In the News: To Wed or To Bed? Blankenhorn and the Gay-Marriage Debates

What is a family?  What is sex?  What role should government and church play in defining these issues?

For the last generation, these questions have become trench mortars in America’s continuing culture wars.  Recently, a leading anti-gay-marriage voice switched sides.  Writing in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, David Blankenhorn declared, “I have no stomach for what we often too glibly call ‘culture wars.'”  Yet Blankenhorn has played his role as culture warrior.  Most famously, as leader of the Institute for American Values and author of 2007’s The Future of Marriage, Blankenhorn testified in favor of California’s 2010 Proposition 8.  This measure, like similar measures in states across the nation, defined marriage as a bond between one man and one woman.

Why did Blankenhorn change his position?  In sum, as he explains in his op-ed piece, he had hoped a defense of traditional marriage would protect the rights of children.  Instead, the cultural wind has shifted.  The issue has become one of equity and fairness for homosexuals.  As such, Blankenhorn hopes to move the discussion about gay marriage toward one that focuses on the rights of children and the responsibilities of parenting.

Defenders of traditional marriage have not taken Blankenhorn’s defection lightly.  At Public Discourse, Maggie Gallagher articulates her reasons for disagreeing with Blankenhorn’s change of heart.  Gallagher, founder of the National Organization for Marriage and a former colleague of Blankenhorn, insists that Blankenhorn goes too far in abandoning first principles about marriage.  “Marriage,” Gallagher argues,

“is the union of male and female, the way society tries to give a child the gift of his own mother and father in one family union. Gay marriage is part of the process of deinstitutionalizing marriage, removing it from a tight matrix of social norms designed to get this good for children; it is part of a larger process of reformulating marriage as a product of choice oriented toward the private goods of the people who choose it.”

At First Things, Matthew Schmitz takes Blankenhorn to task for ignoring the larger implications of the marriage debates.  Not only must gay marriage itself be fought against, Schmitz argues, but the fight must be kept up in order to maintain the rights of religious believers across the board.  After all, Schmitz insists, “As soon as we stop contending for the natural truth of marriage in the public square, certain people will try to strip us of the right to proclaim it anywhere.”

Similarly, Douglas Farrow accuses Blankenhorn of simply having lost his nerve.  “Regrettably,” Farrow notes,

“David has sought relief in a position that provides none. No one of sound mind supposes that same-sex marriage is being sought in order to bring sexual discipline to the homosexual culture (or the culture at large), or to enhance the institution of marriage and parenting. Whether it makes our stomachs churn or not, we must face the truth about the struggle that is under way and understand (as I have argued elsewhere) that no peace is to be had by capitulation.”

In all these debates, the culture-war divide in our understandings about marriage and sexuality becomes vividly clear.  As Blankenhorn notes in his op-ed piece, for many gay marriage supporters, the issue is simply one of human rights, of civil rights.  From this perspective, opponents of gay marriage look like nothing other than bigots and reactionaries, viciously clinging to outdated traditions in order to shore up untenable cultural vestiges.  For opponents of gay marriage, marriage is the bedrock of proper society.  Discussions about changing the nature of the marriage institution are harmful in themselves.  Furthermore, any erosion of traditional marriage will serve as the camel’s nose, spearheading the eventual abandonment of all sexual mores and traditional social bonds.  For historically minded conservatives, these frights are not mere fantasies.  Rather, the dissolution of traditional family and sexual norms has been the first step in the crumbling of every human civilization.  The fight against gay marriage, from this perspective, is nothing less than a fight for moral value itself.

With such a stark cultural divide, a public reversal from a leader such as Blankenhorn is truly remarkable.  He may say he has lost his stomach for culture-war battles, but I’m guessing Blankenhorn’s change of position will make him even more of a symbolic figure of great importance in these continuing marriage controversies.

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1 Comment

  1. I have some sympathy with the view that many arguments against gay marriage are covers for homophobia. It’s an oversimplification to say they all are, of course, but…

    Looking at fundamentalist arguments against contraception and abortion, it’s clear that the real reason for their opposition is morality. Fundamentalist literature on condoms claims they are ineffective, and uses this as a reason to encourage abstinence. Similar campaigns on abortion talk about cancer risks, and surgical risks.

    In both cases, those arguments are really beside the point: To the fundamentalist, those acts are immoral, and that’s the end of it. I think any attempt to claim their opposition to gay marriage is on grounds other than morality is fraudulent. And while there are perhaps some Christians who can say homosexuality is immoral without any homophobic undertones, I think they are in the minority.

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