WILLIAM RASPBERRY: 'Marriage' missed in gay marriage debate

WASHINGTON – It's all over the news: Gay and lesbian couples lining up for marriage licenses; jubilant celebrations that homosexuals have shed another unfair disadvantage; opponents fearing the diminishment of the very concept of marriage proposing to amend the Constitution to make same-sex marriages unlawful.

And this wry observation from David Blankenhorn: “The only way anybody is talking about marriage these days is in the context of same-sex marriage.''

Blankenhorn heads the Institute for American Values, whose all-encompassing theme for the past decade has been the importance of marriage to the well-being of children. The irony of the present situation, he says from his Manhattan headquarters, is that most of the current debate hasn't really been about marriage at all.

“The debate is mostly between those who want (to legalize same-sex marriage) because they see it as part of their demand for equal dignity for gays, and those who don't for a host of philosophical and religious reasons,'' he says. “But for all the intensity of the debate, it doesn't take you very far down the road of discussing marriage.''

So does Blankenhorn favor gay marriage or oppose it?

“I don't have a dog in that fight,'' he says. “What got me into this whole field some 15 years ago was the disturbing phenomenon of father absence. Thirty-five percent of our children are living without their fathers, a fact that exacerbates a whole range of social problems – and almost the entire problem of father absence is due to heterosexual behavior. But that doesn't make the opponents of gay marriage wrong.

“As Isaiah Berlin taught us, in a liberal society, a lot of our difficult choices are between two goods. That's the case here. There is the social good of equal dignity for all people. I support that. Equal dignity is a very American idea, in theory if not always in practice.

“On the other hand, if there is one thing in this life I know, it's that children need mothers and fathers. This is my whole public life, that children deserve, as a sort of birthright, mothers and fathers – preferably the mothers and fathers who brought them into this world.''

But does same-sex marriage interfere with that ideal any more than, say, adoption? Blankenhorn thinks it might.

He points to no-fault divorce, a development many of us hailed as a move toward giving women equal rights and allowing them an honorable escape from oppressive or abusive marriages.

Blankenhorn wouldn't argue. But he points out that making divorce easy goes against his notion that children have a birthright to mothers and fathers. The more we focus on marriage as a personal relationship between two adults, the weaker becomes the position of children, he believes.

“The first thing that would happen if we legalized same-sex marriage is that we would find ourselves talking about parents, not fathers and mothers. And even the term parent' would be changed to something like the person in the home caring for the child.' That is not a definition in the long-term interest of children. We'd have to change the way we talk about marriage – in our schools and textbooks and in our curricula.

“And finally, if I say – as I deeply believe – that every child needs a mother and father, I will be venturing dangerously close to hate speech.”

The gay-marriage steamroller got a perhaps decisive push when Massachusetts' court held that its state constitution forbade discrimination against same-sex couples. Then San Francisco announced that it would recognize same-sex marriages, and suddenly everybody has an opinion on the subject.

But as Blankenhorn notes, much of the discussion has been a referendum not on marriage, but on our attitudes toward homosexuality. He's hoping somehow to get the discussion back where it needs to be – on marriage.

He's even writing a book on the subject – going back to the earliest anthropological studies of marriage.

“I'm all for the principle of establishing equal social justice,” he says. “But that's not the reason human beings came up with marriage. I think we'd better review the reasons for marriage – and ask ourselves which of those reasons are still relevant for the 21st century.”

William Raspberry is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. He was reared in Okolona. His address is 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. His e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com.