Giving “Evolution” A Push

From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage

  • Darel E. Paul
  • Baylor University Press, 2018; 256 pages, $39.95

Late last year, Romanian voters considered a constitutional amendment to confirm the nation’s definition of marriage as the union of a husband and wife (voter turnout did not meet the required threshold for the legal change to take place). European nations are divided on the legal definition of marriage, but a strong majority of those nations still retain the historically universal understanding of marriage in their laws. That is true of most of the world’s nations.

The United States, like many Western nations, is different. There, a national Supreme Court decision in 2015 redefined legal marriage for the entire nation even though states are usually responsible for regulating family laws. At the time of the decision, 31 states had defined marriage as the union of husband and wife in their state constitutions (which required voter approval), but the decision was accepted with little uproar.

What happened in the United States to cause this drastic change? The answer to that question may have important implications for other nations where the debate over marriage is still ongoing.

Darel Paul, professor of political science at Williams College, has written a very careful and compelling account of this change which convincingly explains the shift.

The preferred account, created by advocates for same-sex marriage, “emphasize[s] the role of activists and the process of moral growth” (like President Barack Obama’s famous “evolution” from personal and religious opposition to dogmatic support) towards acceptance of same-sex marriage. This, however, obscures “the contributions of Corporate America, normalization’s most powerful ally.” Dr. Paul explains how same-sex marriage “became the cause célèbre of the country’s rich and powerful” and how “corporate support came well before public support” for the dramatic legal change.

Primarily, as he shows, America’s seeming change of heart is a matter of the ascendancy of “class values” embraced by American elites. These elites are professionals and managers in the top 20-25% of households who have “most separated themselves from the rest of the country in terms of educational attainment, family structure, residence, lifestyle, and cultural values.” They drive “Corporate America,” which has, in the words of the nation’s most prominent sexual rights lobby, “‘transformed itself into a beacon of progress when it comes to LGBT equality’ and ‘become legislative and social change agents.’”

Dr. Paul explains how long before political and public opinion “evolved” to abandon allegiance to a complementary understanding of marriage, social elites had embraced that position. The higher professionals and managers making up the elite social class, particularly in New England, the Middle Atlantic, and the West Coast (where the elites are concentrated) of the United States, had embraced the view that same-sex sexuality was normative. Paul notes that many say “elites support normalization [of same-sex relations] and same-sex marriage because they are liberal” but points out that the data “suggest it is more accurate to say that liberals support normalization and same-sex marriage because they are elites.” These groups share more than support for toleration. They want to move past toleration towards normalization and to disapproval of those who have not “evolved.” 

A critical insight of Dr. Paul’s analysis is that the normalization project was “socially constructed over time, enabled by the collapse of a culture that gave intelligibility to strictly opposite-sex marriage.” Rising divorce, cohabitation, and unwed childbearing, combined with falling marriage rates, contributed to this collapse, but affected the social classes differently. Behavioral changes fueled changes in opinion. The “normative separation of children from marriage” was exemplified by an 11% drop in the period 1982 to 2007 in the percentage of Americans endorsing the idea that children were an important element of a “successful marriage.” 

As the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples “removes sexual difference from the fundamental premises of marriage,” procreation had “largely been removed from elite cultural understandings.” Dr. Paul shows how fertility is “the fulcrum around which family models turn” and that attitudes toward same-sex marriage are correlated with fertility such that groups “with the highest levels of support for normalization . . . are also the groups with the lowest fertility.” As father absence had been normalized in an earlier family model, “same-sex marriage normalizes his absolute nullity.” Indeed, the rise in America’s fertility rate halted in 2008 and in 2015 actually dropped to its lowest level in 30 years. Dr. Paul notes: “All of this portends fewer children and smaller families in the United States into the future, as well as an increasing paucity of patriarchs. That being the case, it also indicates a bright future for the progress of homosexuality’s normalization.”

A very perceptive chapter explains the ideological underpinning of elite support for same-sex marriage. This support is based on diversity, “the reigning social and political ideal of our age.” This ideal was adopted in professional and business circles before it could plausibly be claimed to have any real value to business. So, when the “gay rights movement quite literally wrapped itself in the flag of diversity,” although race remained “the ‘modal category’ of diversity practices and thought,” homosexuality came to represent “its ideal.” Support for gay rights became a hallmark, perhaps the hallmark, of diversity-signaling by businesses in advertising as homosexuality represented “a powerful symbolic brew of authenticity and prestige.” Since “diversity is all about elites” it is no surprise that the preeminent symbol of corporate commitment to diversity is support for gays and lesbians. “Unlike the polygamous, the disabled, the obese, or the unattractive, gays and lesbians symbolize success.” They have higher levels of education and are “overrepresented at the highest levels of the managerial and professional class fractions.” So, this diversity “is an amazingly self-referential version.”

As Dr. Paul summarizes: 

Homosexuality was first accepted and later embraced because of its symbolic expression of elite values and lived experiences in marriage, parenthood, gender equality, family planning, education, financial success, urbanity and cosmopolitanism, as well as authenticity. Homosexuality—or the form of homosexuality eventually accepted as normal—synchronized with elite values and the professional-managerial class lifestyle. It endorsed elite authority.

Dr. Paul marshals a large amount of empirical data, accompanied by telling illustrations (like the fates of Brandon Eich, a tech executive who made a modest donation to a campaign for natural marriage in California, or Mark Regnerus, the University of Texas sociologist, whose research disclosed suboptimal outcomes for children raised by homosexual parents) to make his case. He takes no position on same-sex marriage but provides an invaluable account of its acceptance and then promotion to normativity.

The final chapter of the book introduces a new and tentative theme occasioned by the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. That election may represent something of a new willingness to question the elite rule described in the book. Might this questioning also signal a change in family policy? It’s not yet entirely clear. 

As Dr. Paul noticed, the elite success in redefining marriage was facilitated by, and in turn facilitates, changes in family formation and attitudes about marriage and family. Unfortunately, these may prove enduring.

William C. Duncan is the Director of the Marriage Law Foundation.