(Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)

Let's abolish civil marriage so homophobes like Rick Santorum will shut up and go away

Want conservative bigots to stop shaping the conversation on equal marriage? Abolish all state-sanctioned marriages


Katie McDonough
June 23, 2014 8:31PM (UTC)

Last week, Rick Santorum joined Mike Huckabee, this guy who talks about adult diapers and a very, very small number of other people in Washington, D.C., for the anti-equal rights "March for Marriage." During an interview about why he doesn't think that consenting adults should be able to enter into legal contracts that confer them with more than 1,000 legal rights and entitlements, Santorum said that making marriage available to more people will actually hurt marriage -- which will hurt the economy.

"When we continue to see a decline in marriage and a redefinition of marriage, you get less marriage," he said. "You get families that aren't as strong, and as a result, society generally, the economy suffers." So let's follow Santorum's theory. First marriage rates are down, which he doesn't like. But if you expand the number of people who can get married by legalizing equal marriage Santorum believes we will ... see less marriage ... which will ... hurt the economy?

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This makes no sense, probably because Rick Santorum has mashed bananas in the part of his head where a brain is supposed to be. And while it's a waste of time to expect consistency from people who will do rhetorical and logical back flips to justify their bigotry, Santorum argued pretty vigorously in 2011 that more people getting married will help the economy and actually guarantee that these couples will never be in poverty. Guarantee! (Do all of the married people living in poverty know about this guarantee? Someone should probably tell them.)

“Do you know if you do two things in your life -- if you do two things in your life, you’re guaranteed never to be in poverty in this country? What two things, that if you do, will guarantee that you will not be in poverty in America?” Santorum said at the time. “Number one, graduate from high school. Number two, get married. Before you have children,” he continued. “If you do those two things, you will be successful economically. What does that mean to a society if everybody did that? What that would mean is that poverty would be no more. If you want to have a strong economy, there are two basic things we can do.”

While it is always worth pointing out that Santorum is a bigot and shoddy thinker, the bigger thing here is that arguments about whether marriage is good for the economy or good for people's personal financial well-being shouldn't matter. The state-sanctioned nature of your relationship -- or your relationship status in general -- should not dictate whether you get to feed yourself or your family. That is a really ridiculous and profoundly uncaring thing to argue.

But people do argue that, quite a lot. Because, among the many other things that marriage is, it is also a conservative dream about privatizing economies of care and eliminating the social safety net. This is just one of the reasons why we need to start talking seriously about abolishing civil marriage.

Getting legally married -- the actual signing of a marriage contract -- has nothing to do with being in love. The contract part is only about the state and its view of your newly assigned obligations to your spouse. The economic underpinnings of marriage are about shifting the so-called burden of your care from the state to the individual. That's why our current system incentivizes marriage (at least for straight people who can get married everywhere in this country). Women who live in poverty are encouraged to marry men who have wages and benefits that are either better than their own or are better when combined with their own so that they won't rely on the state for things like housing, food assistance or childcare.

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The conservative thinking goes: Once you get married, you become a "private" burden (insert ball and chain jokes here, etc.) instead of a "public" burden. Now, of course, this isn't actually how marriage works. As noted above, lots of married people continue to live in poverty because of a number of social and political factors that basically amount to the system being rigged to keep poor people poor.

Conversations about which relationships the state will recognize remain vital at this current moment, and the marriage equality movement is tremendously important for that reason. But we've got to think bigger at the same time, because marital relationships aren't the only relationships that matter. As Lisa Duggan, professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University and a critic of marriage from the left, recently told me, households are increasingly defined by relationships that exist outside of so-called traditional marriage -- single mothers, breadwinning mothers, multigenerational families, co-parenting families, aging friends and others.

“Talking about kinship networks being broader -- if you start saying that, you are talking about collectivity,” Duggan said. “The way that we are collectively responsible for each other and how we can provide for that. We have to democratize and decenter the ways we recognize these relationships. That should be the goal -- not moralizing about ‘proper’ and ‘improper’ forms of love.”

Expanding the legal definition of marriage to include gay and lesbian couples is wildly important at this moment, but can also only ever be a partial victory when it comes to changing the way the state allocates benefits, privileges certain relationships over others and conceptualizes the social safety net and its obligations to citizens (and non-citizens).

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And we've never been poised to talk about these things more than we are right now, and that has everything to do with recent gains in the marriage equality movement. “This [political moment] is definitely an opening to raise a set of questions about how our personal relationships are recognized by the state,” Duggan explained: “We need some kinds of recognition for things like health proxies, childcare, child custody and jointly owned property. There are circumstances where we need to have these relationships recognized, but it doesn’t make any sense that rather than recognize the relationships we actually have -- whatever they are -- that the state only recognizes conjugal couples.”

Plus, if we want to stop talking about Santorum or allowing his bigotry and the bigotry of others to matter quite so much, we need  to start talking more seriously about getting the state out of the marriage business. Because the only reason that men like him hold sway is because of how this civil institution is bizarrely intertwined with religious ideas about what relationships are "good" relationships. If we can disentangle these two things and conceive of more radical alternatives to marriage -- including more robust social programs to support families and individuals and more expansive recognitions for the relationships that define so many households -- then Santorum and the adult diaper guy can have all their feelings about man-dog unions and we can have a more just system that doesn't hinge basic things like healthcare proxy or child custody for non-biological parents on whom you are planning to have sex with until you die.

How we do this is a big question, but it's a conversation we should want to have. If only to make Santorum go away that much more quickly.

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Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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