Millennials Will Save Marriage

Millennials Will Save Marriage

Last update on July 8, 2014.

For marriage advocates, all the headwinds are there: Divorce. Fatherlessness. Cohabitation. Pornography. And that is just the beginning.

There’s been no shortage of hand wringing and fatalism on the part of conservatives over the routinely bad polling of traditional marriage among young Americans. Millennials, those approximately 18 to about 31, are the generation most supportive of redefining marriage. They’re increasingly likely to delay or forgo marriage altogether (just 26% of adults aged 20 to 29 were married in 2008, compared to nearly 70% in 1960), and they’re the most convinced that marriage is becoming obsolete.

The reality is that today the demographic deck is stacked against those of us who believe in marriage as a sacred covenant between a man and a woman and the basic building block of civil society. If trends continue, then in a matter of time—a generation, probably less—we’re going to lose on marriage. And by lose, I simply mean that our political reality will look more like our cultural reality: near complete disregard for the institution of marriage. That perennial ray of conservative sunshine, Rod Dreher, has been warning of the coming demographic disaster on marriage for some time. He wrote the following last fall:

“This dog [opposition to redefining marriage] ain’t going to hunt much longer. I wish it weren’t so, but nobody who has spent any time reading the polls or talking to anybody under the age of 30 should have illusions about this.”


But here’s my counterintuitive thesis: Millennials, that same generation poised to throw it all away, will save marriage. They’ll do it the way sailors have made progress in strong headwinds for thousands of years. They’ll tack.

Over the next several weeks I’ll offer a few of the tacks that millennial Christians can take to redeem and restore a marriage culture. It is entirely possible, and I think an eventuality, that Americans of all faiths and no faith will be won to the cause of marriage. However, given the enormity of cultural pressure facing younger Americans on the issues of marriage and sexuality (I take it that the preponderance of polling on the issue indicates a direction—if not yet a verdict)—we’ve got our work cut out for us with the “nones” (those with no particular religious commitment). My disclaimer then, is that these tacks are primarily directed to Christians. I’m sorry if that leaves some folks cold. Your participation in the discussion is still very welcome.

Before proceeding, let me state that I don’t believe legally redefining marriage so as to include same-sex couples will be the death of marriage. As I’ll explain shortly, marriage is at the center of God’s redemptive plan for mankind and is beyond our ability to remake or destroy. What we are talking about is the weakening of a marriage culture and all the collateral damage that entails. Consider for a moment the rampant fatherlessness and the rise of cohabitation in the wake no-fault divorce’s legalization. What we’re countenancing in redefining marriage is the deliberate exacerbation of these trends—the creation of intentionally fatherless or motherless households.

To be sure, redefining marriage will not revitalize marriage. There is some indication from Spain, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2005, that redefining marriage is connected with declining numbers of traditional marriages. And as Charles Cook pointed out in National Review, even when given the chance to marry, homosexuals do not appear any more interested in tying the knot than their heterosexual counterparts and, in fact, may be even less interested in the legal strictures of marriage. Changing the legal definition of marriage, then, will do nothing to shore up the growing trend of non-married households in America. It will most likely push our culture more quickly in the direction we’re already headed.

Therefore, using the word “marriage” to solemnize same-sex relationships wouldn’t be a redefinition so much as a natural conclusion. In the public mind, marriage has already been redefined—that is, separated from its true and full meaning. Consider this paragraph from Molly Ball at the Atlantic, writing on the fallout of the Prop 8 electoral victory:

In survey after survey, researchers would ask people what marriage meant to them -- not gay marriage, but the concept of marriage itself. And the answers were always the same: Marriage meant love and commitment. Even people who'd been divorced three times would say the same thing. Then the researchers would ask, "Why do you think gay people want to get married?" and the answers would change: They want rights and benefits. They're trying to make a political point. They don't understand what marriage is really about. Most commonly, respondents said they simply didn't know. [emphasis mine]

Millennials who hold orthodox convictions on marriage are not in a race to stop marriage from being redefined. Supposing most Americans understand marriage as “love and commitment,” then let us acknowledge that this exclusively personal understanding of marriage, sundered from any of the societal implications of the union, already represents a redefinition. Same-sex “marriage” is a near unassailable eventuality if marriage means solely “love and commitment.” Our task then, is not to stop a redefinition of marriage: it is to correct a redefinition. It is to redeem and restore marriage in the hearts and minds of our neighbors. If we do that, the law will follow.

