Blankenhorn (round 2):

Last week I responded to an article by David Blankenhorn in the Weekly Standard arguing that support for SSM and non-traditional views of marriage “go together” and are “mutually reinforcing.” He based this conclusion on international survey data that shows, he claims, a correlation between recognition for SSM in a country and non-traditionalist beliefs. He also quoted from a few pro-SSM marriage radicals in academia who literally embody the tendency of these views to “go together”: they support SSM because they think it will undermine traditional marriage. I responded that, for a number of reasons, this was not a winning argument.

Now Blankenhorn has defended his argument against my criticisms. (1) First, he denies that he has “eschewed” the argument of Stanley Kurtz, based on claimed correlative data, that gay marriage has contributed to the decline of marriage in Europe. Instead, he says that he “embraces” Kurtz’s argument, and is trying only to “build” on it. (This has come as a relief to Kurtz, who initially suggested there might be some disagreement between them.) (2) Second, he argues that it is unfair of me to require him to “scientifically demonstrate” that gay marriage is contributing to non-traditional beliefs about marriage when the correlative data allow us “to make reasonable (if qualified, and modest) inferences about a likely causal relationship” between the two. (3) Third, he claims that while there may be a few anti-SSM marriage radicals who believe gay marriage will actually strengthen marriage, “the dominant, most influential idea about gay marriage” on the left is represented by the marriage radicals he cites and not those I cite. (4) Finally, he challenges me to cite a “prominent supporter” of SSM who has publicly committed to otherwise traditionalist beliefs about marriage (e.g., we should make divorce harder, discourage out-of-wedlock births, stigmatize adultery).

Let’s take these responses one at a time.

(1) The whole point of Kurtz’s work has been to show, mainly through the use of correlations, that gay marriage has caused marital decline in Europe. (Even Kurtz’s correlations are faulty, incomplete, and unpersuasive – but that’s another matter.) In his book, Blankenhorn said flatly, “These correlations [between SSM and non-traditional attitudes] do not prove that gay marriage causes marriage to get weaker. I am not trying to prove causation.” (p. 232) (emphasis original) In his Weekly Standard article, he suggests “giving up the search for causation” and looking for “recurring patterns” in the data instead.

It seemed to me that Blankenhorn was trying to distance himself, at least rhetorically, from Kurtz. I thought it was a wise decision.

(2) It is now clear that Blankenhorn’s argument is structurally and conceptually the same as Kurtz’s, only weaker. Here’s why.

There are a couple of ways one might argue that gay marriage is hurting marriage. First, one might argue that gay marriage has caused problems to marriage itself, like rising cohabitation and unwed childbirths. That is what I’d call a strong and direct claim about the harm of gay marriage. Second, one might argue that gay marriage has caused people to have beliefs about marriage that might, in turn, cause concrete harms to marriage itself. This is an indirect and weaker claim about the harm of gay marriage. Kurtz presents the former, stronger and more direct, form of the argument. Blankenhorn, it turns out, is presenting the latter, weaker and more indirect, form of the argument. Blankenhorn’s argument is thus a poor cousin of Kurtz’s.

Except for that, the arguments are basically the same. Like Kurtz, Blankenhorn relies on what he claims is a correlation to “infer” a “likely causal relationship.” (Blankenhorn is, to his credit, rhetorically more modest than Kurtz about the strength of his own argument.)

What do we make of Blankenhorn’s use of correlations? I don’t think correlations are useless. They might indicate something important is going on. By itself, a correlation could be a starting point for further investigation. It’s a clue that two seemingly unrelated phenomena may be related. But it might also seriously mislead us unless we’re very careful.

Consider the case of smoking as a cause of cancer, which Blankenhorn uses to show that correlations can be valuable because they can help show causation. Yes, there’s a correlation between smoking and cancer. But we know smoking causes cancer not simply because of this simple correlation. Instead, we know smoking causes cancer because decades of careful, replicated, peer-reviewed, and methodologically sound medical research has revealed (1) a correlation (2) that sequentially matches the harm (e.g., lung cancer often follows smoking), (3) we’ve controlled for confounding variables and (4) ruled out multiple other plausible causes of the harm (e.g., auto exhaust or coal-fired plants), (5) and we’ve identified the agent or mechanism (over 70 chemicals in tobacco) that (6) causes a harmful result (tobacco carcinogens damage DNA inside lung cells).

When it comes to gay marriage “causing” harm by leading to non-traditional attitudes about marriage, Blankenhorn gives us only the first of these six. He has only correlation. And even this, it turns out, is suspect.

