Marriage is the foundation of civilization," writes Jonathan Rauch, who worries about the "proliferation ... of marriage-like and marriage-lite' alternatives" such as cohabitation, civil unions, serial monogamy and the like. If we weaken marriage, he says, then we diminish our society and lessen love itself. Those who don't marry are sicker and sadder, licentious and lonely, more apt to kill and commit other crimes.
Is Rauch a cranky cultural conservative? A Defense of Marriage Coalition flack? A dour deacon denouncing our descent into decadence and debauchery? Before you decide, there's one thing you should know: Rauch is a gay man who advocates same-sex marriage in his book, Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America (Times Books).
"[W]ill marriage be defined by what it expects or by whom it excludes?" Rauch asks. With a purposeful and thorough analysis, he clears away the current clutter of what marriage is not -- Adam and Steve, Adam and Fido, Adam and his seven orgy-happy friends, and all the paranoid permutations of the self-righteously shocked -- to ask quite plainly, "What is marriage for?"
His answer is pale fodder for poets and certainly not the stuff of Queer as Folk plot lines. Marriage, he says, is for "settling the young, particularly young men," whom Rauch says are particularly given to "debauchery." (Yeah, he really uses that word.) And marriage is for "providing reliable caregivers."
What about love? Loveless spouses are still married, says Rauch, who writes repeatedly about the implausibility of love enduring. Children? Childless couples are still married. Gender specialization? CEO wives and househusbands give the lie to that. Monogamy? Well, just look at the latest figures on marital infidelity (which some studies have found to be more common among cultural conservatives than liberals).
Rauch argues that the only transgression that automatically invalidates a marriage is abandonment of the responsibility to care for your spouse, to fail them in the times of sickness and poorer, to walk away and burden society with their care. Do this, and, in the eyes of the society (as opposed to the law), you are no longer married.
Marriage defined as a commitment -- to both spouse and community -- to care for one another is as much a responsibility as a right. Rauch celebrates the "coercive" social pressure and legal imperatives that come with the institution of marriage. The external expectations of marriage are critical to its success. Giving gay couples the right to these obligations is, as the subtitle of the book states, good for all.
Rauch rests his argument on one assertion that some cultural conservatives will have a hard time swallowing: Lesbian and gay couples are here to stay. It's not an option to go back to the days of gay people hiding their love in heterosexual facades and confining their sexual encounters to anonymous trysts. For anyone who still seriously believes that psych wards and prayer circles can and should "cure" or "convert" gay people to heterosexuality, Rauch's argument won't convince.
But give up that illusion, and the only question, Rauch says, is whether gay couples will take on the rights and the responsibilities of "the great civilizing institution" or live instead in marriage-like alternatives. Rauch argues that the latter option threatens the health and happiness of all couples, gay and straight, and, by creating alternatives to marriage that offer similar benefits with less demanding social and legal burdens, threatens the institution of marriage itself and the health of our society, which relies upon its stabilizing influence.
While Rauch protests that he doesn't intend to criticize people who don't marry, his repeated assertions of the supremacy of marriage rub those protestations rather raw. He considers and rejects what he calls "radical" and "leftist" notions that marriage is repressive and should be replaced by other more anarchist-friendly alternatives: a menu of choices, perhaps, or custom-made contracts between two (or more) individuals, improvising their love lives as they see fit.
Marriage, he says, "separates the grown-ups from the kids" and "must be understood to be better than other ways of living." Even love is not whole without it. "True love means," he says, "a love which ends in lasting marriage." Thus, "who would want to live life without marriage?"
What Rauch seems to really mean is that it's OK if you fail to get married, provided you live your life guided by the prospect of marriage, provided you try to be "marriage material." "The point," he writes, "is that, whether you marry or not, it is the prospect and the possibility of marriage that makes us a society of homebodies, which is a wonderful thing to be."
A note to the "defense of marriage" folks: If that's sincerely your objective and not just a noble-sounding cover for homophobia and religious demagoguery, this guy is on your side.