Beginning next week, I’ll offer what I consider the first tack millennial Christians need to make on marriage. And because some of you just can’t wait, here’s a teaser:

We’ll start with victory.


One quick word on opinion polling: Asking millennials if they think it should be "illegal" for homosexuals to get married, for example, and then touting the results as the highest level of support for same-sex marriage *ever* is more than a little mendacious. Importantly, marriage continues to enjoy strong support at the ballot box, despite the results of the 2012 contests. In each of the four states where marriage was on the ballot, marriage received a greater share of votes than did the GOP presidential candidate. That’s something.


Chris Marlink

Chris Marlink has passed ten years of marriage, and can almost field a baseball team with his family. You can follow Chris on twitter @CMarlink.


  1. Andy

    Andy on 08/14/2013 11:56 a.m. #

    Thanks! I'm going to devote some thought to this.

    This may be a good way of explaining how generations often "rebel" against their parents' generation's predominant values, but end up adopting some views and mannerisms of their grandparents'.

    Question: What are those tear-drop things in the graphics you provided? Are they boats? Catfish? Petals? Help a brother out.

  2. JeffreyRO5

    JeffreyRO5 on 08/14/2013 6:40 p.m. #

    I don't see how religionists will be able to change the country's perception of the law though. Marriage can be whatever you want it to be, so the idea of "properly" defining marriage is inherently flawed. More demanding is defining "equal treatment under the law" in a way that permits one group from getting special rights and status than a similarly situated group.

    I've often wondered if religionists ever ponder the bad PR they get by trying to impose their personal beliefs on others, through the law. Since everyone knows religionists don't mind legal pre-marital sex, legal adultery and legal divorce (mainstays of straight peoples' marital behavior), it just makes religionists look bad that they insist on illegal same-sex marriage.

  3. Mark

    Mark on 08/15/2013 9:44 a.m. #

    Let me say up front: I am a gay Christian millennial who is engaged to be married at my church later this year. Just so you know where I'm coming from.

    Having said that, I actually think you have written one of the most honest assessments of the condition of marriage that I have read in a long time. Primarily, you hit the nail on the head in the way you frame the conversation. 'Redefinition,' as it is understood by traditional marriage advocates, has already happened. Past tense. Legal recognition of same-sex marriages, therefore, is merely a logical expression of a conceptual change that has already taken place.

    Which is why, as you aptly imply, the work of organizations such as NOM has it mostly backwards. To use a different metaphor, they are treating the symptoms (legal rights for gay couples) rather than the underlying condition (that society for the most part understands marriage to mean love and commitment, rather than an eternal union between one man and one woman).

    I honestly believe that is why NOM and their allies are fighting an increasingly uphill battle. Rather than waging a full-throated campaign to persuade people -- particularly youth -- to return to a traditional definition of marriage, they are busy trying to tamp down fires in individual states. A more productive strategy in the long term would be to genuinely examine what might be spawning all those fires in the first place.

    You seem to get it. While I disagree with you strongly (after all, I am excited that advances in equality mean my upcoming marriage will be respected not only by my church but also by the state and federal government), I can also recognize that you take an honest and clear-eyed approach to the situation. I look forward to reading your future pieces about what 'tacks' need to be undertaken. You may be surprised to hear this, but gay couples actually care about the health of marriage in 21st century America too. Issues like divorce, pornography, cohabitation, etc are not merely 'straight' concerns; they impact all marriages.

  4. GreenpointGuy

    GreenpointGuy on 08/15/2013 11:48 a.m. #

    "In each of the four states where marriage was on the ballot, marriage received a greater share of votes than did the GOP presidential candidate. That’s something." Um, yes, it's something...but it's clearly not enough. Plus, there's "some indication" from Spain? C'mon, we know for a fact that Massachusetts (the first state to legalize same-sex marriage) has the lowest divorce rate in the United States. Why even look to Spain?

