But in one of the ironies in which the arc of history specializes, while the conservative case for same-sex marriage triumphed in politics, the liberationist case against marriage’s centrality to human flourishing was winning in the wider culture.Despite the scorn thrown in this direction by liberals, this argument is not silly. Not because the rise of gay marriage is causing the decline of straight marriage, but because both are expressions of a deeper change in society, from a world in which most people do what they parents did, and organize their lives as their neighbors do, to one in which we are much more free to make our own arrangements and pick our own paths. As Douthat says, and as I have said here many times, there is not much evidence that this rise in freedom is making people happier.
You would not know this from Kennedy’s opinion, which is relentlessly upbeat about how “new insights have strengthened, not weakened” marriage, bringing “new dimensions of freedom” to society.
But the central “new dimension of freedom” being claimed by straight America is a freedom from marriage — from the institution as traditionally understood, and from wedlock and family, period. . . .
Since the ’90s, approval of divorce, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock childbearing have climbed steadily, and the belief that children are “very important” to marriage has collapsed. Kennedy’s ruling argues that the right to marry is essential, in part, because the institution “safeguards children and families.” But the changing cultural attitudes that justify his jurisprudence increasingly treat this safeguard as inessential, a potentially nice but hardly necessary thing.
And the same is true of marriage itself. America is not quite so “advanced” as certain European societies, but our marriage rate is at historic lows, with the millennial generation, the vanguard of support for same-sex marriage, leading the retreat. Millennials may agree with Kennedy’s ruling, but they’re making his view of marriage as “a keystone of the nation’s social order” look antique. In their views and (lack of) vows, they’re taking a more relaxed perspective, in which wedlock is malleable and optional, one way among many to love, live, rear kids — or not.
In this sense, the gay rights movement has won twice over. Its conservative wing won the right to normalcy for gay couples, while rapid cultural change has made the definition of normalcy less binding than the gay left once feared.
To me, though, conservative arguments about the loss of "family values" are whistling in the wind. Medieval society is gone, and it wasn't just the sexual revolution that killed it. These changes go back to the 18th century, to the rise of a new economy based on mastering rapidly changing technologies and the Enlightenment's rejection of religious authority. The invention of modern democracy and the rejection of aristocratic privilege were very much part of this movement; if you read what defenders of aristocracy said during the American and French Revolutions you will see that many of them had the same fears as Douthat, that change would undermine family life and lead to a chaotic world of children running wild and ending up as criminals.
Douthat ignores one of the main realities that kept marriage "strong" in the 19th and 20th centuries, the gender discrimination that kept women from being able to make a living. Look back to the 1970s and you see, again, that the people who opposed "women's lib" had the same fears: that these changes would undermine family life and social order.
The old order of Europe did work pretty well. It helped those societies flourish and helped many people find meaningful lives. But it was rooted in principles that I cannot accept, from the divine right of kings to the glorification of war to the insistence that women's minds were too weak for leadership. To me that was all of a piece. How could we bring it back even if we wanted to?
As much as I worry about a future in which people have to find their way without the guidance of firm traditions, I think we have to go forward. The admiration people like Justice Kennedy and myself feel toward marriage would not apply to the patriarchal, semi-mandatory kind; for us it is valuable precisely because it is freely chosen, precisely because it is equal, precisely because it can be dissolved when it fails.
That is, I believe, the paradigm we must work toward. We must strive to build a world in which freedom works; in which people's choices lead to a good world because we present them with good options. Maybe this is not even possible, but to me it is the only political cause worth fighting for.