It is always striking when conservatives and progressives agree. On Fox News earlier this year, psychiatrist and Fox news contributor Keith Ablow weighed in on whether the government should get out of the marriage business. In response to the Supreme Court cases considering the constitutionality of California’s ban on gay marriage and challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)—the federal law that makes it possible for the government not to recognize same-sex marriages in those states where they’re legal, Ablow states, “I don’t think states nor the federal government should be involved in marriage at all.” He argues that it should not be the government’s concern to decide whether two people of the same gender marry.
This privatization argument mirrors one made back in 1997 by libertarian David Boaz in his Slate article titled “Privatize Marriage: A Simple Solution to the Gay-Marriage Debate.” The article points out that privatizing marriage will “put gay relationships on the same footing as straight ones, without implying official government sanction. No one’s private life would have official government sanction–which is how it should be.”
The conservative-libertarian perspective is not too dissimilar from the progressive stance taken by a particular group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) and allied activists, scholars, and community organizers. In their 2006 statement Beyond Same-Sex Marriage, the signatories contend that all families will benefit from “separating basic forms of legal and economic recognition from the requirement of marital and conjugal relationship.” In other words, the government’s job is not to define marriage or what counts as “legitimate” family but to support the diverse forms of family life that allow its citizens to provide care for one another. The statement makes explicit that marriage is not the only worthy form of family or relationship but should be available to those who find it the most meaningful. Society needs to establish ways to recognize kinship relationship, households, and families other than conjugal partners.
While these two positions exhibit surface agreement, there is a deeper philosophical difference in the reasons why conservatives and progressives promote the idea that government should stay out of the marriage business. The conservative-libertarian view prefers to keep the government out of the “caring” business altogether, tending to support the idea that health and caring issues relating to the poor, disabled, children, and elderly should be to left to the private realm of non-profits, charities, and families. Government welfare programs, according to this philosophy, just get in the way of providing effective care to the poor and needy.
Further, according to this argument, state-assisted child-care and parenting planning amount only to government interference in private lives. Because conservatives want to cut taxes, especially for the wealthy, they never opt to expand government support for the needy or to offer universal benefits, measures that would ultimately increase taxes. Emblematizing the conservative approach to care is George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Built on the philosophy of regulating caring to the private realm, its promise was to invigorate civil society by encouraging churches and charities to be “little armies of compassion.” In this market fundamentalist approach, a caring society places the onus on the poor to help themselves (or to find someone to help them) since they are, according to this rhetoric, to blame for their poverty.
In contrast, progressive arguments want to see an expansion of government involvement in a caring society. This perspective views the privileging of marriage—whether for heterosexuals or non-heterosexuals—as problematic because it discriminates against those who do not fit the two adults plus children model. Authors of the Beyond Same-Sex Marriage statement argue that legalizing same-sex marriage to end discrimination against lesbians and gay men does not go far enough to solve structural social inequalities. It is a travesty that lesbians and gay men are unable to receive the many benefits that are connected to marriage—including health insurance, Social Security survivor benefits, and favorable tax treatment. But the focus on legalizing same-sex marriage furthers the privatization of care work, and will likely continue to marginalize those who do not have the resources to provide and/or receive care.
After the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act became law in 1996, federal and state marriage promotion policies became part of our social fabric, seeking to promote heterosexual marriage as a solution to social problems such as single motherhood and poor childhood outcomes for children in low-income families. In my book One Marriage Under God, I uncover the social consequences of marriage promotion policies on the ground as these programs spend welfare dollars to offer free marriage workshops to predominantly middle-class, white couples. These policies demonstrate again the problematic ways that the government is involved in the marriage business. In this case, marriage promotion programs fail to address the structural and economic foundations of poverty that are barriers to marriage, and most programs do not target low-income individuals who are less likely to marry.
The debate over what role the government should play in the marriage business is crucial to undertake at this stage in history. Americans need to think carefully about how marriage creates a privileged status for some while leaving numerous others (queer or not) without equivalent social support.
Melanie Heath is the author of One Marriage Under God: The Campaign to Promote Marriage in America (NYU Press, 2012). She is associate professor of Sociology at McMaster University in Ontario.