  5. Grisha

    Grisha on 08/15/2013 12:06 p.m. #

    On opinion polling - the absolute level of support that SSM enjoys among millenials may indeed be swayed by the specific wording of the poll questions. However, the trend is pretty clear. The major factor is, of course, that millenials are likely to know people in their workplace or in their social circle who are openly gay. Once you know those people as individuals, it's hard to see them as entirely different from yourself. You see that they have the same basic motivations as you do, and then denying them something that you have - the ability to make a public commitment to the person they love - becomes harder to justify.

    See here for an evaluation of the impact of same sex marriage on opposite sex marriage rates in the various US states.

    Of course, more time and more data will make the evaluation more robust, especially as more states come online as permitting SSM.

  6. GreenpointGuy

    GreenpointGuy on 08/15/2013 2:57 p.m. #

    Great analysis, Grisha! You are so correct that the acceptance of homosexuality and later of gay marriage have everything to do with the simple act of coming out, and the humanizing affect it has on the "other". In fact, this point is so true that it makes me wonder how the authors of this blog (shown clearly on this page) manage to sleep at night, with thoughts in their head like "I really love Jim in accounting, and his partner Doug is so cool, but I must fight with every fiber in my being to prevent them from making a public commitment to each other and enjoying the rights and benefits that I enjoy as a heterosexual!" I truly don't know how they do it.

  7. Grisha

    Grisha on 08/15/2013 5:12 p.m. #

    My assumption has been that the people at the forefront of the anti-gay marriage movement have actively resisted getting to know any gay families, in order to avoid that sort of cognitive dissonance.

    But... I would love to hear otherwise, and to get some insight on this.

    So, to the author of this post:

    Chris, do you know any gay couples who are married (or in long-term committed relationships, if you live in a place where that's not possible)? And I mean really know them well - well enough to relate to them and understand the ups and downs of their lives together?

  8. GreenpointGuy

    GreenpointGuy on 08/15/2013 6:11 p.m. #

    I'd love to hear from Chris on this as well! The whole vibe of this site (from the use of "Millenials", to the look and personal style of the authors, to the Instagram-y style of photography) is a co-op of the Portland/Williamsburg liberal hipster lifestyle, one that is intrisically intertwined with the LGBT community. There's no way these authors don't know gays and lesbians in committed relationships, probably with families. They must be actively promoting the denial of equality to these very real people's lives.

  9. Grisha

    Grisha on 08/15/2013 6:56 p.m. #

    On a more philosophical note, I'd like to address the notion that people who support SSM think marriage is only about "love and commitment", and that it's all about emotional appeals. Opponents of SSM ask what value it could possibly bring to society, since gay people can't reproduce with each other. It is true that, for some people, the issue turns on feelings about fairness and equality, but let's set those aside entirely for now. I contend that there is a good argument for SSM that has nothing to do with feelings or even fairness, based only on its benefits to society as a whole.

    This argument has to do with the basic purpose of marriage. Saying that the purpose of marriage is strictly the production and support of children obviously does not fly, because we let people marry who will never have kids (the elderly, the biologically sterile, people in prison for life, etc.) and we feel there is still some value to that. But it can't just be about love, either. The state and society really does not care about love, per se. So, why is marriage good for society?

    I hope we can all agree that everyone, gay or straight, has an instinctive drive towards sex and romantic love. Marriage takes that drive and channels it into something that has social value - bonds of obligation and mutual support. That is valuable for many reasons. Just one example: people who are tied into networks of family support are less reliant on the government if they fall ill and need care. Having biological kids and raising them together is a great way to strengthen those social bonds, but we all know strong families that are biologically childless for one reason or another, and still function as full-fledged families (with adopted kids, in some cases).

    That is a good rational argument for marriage - turning sex drive into a form of social capital. Note that it can apply to gay people as well as straight.

    People opposed to expanding marriage to include gay people respond to that argument by saying that the same line of reasoning could be used to support polygamy. That's true. It could. The core of the argument is that turning individuals into families should, a priori, be considered a good thing. That might apply to polygamous families too, but it's also entirely possible that there are other factors that make polygamous families psychologically harmful, socially destabilizing, or otherwise undesirable. I don't know enough polygamous families to see whether that's true.

