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January 27, 2004

Saving the Soul of Marriage

For months, Stanley Kurtz has been personally promising me a major weapon in the battle to preserve marriage, and I think this is it:

MARRIAGE IS SLOWLY DYING IN SCANDINAVIA. A majority of children in Sweden and Norway are born out of wedlock. Sixty percent of first-born children in Denmark have unmarried parents. Not coincidentally, these countries have had something close to full gay marriage for a decade or more. Same-sex marriage has locked in and reinforced an existing Scandinavian trend toward the separation of marriage and parenthood. The Nordic family pattern--including gay marriage--is spreading across Europe. And by looking closely at it we can answer the key empirical question underlying the gay marriage debate. Will same-sex marriage undermine the institution of marriage? It already has.

More precisely, it has further undermined the institution. The separation of marriage from parenthood was increasing; gay marriage has widened the separation. Out-of-wedlock birthrates were rising; gay marriage has added to the factors pushing those rates higher. Instead of encouraging a society-wide return to marriage, Scandinavian gay marriage has driven home the message that marriage itself is outdated, and that virtually any family form, including out-of-wedlock parenthood, is acceptable.

It certainly is an important piece, and anybody with interest in any facet of this debate ought to read it in its entirety. Apart from directing people to the essay, there doesn't appear to be much to say about it — at least until the opposition reacts. However, I do want to note a paragraph of particular interest to me, given my faith:

Yet the pattern is spreading unevenly. And scholars agree that cultural tradition plays a central role in determining whether a given country moves toward the Nordic family system. Religion is a key variable. A 2002 study by the Max Planck Institute, for example, concluded that countries with the lowest rates of family dissolution and out-of-wedlock births are "strongly dominated by the Catholic confession." The same study found that in countries with high levels of family dissolution, religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, had little influence.

Lane Core noted in a comment to this post that "only the Catholic Church is able to give a consistent, coherent response to pro-homosexual 'marriage' arguments." Obviously, I would insist that a consistent, coherent response can made within the boundaries of our secular government system without reference to religion. However, expanding to the full depth of the issue for individuals, beyond how the society ought to be structured and into how people should live their lives, Lane's point is much like Kurtz's: the dissolution of such institutions as marriage occurs through a sort of mutual orbit of cause and effect, where effect causes the next step to be easier to take, and the previous state more difficult to reclaim. The Catholic Church — in a way that will inevitably frustrate somebody on any given topic — reacts to culture slowly, mostly because it is rooted in thousands of years of theologically privileged tradition.

Of course, the Church, almost by definition, is also relatively well organized, as indicated by this rally that I would have attended, were it not for the duties of a birthday-girl's father. Eight hundred "protestors" may not seem like a lot, but in this area, and overlapping with the March for Life, it is.

Unfortunately, I mightn't have thought to read up on it if the local talk radio guy didn't promote his 5:00 discussion of the topic as I drove to the post office, because the Providence Journal printed not a word about it... that I can find. But even more infuriating than that silence, is the picture with which the Fall River Herald accompanied one story and with which it greeted visitors to its main page:

That's a blatant propaganda choice. It relates perfectly to something that Tim Graham said in the Corner today, when seeking to explain the limited coverage of the March for Life:

The March for Life is not strident and Dean-screamy from the podium, but solemn and prayerful and mourning. That would clash with their media profile of pro-lifers are violent haters.

At least the Boston Globe managed to close out its piece with this sentiment:

At the Worcester rally, Laurie Letourneau, founder of Mass Voices For Traditional Marriage, said that gay-marriage opponents "won't stand still." Before the two-hour rally began, Letourneau ripped a sign out of the hands of an audience member that said "No Homos Need Apply."

"We're not trying to denigrate anybody," Letourneau told the assembly. "This is about love, not about hate."

(The Herald doesn't identify the woman in the picture, but I think it might be this same woman.)

Posted by Justin Katz at January 27, 2004 12:25 AM
Marriage & Family

Thanks for the mention. I linked to this version of the article, which ISTM didn't have the problem (unless they fixed it before I saw it).

Posted by: ELC at January 27, 2004 9:40 AM

Ah, thanks, Lane. I've updated my link.

I know there's much more back-work to these "professional" Web pages, but I'm always astonished at how long it takes them to straighten out simple text errors such as this.

Posted by: Justin Katz at January 27, 2004 11:30 AM

I'm disappointed that you would use this - even refer to this - as a 'weapon' in the argument against gay-marriage. We may be on different sides but I do respect an intelligent, honest and relevant argument for the opposing view and THIS is NOT it. You're supposed to be one of the good guys.

Seriously, the fact that illegitimacy has increased since gay-marriage (but not 'marriage' in name) in Denmark was instituted ? This obviously means that there was no evidence that divorce rates have increased or fewer heterosexuals were getting married - since that certainly would have been noted.

He did address the marriage and divorce rates and ended up what I call splitting-hairs to deny the possibility that gay-marriage did not 'undermine marriage'.

All he could find was that illegitimacy has increased and therefore, that is a result of the governments sanctioning of same-sex relationships. Of course, illegitimacy has been on the rise in many other countries too (like ours) where same-sex relationships are not sanctioned. To me, that means that the increase in illegitimacy has nothing to do with gay marriage.

Now, if you had facts that said the illegitimacy and/or divorce rate in Vermont was much higher than in the rest of the country since they instituted civil unions, then you might have something worth discussing. But apparently, the data does not support that.

You wrote: "I would insist that a consistent, coherent response can made within the boundaries of our secular government system without reference to religion".

I respond - I don't think there is one - without reference to religion. And if Kurtz's article is the best data to support your view ....

