The religious right and political conservatives are correct. Marriage is in trouble. Unfortunately, the religious right and political conservatives are completely wrong about the nature of the problem. Marriage being on the rocks has nothing to do with broadening the concept to include same sex relationships (cf. Ethical Musings NC Amendment One and Some thoughts on choosing a partner).
Marriage is in trouble because so many lower and middle-income women are opting not to marry.
In the first half of the twentieth century, for example, couples generally married with clear expectations. The woman would not work outside the home but would make a home and be the primary caregiver for couple's children. The man would earn an income to support the family.
Then things changed. Modern appliances, inexpensive wash and wear clothing, affordable prepared foods, and other changes reduced the effort homemaking required. Living on a single income became more difficult as people wanted more things and services. Concurrently, demand for labor in the workforce increased, especially during WWII.
Consequently, expectations began to change. More women wanted to join the workforce, perceiving homemaking as both having a lower status and being less valued than being in the labor market. The sexual revolution, made possible by advances in birth control and changing mores, eroded some of marriage's other traditional underpinnings. Many men, as good paying union and manufacturing jobs diminished, no longer earned enough to support a middle-class lifestyle for their family.
Derek Thompson's article, "The Decline of Marriage and the Rise of Unwed Mothers: An Economic Mystery" (The Atlantic, March 18, 2013) paints this problem more fully.
From a Christian perspective, which social science research corroborates, marriage has at least two important functions for those called to live as a couple:
1. Children, on average, fare better when raised in two parent households. This is especially true if the two parents together are able to achieve a higher standard of living than one parent alone could achieve, either through two incomes or by one parent's homemaking and caring for children reducing the need for earned income. In either case, two parents frequently afford children more parental time.
2. Marriage, on average, benefits the partners through improved health, longevity (these two benefits are greatest for men), and life satisfaction. State and federal laws stipulate hundreds of advantages to married couples not extended to other couples, e.g., spousal Social Security benefits and the right to visit and to make healthcare decisions for the other.
Marriage is not for everybody. The Apostle Paul appears to have opted to remain single rather than to marry. But for those willing and desirous of permanent monogamy, a community will gain by extending the right to marry to all couples regardless of gender composition. Contrary to the religious right and political conservatives, the best defense of marriage is to extend the right to marry to all couples. Couples and society both win.
Easter's message too often gets lost amidst bunnies, eggs, chocolates, and fixations on an empty tomb, rooted in denying the reality of death rather than the transformative power of God. This year, celebrate Easter by celebrating marriage. Into the valley of the shadow of death walked two people. Out of that valley emerged a couple, one in spirit and flesh, filled with the abundant life that love births.