    However, I do know gay families, and it is obvious to anyone who actually knows gay families that they are just families, with the same joys and problems as any other family. Even if people don't consciously think of this line of reasoning, as soon as they get to know a gay family they intuitively realize the truth of the argument.

    And that's why the fight against gay marriage is doomed.

  10. Greenpointguy

    Greenpointguy on 08/16/2013 10:47 a.m. #

    Grisha, unfortunately, I think we are a party of two on this comments page. Unfortunately, because your statements are intelligent, reasoned, and not guided by"revealed word" or belief in invisible dieties. They also illustrate beautifully why marriage equality is winning.

  11. Rev. Will Fisher

    Rev. Will Fisher on 08/16/2013 11:35 a.m. #

    Thank you Grisha for your cogent argument in favor of legalizing SSM. You've summed up my opinion on the matter well, so I will just add a couple points. Disclosure: I'm a married, straight pastor from a denomination that generally has no problem with SSM.
    A. About 'revealed word' raised GPGuy. A lot of Christians, especially younger ones, support gay rights not in spite of our faith, but BECAUSE of our faith. An ancient text that we believe to be divine in origin deserves enough respect to read and analyze very thoroughly. Many have looked at the various parts of the Holy Bible oft quoted to justify legal discrimination against the LGBT community and concluded that they apply specifically to things like gang rape and sexual exploitation (under the guise of religion, no less) and not to consensual sexual behavior.
    B. Along the lines of what Grisha said, encouraging two gay men or women to legally commit to eachother, like straight couples, promotes biblical values like stability, justice, peace, etc.
    C. Opponents of SSM often raise the polygamy question. Leaving aside the legal questions, I just want to point out that polygamy is legal in scores of countries around the world. These countries, however tend to be non-democratic and non-egalitarian. All the countries where SSM is legal are democratic, egalitarian, economically developed, and have secular laws. I also notice that polygamists in the US have not sought recognition in courts, but have tried to isolate themselves from the rest of society.

    Finally, I want to thank the publishers of this blog for having a comment section where a thoughtful, respectful dialogue on this issue can happen. While I disagree with you on this question, I appreciate your honesty and respect.

  12. Emily Schatz

    Emily Schatz on 08/16/2013 11:46 a.m. #

    Encouraging thoughts, Chris. I'm a Millennial working for a family policy organization, so I think about this stuff a lot. In the policy world, it definitely IS a race to stop marriage from being further redefined, even though we know a lot of ground has been lost already. Even though it's exhausting, I think that work is worthwhile because it keeps up the public conversation on what marriage is for; it helps keep at bay approval of the various forms of human trafficking that service gay couples in the fertility industry; and it sometimes works (e.g., six legislators in my state thrown out of office because they turned tail on marriage and threw their constituents under the bus).

    That said, articles like this are helpful for staving off the martyr complex, because they validate what I see outside the policy arena. In college and since, I've met a lot of bright, determined people of my same age group who have very educated and positive views of marriage and are committed to its restoration. Many of them are doing scholarly work. I'm encouraged to see that whatever our laws decide, the Lord not leaving Himself without a witness.

    Looking forward to your followup articles.

  13. Chris

    Chris on 08/16/2013 11:53 a.m. #

    For you to imply that the *only* reason young people support gay marriage is because of carefully worded poll questions is absolutely, categorically and ridiculously false!

    This generation has an ENTIRELY different attitude towards homosexuality and the LGBT community and flat-out rejects the ridiculous propaganda that the religious right has been peddling for over a century. The question you should be asking yourself isn't: "Why do young people support gay marriage?" but "Why *wouldn't* young people support gay marriage?" They don't see us as being any different than anyone else.

    Your provocative headline: "Millennials will save marriage" is punctuated with a rather bold prediction that future generations of interfaith young people will somehow reverse course and "restore marriage" (read: actively support your side's campaign against the LGBT community's quest for nationwide marriage equality). However you offer absolutely NO insight, research or any practical ways in which this could possibly happen.

    In fact, you don't offer much of anything in the rest of the piece except to list some of the reasons why you don't agree with gay marriage. THIS is why your side is losing. The practical steps to "restore marriage" are either hopelessly muddled, not even remotely feasible or simply ignored as your side simply flails your arms and screams: "NO!" as the train of equality powers down the tracks (13 states + DC, federal recognition and counting...).

