FEBRUARY 26, 2004
Arthur E. Farnsley II
Several mainline Christian denominations are worried about gay marriage. Should the church bless a union between adults of the same gender? Can the church bless a union that the government does not recognize?
President Bush is also worried about gay marriage. On Tuesday he responded to the ongoing pairings of same-sex couples in San Francisco and asked Congress for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. In doing so, he seeks to shore up and defend "the most fundamental institution of civilization."
If "gay marriage" is the question, then "gay" must be the issue, because "marriage" is collapsing in the U.S. no matter what the President, the courts, or the mainline denominations think.
The numbers are stark. In the 1960 census, 78 percent of US "households" were composed of married couples. As late as 1970, 70 percent were. In 2000, only 52 percent were. By 2010, we can reasonably assume that unmarried households will have displaced married ones as the domestic unit of choice.
In 2000, 11 million people told the census that they were living with an "unmarried partner" -- as opposed to a roommate or some other co-habitator. For the record, the total number of unmarried partners rose 72 percent from 1990, and ten-fold from 1960, according to the 2000 census (as parsed by www.unmarried.org). About 11 percent of those were living with a partner of the same sex.
The effect that the decline of two-parent homes has on children is well known. According to www.childstats.gov, 68 percent of kids live with two parents, so nearly one-third do not. Since 1980, the percentage of births to unmarried women have almost doubled, from around 18 percent to approximately 33 percent. For African-American women, that figure is about 70 percent. Read that again: more than two-thirds of African-American children are born to unmarried women.
This is hardly a simple matter of culture or lifestyle choices. Only 10 percent of all children with married parents live in poverty. Half of children in female-householder homes do. Among African-Americans, the corresponding figures prove the point: 13 percent of kids living with married parents are impoverished, compared to 55 percent of children in female-householder homes.
If marriage is eroding and kids are suffering, why the fuss about gay marriage? Because we insist on linking the moral and religious foundations of the institution with the legal, contractual ones. And sadly, too many people flail quixotically at the former because they have failed miserably to promote or enforce the latter.
What if we envisioned marriage in two parts? First, as a civil union and second, as a moral and religious union. Every couple (composed of consenting adults) who wishes to be joined could form a contractual bond in which both parties assume fixed legal commitment to, and responsibility for, the other. The state would recognize and enforce this legal contract as "marriage", though we could always find a different word for it if necessary. The state could also enforce child support by both parents as a contractual obligation that had nothing to do with whether the parents were "in love" or thought of themselves as married.
The moral and religious component of "marriage" would then be a second piece, separate and non-compulsory, with each religious tradition enforcing its own canons of eligibility. Whether people were married in the eyes of God would have nothing to do with whether they were contractually partnered for legal purposes. Some faith traditions already insist on the de facto difference between legal and religious marriage. There are ever more pastors who will not perform a "church wedding" for strangers simply because the bride and groom have a license. There is growing insistence that the faith community share in, and take responsibility for, marriages that take place within it.
The changes envisioned here would be neither complex nor unprecedented. A few other countries and now the state of Vermont allow civil marriage between any two adults while faith communities still set their own guidelines. But most of America continues to operate on bad faith, pretending that there is some underlying national unanimity about marriage's moral or religious meaning, refusing to acknowledge that any agreed-upon, enforceable linkage between the legal contract and sacred obligations broke down long ago.
President Bush says he believes that marriage is between a man and a woman and he's asking Congress and the states to ensure that it stays that way. How much better if he was focused on providing children with stable homes and encouraging lifelong commitments between adults who care for one another and share responsibility for their progeny.
Arthur E. Farnsley II researches and writes about religion and social change. His latest book is Rising Expectations: Urban Congregations, Welfare Reform, and Civic Life (IU Press, 2003).