This Sunday, Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ resident social conservative (I use the adjective “social” to differentiate him from David Brooks, who I’m pretty sure opposes so-called conservatives on every social issue although he would never admit it in print), published his take on the effects of marriage equality on, well, marriage. Other than that marriage equality would mean more people getting married and more money for all those wedding-related businesses, a seemingly ideal socially and fiscally conservative win-win.
There are so many things wrong with Douthat’s reasoning, including that it isn’t reasoning at all, a fact he himself admits somewhere in the middle of the essay, when, after trying to prove that creeping marriage equality has led to a falling marriage rate, increasing out-of-wedlock births, and more cohabitation, he admits, “Correlations do not, of course, establish causation.” Sigh. Alex Pareene takes apart Douthat’s non-argument pretty well on Salon, pointing out that Douthat and other social conservatives have had to refine their presentation of their case precisely because their case is so abhorrent to most people: “Social conservatives, in general, believe that we were better off when sex necessarily led to babies and babies necessarily led to lifelong marriage. None of them deny believing this, they just rarely (these days) put it in such stark terms, because that’s not a very popular position.”
All this I’ve heard before. But what really bothered me, and what bothers me about every Douthat column I’ve read (which isn’t very many because I can barely stand to keep my eyes on the page) is his self-righteous, know-it-all sanctimony. If you made it to the end of the essay (and believe me, I do not blame you if you stopped reading at paragraph two), you could read Douthat’s personal prescription for liberals, who are, as usual, doing things all wrong: marriage equality proponents should concede that there are social costs to “redefining marriage,” as he calls it, but that they support this “redefinition” because the benefits of change outweigh the costs. That’s bad enough (more on that in a minute), but then he goes on: “Such honesty would make social liberals more magnanimous in what looks increasingly like victory, and less likely to hound and harass religious institutions that still want to elevate and defend the older marital ideal.”
First, Douthat’s “correlation is not causation” argument has in no way demonstrated that “redefining” marriage has had any detrimental effect on the institution of marriage at all. As Alex Pareene points out, there’s not even a correlation: marriage equality only exists in a handful of states, and only very recently, so to claim it has influenced a much longer and broader trend of divorce, elective single parenting, and cohabitation, among other things, is patently false. Second, marriage equality is only a redefinition of marriage insofar as monogamy is a redefinition, or allowing married women to own property is a redefinition, or any of the major modifications and changes to so-called traditional marriage that have been undertaken in the last two thousand years are redefinitions of some non-existent, originary, authentic conception of marriage. So, to be clear: there’s nothing to be “honest” about here. Marriage— what it is and what it does—like every other societal institution, has varied widely over space and time depending on the conditions that obtained in every society in which it existed. Generally speaking, it has been the institution of marriage itself that has extracted far heavier social costs than any changes to its constitution: think only of Elizabeth Bennett, for whom the only way to avoid homelessness, basically, is marriage to a man of means.
Maybe it’s the fabricated “redefinition” and social “costs” that make Douthat’s preachy tone so unbearable. He also manages to slip in another exaggeration (if not an outright lie) about liberals “hounding and harassing” religious institutions, when the fight for marriage equality has always been about civil and legal rights, and never about religion (except for social conservatives, who have tried to make it about religion). But it seems to me that Douthat’s holier-than-thou advice only thinly masks the reality that it is not marriage-equality proponents who need to be magnanimous about their certain victory (and it is certain now). In the light of that victory, Ross Douthat’s essay sounds more than anything like the whiny lament of a sore loser.