Ross Douthat, Gay Marriage, and the Folly of Chalkboarding Happiness with Weak Data

As New York Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat sees it, the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision recognizing the rights of gays to marry is a kind of fool’s gold. Marriage, you see, has become à rebours. While gays have been fighting for the freedom to marry, straights have been busy seeking a different freedom—namely, freedom from marriage. And the brave new world wrought by this freedom, along with no-fault divorce and other social dispensations, is a less happy place, in Douthat’s reckoning, that the patriarchal, gay-intolerant world we have left behind.

He writes:

Unfortunately I see little evidence that people are actually happier in the emerging dispensation, or that their children are better off, or that the cause of social justice is well-served, or that declining marriage rates and thinning family trees (plus legal pressure on religious communities that are exceptions to this rule) promise anything save greater loneliness for the majority, and stagnation overall.

Now this is a weird argument, because thinning family trees and declining marriage rates are a lot of social ills to lay on doorsteps that portion of the roughly less than 2.5% of America who are gay and who want to make a formal, life-long commitment to the people whom they love most in the world. After all, we’re talking about people who want to get married, who are trying to escape loneliness and build stable families, and who have suffered all kinds of discrimination, including job loss and harassment and even on occasion violence, to pursue that dream of commitment and stability.

(And it’s particularly weird of Douthat, in the middle of his lamentations, to link to a study about kids suffering when raised by single mothers, when the topic at hand is gay marriage. Gay marriage, like any kind of marriage, does not contribute to a rise in single mothers; on the contrary. And single-parent households have been rising in communities, such as many black communities, which has historically been opposed to gay marriage. If the country wants to lower the rate of single-parent families, perhaps we should probably be talking about lowering the incarceration of rate of young black men or providing better wages and more health benefits to low-income parents; but no, to Douthat, gay people getting married is in some mysterious way, clearly not involving empirical causality, a contributor to single-parent families. Go figure. Let’s blame gays for the Red Sox abysmal showing this year, while we’re at it.)

Speaking of happiness: Do you know who’s happy now? The gay couples I know who have finally be allowed to get married. Their happiness should count as much as anyone else’s. To Douthat, though, their happiness is negotiable—or perhaps negligible—as long as other social ills exist.

Douthat’s focus on happiness seems to be a red herring, anyway; that is, if we’re really considering happiness for everyone, not just for straight conservatives, because the pre-Obergefell status quo was hardly a universally happy society, and much of the unhappiness gays have felt derives from their treatment from the establishment now muttering about dispensations. Religious conservatives, including Catholics, have been hostile to gays for centuries and with no small amount of animus. And that animus remains ardent. Don’t just take my word for it. After the Supreme Court’s decision, Catholic author Father James Martin, SJ noted:

No issue brings out so much hatred from so many Catholics as homosexuality. Even after over 25 years as a Jesuit, the level of hatred around homosexuality is nearly unbelievable to me, especially when I think of all of the wonderful LGBT friends I have.

Posted by Fr. James Martin, SJ on Friday, June 26, 2015

Douthat’s message to gays seems to be: “Sure, you want to forge a solemn, life-long commitment with the love of your life, but you shouldn’t do that, because in some mysterious way your making this commitment weakens social commitments overall and leads to more loneliness. Take it from us, the conservatives, the people who have been treating you like criminals and child-molesters for decades.”

(As with many Douthat columns, I get the feeling the problem he’s trying to solve is not who gets to be happy, but rather who gets to decide who gets to be happy, and for Douthat the answer is always patriarchal Christians in positions of authority, not anyone else, regardless of the systematic injustices that prevailed under that earlier, largely white, Christian, male leadership.)

Here’s a different approach: If you want to strengthen social bonds and decrease loneliness, let people who love each get married, and while you’re at it, treat them like full human beings who have the maturity and wisdom to choose their life partners.

And if you want to understand why church attendance in declining, contributing in an empirical way to loss of community in America, take a closer look at the intolerance Father Martin was referring to. Because to Millenials and older Americans who are tired of this relentless demonizing, the Christian Right’s fulminating righteousness, however thrilling to the expounder, is just fool’s gold.