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Why Gays Should Be Allowed to Say "I Do"

In The Music Man Robert Preston leads concerned citizens in singing the classic American moral reform ditty "YES, WE'VE GOT TROUBLE, RIGHT HERE IN RIVER CITY," and we keep singing that song as a nation. The current debate over our moral trouble here in River City resonates with progressive moral anxieties that troubled Theodore Roosevelt and his reform allies--resonates very well, indeed! But the danger to the moral fiber of America a hundred years ago was not gay marriage. Marriage was under siege then, but its imagined attackers were different villains!

Moral reform groups like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.) believed marriage was jeopardized by Mormons who practiced polygamy as a danger to the institution of marriage. They had objected to Utah being admitted to the Union as a state because they believed women were oppressed by plural marriage. The Senate for a while refused to seat Utah Senator Reed Smoot over the polygamy issue. TR opposed polygamy because he believed marriage should be between one man and one woman, not one man and several women.

TR also opposed easy divorce, as did many religious groups, including the National League for the Protection of the Family and the Interfaith Committee on Marriage and Divorce because they believed it weakened the bonds of marriage. In TR's time many states would grant divorce only for desertion or adultery, but in Reno you could get quick divorces for incompatibility and other grounds. Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Baptists supported TR's efforts to establish national marriage laws to provide "all possible safeguards for the security of the family." TR especially hated the people of his own class--upper, that is--who engaged in scandalous affairs and then went to Reno to rid themselves of a succession of spouses. He took marriage seriously and believed that socialites did not. So he wanted to make it harder to get a divorce.

On December 3, 1906, in his Sixth Message to Congress--as State of the Union addresses were known at the time--President Theodore Roosevelt proposed a constitutional amendment to protect marriage:

From Mesages and Papers of the Presidents

The amendment was designed to defend the institution and to standardize American moral practices. It did not pass. In TR's time moral reformers feared that polygamists, serial divorcees, club women active in politics, amusement parks, demon rum, and many other threats would destroy marriage. When they complained about the danger to marriage posed by materialism and hedonism they may have been getting closer to the truth. TR also worried that poor working conditions and the failure to pay workers a decent wage might undermine morality and the institution of marriage.

I believe recent studies have shown that divorce often follows the loss of a job. It is not clear to social historians that the right to divorce undermines the institution of marriage. Despite the assertions you hear in today's equivalent to progressive moral reform circles that women working and women having more rights causes divorce, it is not clear that divorce is directly related to either. In my book Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, I offer more detail on this.

Now, the more intriguing question is--does asserting federal authority over moral or personal questions really defend an institution like marriage, if, in fact, it is an institution in trouble. America's biggest experiment with federal moral reform was Prohibition and while it may have cut down on cases of hospitalization for cirrhosis of the liver for a few years and arrests for drunk and disorderly conduct, we pretty much agree it was a failure, if not counterproductive.

Legislating for morality may have worked in the case of civil rights, when enforcement followed the legal dictum, as in the case of discrimination in public transportation. But when it comes to saving the institution of marriage by picking on a very small percentage of the population (6-10 percent are gay or lesbian and only a small percentage of those people want to marry), why would any politician choose to take a stand against extending the blessings of marriage? Obviously, it's an election year and President Bush is playing to the Christian Right activists who got him elected.

Does anyone seriously believe that we will strengthen the institution of marriage by passing a constitutional amendment to keep a small group of people from getting married? I personally favor marriage and lifelong commitment as good institutions for most people, and I recommend it to my gay and lesbian friends who have long-standing loving relationships. It seems to me the federal and state governments should support legal attempts for people to maintain deep loving commitments toward each other, especially where there are children involved. So, although I would concede that many progressives like TR would probably line up behind President Bush's moral grandstanding in an election year, I think they would be wrong. In fact, what they are doing is pandering to the homophobes and gay-bashers who constitute more of a threat to our society than the couples who want legal rights to marry.

Related Links

  • Letter to the Editor of the Washington Post: On Dec. 12, 1912, Rep. Seaborn Roddenberry (D-Ga.) proposed this amendment to the Constitution:"Intermarriage between negros or persons of color and Caucasians . . . within the United States . . . is forever prohibited."