How Same-Sex Marriage Has Changed America

May 20th, 2023 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

On 26 June 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the 14th Amendment requires that all states license marriages between same-sex couples and recognize all marriages that were lawfully performed out of state.  We have the ability to now evaluate the effects of this decision over the last eight years.  Indeed, Matthew Schmitz, editor of Compact, has done just that.  In an important article in First Things, Schmitz itemizes several ways that this decision has changed America.

  1.   Same-sex marriage was “the first great triumph of cancel culture.”  Progressive activists, corporate leaders and media kingpins threatened to pull out of states that guaranteed religious freedom to those who rejected same-sex marriages.
  2. Same-sex marriage changed the character of important institutions in ways that moderate supporters did not realize.  Through the operation of threats mentioned above, “high-profile opponents of same-sex marriage were silenced, fired, or forced out of important institutions.”  Eliminating religious and conservative voices from important institutions changed those institutions.
  3. When it comes to American law, “religious freedom, due process, and equal treatment before the law must all yield before the imperative of inclusion.  If the expression of certain views makes members of protected groups uncomfortable, those views must be silenced . . . The new American regime [is] . . .  creating a system in which full citizenship is closely tied to right belief.”
  4. The progressive agenda incorporated into most American institutions helps to explain the emergence of a more populist and radical right.  “On the right, the success of gay marriage caused many to ask what the conservative movement was capable of conserving . . . [A]fter Obergefell, the business interests it had defended turned against the convictions of religious Americans.  Likewise, the conservative belief in the importance of free speech and of transacting public business in the currency of reason and argument came to seem naïve beside the cancellation tactics employed by the left . . . A radicalization of the left prompted a radicalization of the right.”


It is time in American civilization to recognize the self-destructive nature of the legal and cultural accommodation to same-sex marriage.  Obviously, marriage, the first institution God created (see Genesis 2:18-25), is without question an institution in trouble. It is time to explain and, within our churches, champion a theology of marriage.


First, a review of the history of the institution and how it received the stamp of legitimacy from the state:  Stephanie Coontz offers a helpful history of marriage as it relates to the state.  In much of the ancient world, marriage was a private contract between two families.  “The parents’ agreement to the match, not the approval of church or state, was what confirmed its validity.”  In the early years of the Christian church, the validity of marriage was confirmed by the church, but not necessarily through a ceremony that occurred in the church.  It was in 1215 that the church decreed that “licit” marriages must take place in church.  But even “common law” marriages gained legitimacy where the children were considered legitimate, wives inherited the property of their husbands and there were laws governing divorce.  In the 16th century, European states began requiring that marriages be performed under the legal auspices of the church and state.  In the American colonies, marriages were required to be registered and, in the mid-19th century, state supreme courts routinely ruled that public cohabitation was sufficient evidence of a valid marriage.  By the late 19th century, the United States began to nullify common-law marriages and exert control over the institution itself.  By the mid-20th century, the US courts began to invalidate interracial marriages and even extended marriage rights to prisoners.  Further, marriage licenses were required for survivor’s benefits under the Social Security Act.  And marriage licenses were required for health insurance benefits, pension benefits and for the establishment of inheritance rights.  But today, in the early 21st century, Coontz summarizes the situation:  “. . . possession of a marriage license tells us little about people’s interpersonal responsibilities.  Half of all Americans aged 25 to 29 are unmarried, and many of them already have incurred obligations as partners, parents or both.  Almost 40% of America’s children are born to unmarried parents.  Meanwhile, many legally married people are in remarriages where their obligations are spread among several households.  Using the existence of a marriage license to determine when the state should protect interpersonal relationships is increasingly impractical.  Society has already recognized this when it comes to children, who can no longer be denied inheritance rights, parental support or legal standing because their parents are married.”


