Of all the sour grapes conservatives chewed this past weekend over the same-sex marriage ruling, perhaps Ross Douthat’s was the sourest. While other conservatives moved on to incoherent babbling about “religious liberty”, Douthat used his New York Times column to dig his heels into the argument soundly rejected by Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges: that same-sex marriage is somehow an assault on traditional marriage.
Kennedy argued that the case for same-sex marriage “strengthened, not weakened” the institution of marriage by affirming that it upholds “the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.” Douthat, however, remains skeptical, complaining that “approval of divorce, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock childbearing” is on the rise and that younger Americans, in particular, take “a more relaxed perspective, in which wedlock is malleable and optional, one way among many to love, live, rear kids—or not.” This sense that marriage is optional offends Douthat greatly, as he sees it as an immoral shunning of duty.
This argument, that same-sex marriage somehow undermines “traditional” marriage, never really made sense to many Americans, for good reason. Since conservatives would rarely define what they meant by “traditional”—saying that it’s about a man and a woman and declining to elaborate beyond that—it ended up sounding like they were saying that if gay people were allowed to marry, then straight people would all get divorced or something. This makes conservatives sound like idiots and ended up backfiring on them, helping many fence-sitters to figure if that’s the best they’ve got, then they must have nothing.
In reality, however, there was a subterranean argument that actually is logical and makes perfect sense. It was never just about man-woman marriages. The tradition that is disappearing is the belief that marriage is a duty, especially for women. As Douthat argues, Americans are rejecting “the old rules, its own hopes of joy and happiness to chase.”
Douthat isn’t wrong on the facts, even if he’s wrong on his assessment of them. It’s true that women in modern society no longer feel like they have to be married to be granted entrance into adult society. Single women living by and supporting themselves is no longer considered scandalous. Marriage is, bit by bit, becoming more about a partnership between equals who choose each other for the purpose of love and happiness. Which means it’s becoming less about giving men control over women’s lives.
In this sense, Douthat isn’t wrong that “support for same-sex marriage and the decline of straight marital norms exist in a kind of feedback loop.” To accept same-sex marriage is to accept this modern idea that marriage is about love and partnership, instead of about dutiful procreation and female submission. Traditional gender roles where husbands rule over wives are disintegrating and that process is definitely helped along by these new laws allowing that marriage doesn’t have to be a gendered institution at all.
But it’s telling that even as Douthat decries the new liberation from traditional marriage, he declines to spell out exactly what parts of traditional marriage he would like to keep. The reader has to figure out what he is for by deducing it from what he is against. He sneers at people who believe marriage is optional, suggesting he wishes it were mandatory. He complains about “thinning family trees,” suggesting he wants people to have more children—and, considering his well-known opposition to legal abortion, he sees force as an acceptable method to get his way on this. He begrudges younger generations who see marriage as “malleable,” suggesting his desire is for a more rigid institution. He grieves that modern Americans reject the “lessons of a long human past,” but leaves it to the reader to remember that the human past is one where women were treated as chattel to be passed from father to husband, legally and socially regarded merely as extensions of their husbands instead of people in their own right.
Reading Douthat, you do get a better idea of why conservatives see same-sex marriage as a threat to traditional marriage. It’s not because straight people won’t want to get married if gays are doing it, too. It’s because it redefines marriage as an institution of love instead of oppression.
But it’s also telling that even though Douthat is willing to get closer to the real argument, he still pulls back from stating it bluntly. That’s because he knows and we all know that this isn’t even really a debate anymore. Liberals and feminists have already won this round. The longing for traditional gender roles and female submission has to be communicated covertly, because blunt statements in favor of it are treated, in mainstream America, like fringe right wing craziness.
Douthat mournfully assumes that people feel this way because they are deluded, arguing that we will all pay for our arrogant desire for love and equality over duty with “greater loneliness for the majority, and stagnation overall.” It’s the same old threat feminists have heard a million times before: Submit to men or die lonely cat ladies. But, as the majority of Americans celebrating the Supreme Court decision over the weekend know, that’s a false choice. We’ve heard the arguments before and we still choose love.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about
liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care.
She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.