any particular religion or to religion in general." What do you say to Christians who state that the clearest reason to defend marriage is that God created it, in chapter 2 of Genesis?
BLANKENHORN: To me, the two points are not in conflict. Marriage is what scholars call a natural institution-it exists everywhere, in all human societies, across history. It's part of who we are as a species. It certainly exists independently of any particular religious creed or tradition, and, though typically connected to religion, also seems to exist somewhat independently of religion in general. These are matters of scholarly and historical fact.
At the same time, as a Christian, I think of the Genesis story as true and beautiful. Saying that marriage is a natural institution does not deny or negate its religious meanings within particular traditions.
WORLD: You note that, compared to animals with their estrus cycles, humans have "a lot more sexual heat, desire, and intensity, not for the purpose of multiple partners and sexual freedom, but to reinforce that most middlebrow and unhip of institutions: Mom and dad nagging the kids about finishing their homework. Such is the crooked path of human evolutionary adaptation. Mother Nature must have a sense of humor." Is Mother Nature rolling in the aisles, or do you think God might have had something to do with it?
BLANKENHORN: Maybe I should have said what the Founders said in the Declaration of Independence: "Nature and Nature's God."
WORLD: You also write, "I know what the Bible says about homosexuality. I disagree with the Bible on this point. Or, if you'll permit me, I believe that Jesus' teachings are inconsistent with the idea that today in the United States we should judge people as blameworthy just for being gay or lesbian." Since Jesus explicitly says that humans are "blameworthy" when we commit adultery, are you saying that sex outside of marriage is fine for homosexuals but not for heterosexuals-and why do you think that the teachings of Jesus are inconsistent with those of the rest of the Bible?
BLANKENHORN: Unless I'm mistaken, Jesus' teaching about adultery concerns the proper conduct for married persons. I don't recall Jesus ever saying anything one way or the other about homosexuals (who do not marry).
I know that many Christians believe that any sex other than sex between married spouses is wrong. I respect that view, but I do not share it. I'm not trying to say that Jesus is necessarily on my side on this particular point, either; I'm just telling you what I believe.
There are many statements in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures), forcefully denouncing homosexuality. There are also numerous statements in the Bible that seem to endorse, or at least accept with equanimity, the possession of slaves, the practice of a man marrying more than one woman, and the practice of punishing people by stoning them. I personally do not view these particular biblical statements-regarding homosexuality, slavery, polygamy, or stoning-as authoritative instructions (in the way that Jesus' teachings are) conveying God's desire or plan for human social conduct. I know that many intelligent Christians disagree, but that's the best I can do for myself on this difficult subject.
WORLD: You state that if gay marriage becomes legal throughout the United States, statements such as "every child needs a father and a mother" will "probably be viewed as explicitly divisive and discriminatory, possible even as hate speech." On what evidence do you base this prediction?
BLANKENHORN: In Canada and Europe, there have already been a few cases in which pastors are threatened legally as a consequence of teaching traditional Christian doctrine on marriage. If I say publicly "every child needs a father and a mother," and if the laws regarding marriage and parenthood no longer support that proposition, it seems quite likely that my comment will be viewed by some as offensive, and maybe even legally beyond the pale.