Event Summary: Can Gay Marriage Strengthen the American Family?

April 1, 2004

Brookings writer-in-residence Jonathan Rauch voiced his support for gay marriage today and disputed arguments that gay marriage will weaken the institution of marriage. Rauch’s new book Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America was the starting point for a Brookings panel addressing the issue and its affect on American society. The issue has risen to the surface of the national debate recently because a number of jurisdictions have sanctioned gay marriages and President Bush has lent his support to a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to a man and a woman.

“Marriage is an institution that is battled and troubled in the United States,” Rauch said, citing as evidence the high divorce rate and increasing numbers of children being born out of wedlock. “Same sex marriage is the first opportunity for this country to move back towards the expectation of marriage as a universal norm and the gold standard. With gay marriage, you say that marriage is for everybody.”

Rauch, who is also a columnist at National Journal, argued that same sex marriage has the potential to spark a marriage renaissance, strengthening the institution by reinforcing the social meaning of marriage and reducing the proliferation of marriage substitutes such as cohabitation, civil unions, and domestic partnerships.

“There is a threat to marriage,” Rauch said, “but it’s not from gay people who want to get married—it’s from heterosexuals who are not getting married or staying married.” He called cohabitation “the biggest threat to the institution of marriage” and civil unions a “risky alternative?a half-way house between marriage and cohabitation.”

David Blankenhorn, founder and president of the Institute for American Values, called Rauch’s vision “a dream world that isn’t engaging in the correlation of forces in society that is taking us in the direction of deinstitutionalizing marriage in such a way that we’ll put many more children at risk.” Blankenhorn argued that Rauch’s argument leaves out evidence suggesting that a child’s identity is directly tied to having a mother and father.

However, Blankenhorn conceded that the sanctity of marriage was also being undermined by heterosexuals. “Heterosexuals have done these terrible things to marriage and have taken the actions and made the changes and put marriage in this difficult, battered position,” he said.

Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, agreed that heterosexuals ought to admit their own role in tarnishing marriage’s status. “All of this mischief is at the hands of heterosexuals,” Brown said. Brown argued that contraception has fundamentally altered the role of marriage in society and “there is no turning back.” With increasing number of young people voicing support for gay marriage, Brown believes that demographic changes assured that same-sex marriage is “highly likely to happen,” but not before “a lot of posturing and fussing and politics.”

President Bush’s proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is one of those political options, and panelists were unanimous in their rejection of such an approach.

“A constitutional amendment is both unnecessary and counterproductive,” said University of Maryland Professor William Galston, who along with Rauch supports a federalist approach to the issue of gay marriage by allowing the states to decide whether or not to approve.

Referring to the Bush’s drive for a constitutional amendment, Galston said, “Please do not go down that road. It would do more harm than good.”