As gay couples prepare to legally marry in Minnesota, public divisions remain on the definition of marriage, with many liberal Minnesotans celebrating what they see as a milestone in America’s journey toward justice and equality for all, and many conservatives dismayed at this argument for undermining a core social institution. No surprise at these different responses. But something unexpected has also happened: the beginning of a consensus that the social institution of marriage is important for adults, children and society.
What happened? Until recently, liberals have been reluctant to speak in the public domain about the unique value of marriage, lest divorced people and single parents feel devalued, and lest gay people feel excluded from a privileged club. Therapists stopped calling themselves marriage counselors and became couples counselors. The Bush administration programs to strengthen marriage in low-income communities were dismissed as a way to discredit nontraditional families. Marriage became the “M word.”
But something shifted among liberals during the advocacy movement for gay marriage. Colleagues who used to wince when I talked about the unique value of committed, lifelong marriage (not generic couplehood) began to tout the special cultural significance of marriage as an institution whereby society gives approval and support, both legal and moral, for lifelong relationships. Civil unions seemed too watered down for them. And people who once feared offending single parents are more comfortable with asserting the benefits of stable, two-parent families. In a striking shift, it’s now safe for liberals to extol marriage and two-parent families without denigrating people in other family forms.