This information will only fan the flames of those that already agree with your agenda - but for those thinkers who are on the fence on this issue, I can't see how or why this could persuade them.

On the more positive side, I do agree that the press did not sufficiently cover the 'March for Life' protests anywhere and I believe there are two reasons. 1) They were non-violent and therefore, not newsworthy. 2) The decision makers did not want to give them positive press based on their agenda. Both reasons are sad.

Posted by: Mark Miller at January 27, 2004 12:53 PM


I'm sorry to disappoint, but I still believe Kurtz's to be an important piece. Did you read it?

Of course, there are points that merit discussion, which is why I'm largely waiting to read some substantive responses before commenting, but I think it has to be considered more as an argument than a statistical gotcha. Kurtz is essentially seeking to redefine what we consider to be the relevant factors of the debate. He clearly argues, for example, that gay marriage is part of a larger trend and is particularly damaging in the way it "locks in" a mindset.

The fact of the matter is that rates of marriage in Scandinavia are extremely low. Yes, marriage rates have been rising in Denmark, but in a population whose median age is 39.1 and on the rise, the effects of liberalization of marriage policy are difficult to quantify in these terms, particularly since 57% couples between 16 and 29 years old are cohabiting (compared with an overall 17%). In other words, the demographics do much to cover specific effects.

The larger issue is with gay marriage, which makes illegitimacy relevant is that it will separate childbearing from the understanding of marriage. Obviously, if marriage were made primarily a benefits package with little difficulty dissolving, one would expect marriage rates to shoot up. That doesn't mean that instances of the particular relationship that we currently call marriage wouldn't plummet. As many opponents of gay marriage have said, the problem is the concept — most dramatically represented by the idea of gay marriage — that marriage is less about a family type than about two adults' relationship.

Nobody doubts that marriage has been on the defensive. The point is that same-sex marriage would represent a further step, and one from which it would be extremely difficult to step back.

Posted by: Justin Katz at January 28, 2004 12:28 PM


Yes, I did read Kurtz's piece. The way it was represented by him and even on your blog, I was expecting something more of a 'statistical gotcha'. It is merely another argument and, to me, not a very good one.

It was sort of like the Democrats using 'statistics' to rant about the haves and have-nots in their class warfare arguments to defend their 'principles' against those of Republicans.

The argument is that gay-marriage is part of the larger trend of devaluing marriage but I believe it is exactly the opposite. I believe that, logically speaking, gay marriage would uphold the institution by demanding the fidelity and commitment of same-sex couples that marriage demands of opposite-sex couples.

In any case, the reality is that Kurtz distorts the findings to support his argument. (like any good activist - including Andrew Sullivan). For example, he uses the illegitimacy rates to support his view that the acceptance of gay-relationships has harmed marriage. But then he finds explanations for those statistics that do not support his view such as the divorce and marriage rates.

Finally, the whole idea and argument that gay-marriage separates child bearing from the understanding of marriage does not work. We've been through this before but really it simply is not accurate. There are many reasons why it is not but to state just one - how then would you justify the marriage between two people over the age 65 ? Child bearing/rearing is one of the choices in marriage. To use that choice to justify the legal exclusion of same-sex relationships does not work. The better way to go is to say that the majority of people in this democracy are against it.

Ultimately, I contend - still contend - that the reason so-called social conservatives fear gay marriage or any legitimization of gay relationships has much more to do with the civil acceptance of homosexuality (and the behavior) than the effect on how people will view marriage. Therefore, to me, it is not the step back that you contend it is.


Posted by: Mark Miller at January 28, 2004 2:20 PM


Once again, I apologize for the delay. I'm very busy, but I'm also avoiding quick responses to you so that we don't linger in a game of rhetorical pingpong. You write:

I believe that, logically speaking, gay marriage would uphold the institution by demanding the fidelity and commitment of same-sex couples that marriage demands of opposite-sex couples.
— But marriage is currently on the ropes with respect to fidelity and commitment. I've seen no indication that homosexuals would be as faithful as heterosexuals, let alone sufficiently more faithful to improve the institution. I also haven't seen any advocates for gay marriage simultaneously advocating for stiffer divorce laws or any adultery laws.

But then [Kurtz] finds explanations for those statistics that do not support his view such as the divorce and marriage rates.
— His point is, I believe, that gay marriage writes a view of the composition of and, therefore, reason for marriage into the law, making that view difficult to change. In contrast, divorce and marriage rates are statistics having to do with distinct events, not with the constitution of the marriage.

Finally, the whole idea and argument that gay-marriage separates child bearing from the understanding of marriage does not work. ... how then would you justify the marriage between two people over the age 65 ?
— At best, your example suggests that gay marriage is not alone in separating child bearing from marriage. More importantly, late-age marriage doesn't create a distinct, readily recognizable form of relationship. Additionally, the allowance of elderly marriage (and infertile marriage) gives the cultural force of marriage a level of simplicity. And, for good measure, having an age limit for marriage would create an incentive for divorce just at the time when any children require the most stability.

Overall, I guess, elderly couples just don't change the idea of marriage. Sure, as a couple grows older, the emphasis and purpose of their marriage shifts toward the mutual care end, but it's still a significant jump from that far-end of the spectrum of purposes to a relationship that is defined by this very quality. This definition is as true when homosexual couples are young as when they're old. In contrast (positing a symbolic young heterosexual couple personifying social trends), no young couple wishes to emulate the elderly in their marriages (except as perhaps a long-run goal).

It's like that commercial with the twenty-something who tells his parents he's going to retire. It just doesn't work that way.

Posted by: Justin Katz at January 30, 2004 7:16 PM