The above challenges are indeed enhanced by the changing legal definition of marriage.  With the Obergefell decision, the US Supreme Court fully legitimized same-sex marriage.  Further, sexual activity is now increasingly disconnected from procreation, heralding in the words of William Kynes, “a new age of ‘sex without consequences’ and no more unwanted children.  The introduction of new reproductive technologies has continued to sever the link between the union of a man and a woman in marriage and the begetting of children.  Now, with over thirty-six ways to make a baby, who needs a husband and wife in marriage anymore?”  The breaking of the link between sex and marriage has produced a dramatic increase in cohabitation and a corresponding increase in children born outside of marriage.  Today in the US more than 4 million couples live together.  In 1970 only about 11% of children were born without married parents; now that figure is close to 1/3rd and some segments of the population, it is well over 60%.  Biological parents seem like an anachronism.  What has also undermined the institution is the creation of no-fault divorce laws.  The result is a confusing array of serial marriages and blended families.  Kynes concludes that “the emphasis in marriage has shifted dramatically from obligations to benefits, and the purpose of marriage is increasingly seen in terms of personal fulfillment rather than moral or legal responsibility.”  Finally, the LGBTQIA+ movement has further added the singular emphasis on sex in a totally new light.  Kynes concludes that the new definition of marriage is “a contract between two consenting adults to enter into a lasting relationship which involves sexual activity, which is entered into for personal gratification, and which is given some state recognition and benefits.”


We are living in an era of social dysfunction and cultural chaos. So, what do we do?  In the church, we must begin with the Creation Ordinance of God in Genesis 2: Marriage is a divinely ordained institution, now marred by sin, but which can only reach its God-ordained purposes through the Spirit; He regenerates and empowers both the husband and the wife.  Moreover, throughout Scripture, marriage is a central metaphor for the covenant relationship between God and His people, both Israel and the church.  From that Creation Ordinance, we can reach the following conclusions, which then serve as the guiding parameters for a revitalization of this central institution:

  • Marriage is between a man and a woman, given the divine vocation of procreation and dominion rule over God’s world.  There is a clear differentiation between the man and the woman in every sense, but they are to function as a perfect complementary whole.
  • Kynes writes:  “This Genesis account points to the primacy of the marriage relationship above all other human bonds and to a profound sense of personal attachment symbolized, celebrated and nourished in the sexual union they [are] to enjoy with one another.”
  • From Ephesians 5:32, we learn that marriage is a symbol, an archetype of how Christ relates to His church and vice versa.  Marriage is a powerful metaphor for something supernatural.


Finally, are there clear benefits that current social science evidence provides for marriage as detailed in the Creation Ordinance?  Unequivocally, yes!

  • Married men and women live significantly longer, healthier and happier lives and recover more quickly from illness.
  • Married men and women are less likely to suffer from mental illness or commit suicide.
  • Married women are less likely to experience domestic violence than cohabiting or dating women.
  • Marriage reduces child poverty.
  • Children in single-parent families are about twice as likely to drop out of high school.
  • Children from intact married homes have lower rates of drug abuse.
  • Boys growing up without fathers are twice as likely as other boys to end up in prison, and girls raised without a father in the home are five times more likely to become unwed teenage mothers.


So, compelling is the evidence for the social benefits of marriage, that Princeton sociologist, Sara McLanahan, has argued:    “If we were asked to design a system for making sure that children’s basic needs were met, we would probably come up with something quite similar to the two-parent ideal. . . . Marriage is more than a private emotional relationship.  It is also a social good.  Not every person can or should marry.  And not every child raised outside of marriage is damaged as a result.  But communities where good-enough marriages are common have better outcomes for children, women and men than do communities suffering from high rates of divorce, unmarried child-bearing, and high conflict or violent marriages.”


William Kynes concludes:   “While it is true that in its civil dimensions, marriage is a creation of the state, a Christian theology of marriage contends that the social legitimacy of marriage has a deeper foundation within a natural moral order.  Marriage and family, economic life, cultural life, and religion, all represent separate but intersecting and overlapping spheres of social life.  Though all are now regulated by the state in some sense, they are also all pre-political, having a genesis and continuing life of their own apart from the action of the state and from the actions of others.  The state must respect this order.  The mandating of same-sex marriage is seen by many as such a gross violation of that order that it threatens to make marriage only a civil creation, with devastating social effects.  For its flourishing, marriage requires a deeper foundation in the minds of those who enter it and who hope to be sustained in it.  This is what the Christian theology of marriage can provide.”


The intersection of theology and the public interest must be maintained because the survival of human society itself demands this.  The renewal of civilization begins with the renewal of marriage.

See Matthew Schmitz, in First Things (April 2023), pp. 9-11; Stephanie Coontz in the New York Times (26 November 2007) and William L. Kynes, “The Marriage Debate: A Public Theology of Marriage,” Trinity Journal 28NS (2007): 187-203.

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