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.