I’m not just playing with words here and I’m not requiring “scientific proof” analogous to demonstrating pathological processes in the body. I’m asking for a standard degree of reliability in inferences and an accounting when the correlations seem explicable by numerous other factors and are sequentially all wrong (more on that below). There’s good reason to be suspicious of an argument that a correlation allows us to infer a causal relationship. There’s a correlation between people who buy ashtrays and people who get lung cancer, but this hardly proves that buying ashtrays causes lung cancer. If we relied on correlation, we’d think all sorts of crazy things were causally related.

Consider what can be done with a correlation used to “infer” a “likely causal relation.” People in countries without same-sex marriage are more likely to believe women should stay at home and not work, that men should be masters of their households, that there should be no separation of church and state, that people should not use contraception when they have sex, that divorce should never be permitted, and that sodomy should be criminalized. If these correlations exist, have I demonstrated the existence of a “cluster of beliefs” that reinforce one another and “go together,” undermining the arguments against SSM?

Or consider the more sympathetic correlations to SSM that Blankenhorn ignores. Countries with SSM are richer, healthier, more democratic, more educated, more liberal, have more egalitarian attitudes about women, etc. Have I shown that the absence of SSM is likely causing harm in those unfortunate backward countries that refuse to recognize it?

Here’s another correlation helpful to the conservative case for SSM: countries with SSM are enjoying higher marriage rates since they recognized it. Have I shown that SSM likely caused this?

Even Blankenhorn’s correlation is suspect, in a way very similar to Kurtz’s. Non-traditional attitudes about marriage in countries with SSM preceded the recognition of SSM, just as signals of marital decline in Europe preceded SSM. Though I haven’t gone back and checked the previous international surveys from the 1980s and 1990s, I’ll bet my mulberry tree they show that. Besides, even the survey data Blankenhorn relies on show that he’s got a problem. In one survey, the data comes from 1999-2001, before any country had full SSM. In the other survey, the data comes from 2002, when only one country (the Netherlands) had full SSM.

How could SSM have caused a decline in traditional marital attitudes before it even existed? Of course, Blankenhorn is still free to argue that non-traditional attitudes greased the way for SSM, but this doesn’t show that SSM caused or even reinforced non-traditional attitudes. What Blankenhorn needs, even as a starting point, is some evidence that non-traditionalist views rose after SSM. He doesn’t have that.

Of course, even if he had the sequence right, he’d still have the problem of trying to deal with the existence of multiple other factors that have plausibly fueled non-traditionalist attitudes. Here, too, Blankenhorn has the same problem as Kurtz. Just as we can plausibly surmise that factors like increased income, longer life spans, more education, and women’s equality – rather than SSM – have caused actual marital decline, so we can plausibly surmise that factors like these have caused a rise in non-traditionalist attitudes about marriage. And even if the data showed a rise in non-traditional attitudes after SSM, that might well only be a continuation of pre-existing trends. Kurtz has that problem, too, when he tries to show marital decline.

(3) I demonstrated in my last post that there are quite a few marriage radicals who are uncomfortable with gay marriage (either oppose it or very reluctantly support it) because they think it will strengthen marriage. That was just the tip of an iceberg, believe me. Blankenhorn says that he is familiar with these authors and cites them in his book.

But wait a second. While he mentions Michael Warner, for example, it is not to present Warner’s concern that gay marriage will reinstitutionalize marriage but as evidence of the bad reasons gay couples seek marriage (see p. 142). And while he quotes from Tom Stoddard (pro-SSM marriage radical) in the noteworthy early debate Stoddard had with Paula Ettelbrick (anti-SSM marriage radical), he omits even mentioning Ettelbrick’s influential concerns about SSM expressed in the same debate he quotes from (p. 162). (I quoted from her essay in my last post, "Blankenhorn and the Marriage Radicals".)

Apologies if I missed it, but I can’t find any acknowledgment from Blankenhorn of the marriage radicals’ deep unease with gay marriage, an unease that is present in the writings of even those marriage radicals who favor gay marriage. This is a significant and strange omission, one that henceforth opponents of gay marriage must know will not go unchallenged.

Blankenhorn may now say that the authors I have cited and the concerns they have expressed are a minority on the left. I don't know what the basis is for that claim, so I don't know how to assess it. But frankly, it is hard to credit such an observation when his book demonstrates no familiarity with these quite common anti-SSM concerns among marriage radicals.

And why do we care what marriage radicals think anyway? Though prolific in academic journals, they’re a small group and are not very influential in public policy. They won’t be able to control how heterosexuals or homosexuals think of their marriages or how they practice them. Gay marriage will have its effects, whatever they hope for.

