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Since I started guest-blogging for the Institute for American Values’ Family Scholars Blog back in January, I’ve been meaning to read IAV founder David Blankenhorn’s The Future of Marriage (Encounter Books, 2007). To the extent that David B.’s views on marriage equality have shifted since he authored this text it’s outdated — yet it remains an influential text. Furthermore, David himself has affirmed that he still believes in his central argument in the text: that access to marriage as a civil right (one “good”) must be balanced with the rights of children to be raised by their biological male/female parents (another “good”). What he terms “goods in conflict.”

So I felt that it was important to get a book-length sense of where he is coming from, as I have from reading his colleague Elizabeth Marquardt’s One Parent or Five? study. So this morning at the local public library I checked out a copy of The Future of Marriage and sat down to read it with a cup of tea when we got home. I can tell right away I’ll need to live-blog it, or a review will never happen (too much to talk back to / about) so I’m going to put together my informal thoughts chapter by chapter.

Here are my notes on the Introduction.

  • He makes the assertion that “marriage is fundamentally about the needs of children,” as opposed to fundamentally about the needs of adults (2). I’m curious to see how this argument plays out across the book for a couple of reasons. First, because I wonder why we need to set up such a dichotomy (children vs. adults … why not “marriage is fundamentally about the needs of human beings”?). Must it be an either/or? Second, if we were to accept that marriage, as a social institution, were “fundamentally” about the needs of children the question obviously arises as to the place in such a social institution for married couples with no children (and no capability for procreation and/or plans to  parent). Regardless of the sexual orientation of those non-parenting couples, one wonders how we understand their marriages. This is obviously a very personal question to me since I am a married person without a) the capacity to procreate with my spouse and/or plans to become a parent.
  • He introduces the “goods in conflict” framework, using the following example: “It is good to deter crime by punishing criminals; it is also good to forgive” (3). While he doesn’t explicitly say so, I assume he believes this to be a self-evident example of two “good” things. I’d point out that this is not necessarily the case: not everyone agrees that either a) punishment actually deters crime, or b) that it is  always a good thing to forgive. Similarly, the two “good” things David suggests stand in conflict in the marriage debate are not always both seen as “good” goals. There are those who don’t believe in privileging bio-parent families, and there are those who don’t believe access to marriage for same-sex couples is a positive thing. So I will be interested to see how he speaks to this dis-unity on matters of social goods.
  • Why choose marriage as a key social issue? This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot since I started writing for FSB, where participants across the political spectrum seem to take the notion mostly as read that marriage as a social institution isn’t only something we should all have the option to access, but also something which has broad social benefits. (The corollary to this is, of course, that marriage promoters spend a lot of time wringing their hands about peoples’ reluctance — at least the right peoples’ reluctance — to marry.). I obviously chose, in agreement with my wife, to become married. I do not, however, think of marriage as a blanket social good. I am skeptical of its powers for social betterment. If we are interested in enhancing the well-being of the greatest number of people, I don’t think marriage promotion is a very efficient campaign — nor do I like the way it overlaps so significantly with intrusive moralizing about peoples’ personal life choices (“settle” for a man — any man! — before it’s too late; marry your “baby daddy,” “take responsibility” for your pregnant girlfriend, etc.). 
  • I was struck by the repeated use of the term “marriage” where the broader notion of “family” might actually be more appropriate? For example, “[Humans] have devised an institution to bridge the sexual divide, facilitate group living, and carry out reproduction. All societies have this institution. They call it ‘marriage’ ” (5). I would have said, actually, that the institution in question is actually “family,” and that “marriage” is one tool in the toolbox for creating family. It strikes me as a peculiarly American/Western way of conceiving of family — as something that could be reduced to (or at least centers around) the married pair. In other times and places, the married pair has been subordinated to other familial structures. 
  • Does marriage “bridge the sexual divide” (5)? And what does that even mean? I actually suspect it means that the state of being married is society’s way of ensuring that men and women (those oh-so-different creatures!) must  learn how to co-exist. I suspect this because it’s an argument I’ve heard from sexual conservatives who preach gender complementarity. If we don’t force hetero young people into “opposite”-sex pairings, what will the world come to!? Women and men won’t know how to communicate or co-exist any more! For obvious reasons, I am skeptical that it is only through a normative culture of marriage that the differently-sexed members of our humans species would learn to get along.
  • David B. refers to the notion that marriage is “a commitment between two people … an intimate, caring relationship … an expression of love” as “inadequate” (9). Rather than “inadequate,” I might have picked “flexible,” or “big tent,” or “pluralistic” (although one could quibble about the last, since it actively excludes more political-transactional notions of what marriage is for). It is interesting to me that David finds such general notion of marriage to be disturbing — surely it leaves us all room to flesh out the particulars of our own family lives and values? To get too rigidly prescriptive about what marriage means for all people would be to define many people who currently marry out of the state of marriage. Which is not to say I don’t, also, have boundaries in mind for what marriage is and is not — but I think my line in the sand for actively policing those boundaries for other peoples’ relationships falls in a very different place from David’s. I will be interested to learn more about where his boundaries are (or were, circa 2007).
On to chapter one!