The “Defense of Marriage Act” is going to get a Supreme Court hearing soon, and in Maryland, same-sex marriage is being put to a referendum on November 6. There is also a referendum question in Maryland on the Dream Act, which would allow “illegal” immigrant children to pay in-state tuition in Maryland if their parents have paid income taxes and they’ve attended Maryland schools.
In both cases, Maryland would become the first state in the country to decide by popular vote that same-sex couples have the civil right to marry, and to approve a version of the Dream Act.
I hope that both questions pass, and think they have a few things in common.
Both concern basic social institutions—the institutions of marriage and citizenship.
Arguably, both of those institutions are under considerable stress in the 21st century.
Marriage’s woe’s don’t need to be rehashed here. Divorce rates have stabilized (perhaps owing to the aging of America), but they remain high, at just under half of first marriages. A Pew survey from last year found that half of younger Americans, and 40% of Americans overall, feel that the institution is “becoming obsolete.” More women opt for single motherhood, or just the single life. In Baltimore, fewer than 10% of households conform to the “traditional” model of a married, heterosexual couple with children in the house. And in typical "Smalltimore" fashion, I think I know them all.
While affluent, well-educated, Blue State couples (with modern ideas about marriage) manage to get and stay married more than their less educated or affluent Red State peers—including the white working class—there is little doubt that the institution of marriage is struggling.
Likewise the institution of American citizenship is under stress. Our civic and political life is more hostile and niched than ever. There is political disillusionment and disengagement, and cynicism that America can solve big problems or accomplish anything beyond the advance of petty self-interest and perpetual balkanization and hatred.
Basic knowledge of our political system is appallingly low. A recent survey finds that two-thirds of Americans can’t name even one Supreme Court justice; only a fraction can name all nine.
That’s why it’s important to expand access to marriage and to the privileges of citizenship: Both institutions need a shot in the arm of fresh, impassioned, vigorous, and even naïve energy.
Historically, immigrant populations have infused new life into American society, economy, and culture. If nothing else, immigrant populations remind us that America still has something—we have something—that other people covet and are yearning to become part of.
The same argument could be made for marriage. At a time when heterosexual couples are, if anything, fleeing from the institution of marriage, same-sex couples are clamoring for entry. They remind us that marriage is worth something-- it’s a coveted status that, even if it’s in a confusing brainstorming phase, as I say in Marriage Confidential, is an enduringly valued institution.
Another similarity between immigration reform and same-sex marriage is that both institutions are barring entry to the undocumented and the homosexual, respectively, on the logic that these groups, rather than fortify the ideals of each institution, would weaken and cheapen them in their time of distress.
These ballot questions, and others like it, ask the very basic question: who belongs? Opponents feel that the institutions are better protected by blocking access, and by limiting “who belongs.”
I don’t agree with their arguments, but I can understand them. With marriage, the logic goes, how much can you change the timeless definitions before it just stops being marriage anymore? What makes marriage marriage—what’s its Ur quality, or mission?
With immigration, opponents ask, can you value citizenship if your parents broke the rules and entered the country illegally (and there’s no doubt that we need a saner immigration policy in this country that makes legal citizenship more streamlined and less laborious to obtain).
But I can’t agree that the extension of civil law marriage or citizenship privileges to same-sex couples or to immigrant students who have worked hard and whose parents have “paid in” to the system constitutes a threat to these institutions.
Instead, these questions force us to clarify and re-center the core values of each institution. Some opponents of Maryland’s marriage equality ballot question feel that marriage’s core value is that it binds a MAN and a WOMAN together, and that this biological essentialism is suggested by nature and procreation, and decreed by God.
I don’t agree that this is the core purpose of marriage in the 21st century.
To me the core value of marriage as a civil institution is that it provides for what is ideally a lifetime companionship, trust, faithfulness to each other, variously defined, and mutual caring. It may also create family units. Its social utility has largely to do with the labor-intensive work of childrearing. It creates an ideally stable and more resource-rich environment for children, where they have access to more than one parent. Maryland’s Question 6 makes abundantly clear that religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriages as matters of creed and sacrament will never be forced to recognize, sanction or perform them, which is a crucial legal firewall to protect religious liberty and to maintain church-state boundaries.
A core value of American citizenship is the ethic of working hard, paying into the system through taxes and other social contributions, and striving to support yourself, educate yourself, and better yourself. The Dream Act supports these core values, too.
There is an instinct to batten down the hatches when a social institution is under stress.
But at precisely these moments, expanding access to the most enthusiastic, impassioned and zealous arrivistes infuses new life and clarity into the institutions.