Blankenhorn defends his reliance on their writings in his book this way (p. 128):

I believe that my nightmare can even be expressed as a sociological principle: People who professionally dislike marriage almost always favor gay marriage. Here is the corollary: Ideas that have long been used to attack marriage are now commonly used to support same-sex-marriage. (emphasis original)

We could have a lot of fun with “sociological principles” like that. How about this:

People who professionally dislike feminism almost always oppose gay marriage. Here is the corollary: Ideas that have long been used to attack feminism are now commonly used to oppose same-sex marriage.

Or this:

People who professionally dislike homosexuality almost always oppose gay marriage. Here is the corollary: Ideas that have long been used to attack homosexuality are now commonly used to oppose same-sex marriage.

(4) Blankenhorn challenges my claim that conservative supporters of SSM generally believe the following:

(1) marriage is not an outdated institution, (2) divorce should be made harder to get, (3) adultery should be discouraged and perhaps penalized in some fashion, (4) it is better for children to be born within marriage than without, (5) it is better for a committed couple to get married than to stay unmarried, (6) it is better for children to be raised by two parents rather than one

He thinks such people don’t really exist and asks me to name a prominent one. OK, here goes.

As I thought was clear in my post, I believe these six things (though I may not count as a “prominent” SSM supporter). Though I’d prefer to let him speak for himself, I know that Jon Rauch unequivocally supports 1, 4, 5, and 6. On 2, he certainly supports the goal of reducing the divorce rate, but isn’t sure how to do it. On 3, he supports discouraging adultery socially (“stigmatizing it,” as Blankenhorn aptly puts it), but doesn’t want the law to penalize it. And while Andrew Sullivan can certainly speak for himself, I also know that he supports all six, though he also doesn’t want the government investigating or penalizing people for adultery. (Like Rauch and Sullivan, I don't support criminalizing adultery but am open to proposals for attaching some form of civil disadvantage to it. I suggested as much reviewing William Eskridge's book Gaylaw six years ago.) I'd bet David Brooks, a conservative supporter of SSM, agrees with all or most of these ideas in some form — but I frankly haven't asked him. I’m certain there are others in this pro-SSM traditionalist camp. Maybe conservative pro-SSM writers and bloggers will challenge Blankenhorn's suspicion that they're a fiction.

Where have we said all these things? I don’t know that each of us has written about each of them in precisely these terms or in the somewhat different terms Blankenhorn insists we should have. But these views are at the very least implicit in the conservative case, and in some cases they've been made explicit. The conservative case for SSM is now almost 20 years old, going back to Sullivan’s pathbreaking New Republic article, and continuing through his book Virtually Normal, Rauch’s voluminous writings and book arguing that marriage should be the gold standard for commitment and raising children, and my own work.

I don’t have time to chase down sources and quotes for Blankenhorn, but for my own work he could start with the Traditionalist Case for Gay Marriage or look at some of the many columns I’ve written on the subject. If he really cares what I think, he can look forward to a law review article I'll be writing soon on traditionalism and gay marriage. I don’t know how one could come away from all this with the impression that I think marriage is outdated, that high divorce rates are good (I’ve criticized them in numerous debates on the subject with St. Thomas Professor Teresa Collett, BYU Professor Lynn Wardle, etc), that children’s well-being is unrelated to marriage, etc.

As Blankenhorn correctly puts it, we really do “operate[] from a very important shared intellectual and moral framework,” which is what makes the SSM debate among conservatives so much more interesting than the tired debates between the pro-SSM marriage radicals and anti-SSM marriage traditionalists. They really have nothing useful to say to each other. By contrast, I've suggested ten principles upon which conservatives, both pro- and anti-SSM, can agree. They give us a lot of common ground.

In conclusion (!), I wouldn’t usually use this many electrons responding to a single article or book. But Blankenhorn’s book is unusually well-written. And intellectual guilt-by-association has an easy appeal that may make his argument that these bad things all "go together" an anti-gay marriage mantra in the future. Like Kurtz’s superficially frightening correlations, now largely ignored on both sides of the debate, Blankenhorn's argument has to be carefully unpacked to show how unsatisfying it is.

P.S.: If you haven't had enough, see some further thoughtful comments about Blankenhorn's argument by St. Thomas Law School's Robert Vischer.

P.P.S.: Rauch has now finished reading Blankenhorn's book and calls it "the best piece of work that the anti-gay-marriage side has yet produced, containing much to admire despite its flaws."

P.P.P.S.: Maggie Gallagher weighs in: "The question is: what is the main idea SSM advocates are asking us to embrace and what implications over the long term will accepting this core idea about gay marriage have for our ideas about marriage in general?"