    With all due respect, your article sadly falls into the latter category of helpless arm-flailing. Hint: You're not going to win over any young people with rusted and debunked talking points like "The creation of intentionally fatherless or motherless households." Unless, of course, part of your plan to "restore marriage" includes outlawing divorce and single parenthood? Didn't think so.

    ....My best guess is that your next couple of articles are going to outline not-really-feasible "tacks" that young people can use to "redeem and restore marriage in the hearts and minds of our neighbors"......whatever that means. But I'm sure you'll also ask the question that's been asked by every single anti-equality article ever written: "What IS Marriage?"

    You can define marriage until the cows come home. But if your final, "traditional" definition of marriage leaves out consenting adult couples who just happen to be same-sex, and the laws you wish to put in place to protect that definition are unconstitutional, we're taking you down in flames.

    Just ask our old friends at "Yes on 8/Protect Marriage" about the $50 MILLION they spent passing Prop 8 and defending it in court. Prop 8 didn't even last 4 and half years before gay marriage was restored in California.

    That's another reason why your side is losing: You're all still pretending it's 2002 and gay marriage doesn't exist. Thirteen states later, are you really going to claim that marriage is ONLY between a man and a woman?

  14. OneReason2Live

    OneReason2Live on 08/16/2013 1:32 p.m. #

    This is the first time I've read your blog and will return again. How refreshing to read about a different approach to the cultural challenges we face. I appreciate the civil dialogue on all sides. As a life long sailor, I totally get your tacking analogy. Magnificent! You have shared the ultimate secret. I think maybe what you are trying to point out is that no matter what man made laws we try to make, God's laws will prevail, even if you don't believe in Him. There are many parents working countercultural to teach their children the true meaning of marriage even as gay rights activists in conjunction with our public schools and government are trying to annihilate their rights to do so. No lobby, no gay rights group, no government can take away what is God given. There, the secret is out. As we have the truth now, we do not have to be afraid of the future. The truth will set us free and we have nothing to fear,but fear itself. By the way, I am not some religionist- not sure exactly what that is, but I do know I am not one - just an old fashioned American who knows her history and all that our forefathers and mothers sacrificed so that we could live free from persecution for our religious beliefs. We just went sailing yesterday, and my kids LOVE tacking through the headwind. The future is bright. Thank you Chris for your thoughtfulness.

  15. GreenpointGuy

    GreenpointGuy on 08/16/2013 1:41 p.m. #

    OneReason2Live: our forefathers and mothers also sacrificed so that I could live free from persecution based on your religious beliefs!

  16. Neal

    Neal on 08/16/2013 4:09 p.m. #

    Apparently, you have no idea about ballot box. The one that get screwed over is not the poll but ballot. According to exit poll 2012, 15% of votes are from new generation, and more than 60# of the votes are from baby boomers plus older generation. Moreover, the exit poll of WA showed that around 70% of y generation favored same sex marriage, 60% of x generation, and the number dropped to high 40 in baby boomers. In conclusion, the reason why "marriage received a greater share of votes than did the GOP presidential candidate", so called Bradly effect, happened because high 40 of 60% of older generations screwed up 70% of 15% young generation. We will see after ten years when all the y generation reaches out the voting age.

  17. Neal

    Neal on 08/16/2013 4:26 p.m. #

    I just want to add. Before you mane any assumption, Please do the deep analysis of the reasoning. Otherwise, it will make you look unprofessional.

  18. Mark

    Mark on 08/17/2013 1:26 p.m. #

    Neal makes a good point. It is true that opinion polling (on a host of issues) is highly susceptible to manipulation based on the way a question is phrased.

    But a much more reliable indicator is how people ACTUALLY vote. This can be measured by exit interviews. By that measure young people continue to overwhelmingly support making civil marriage available to gay couples. In Maryland, for example, roughly 7 out of 10 voters age 29 and younger approved the marriage law. In Maine it was something like 68% approval from that demographic.

    This suggests that opinion polling is not wildly off base due to biased questions. On the contrary, young people are not merely talking the talk -- they are also voting accordingly.

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