Have you ever taken a really wide-angle view across the American cultural landscape and experienced a nagging feeling of deja-vu? It’s almost as if issues that ought to have been settled over a century ago just keep popping back up into public discourse, usually at the behest of reactionary turnip heads fueled by an unceasing wish to go back to a better, more moral, more “traditional” time that only ever existed in their own fever-swamped craniums.
Yes-sir-ee-Bob, it might be the tail-end of 2014, but in many ways, Americans are still living in the long nineteenth century. Just look at some of the issues that have been causing a political brouhaha throughout the year: racial equality; gender equality; same-sex marriage; voting rights (?!); secession (the long-disregarded idea that states are independent political entities that can separate from the Federal Union whenever they see fit); nullification (the long-discredited idea that individual states have the power to overrule Federal law), and the evolving definition of what constitutes “family,” among others. If you know anything about U.S. history, then you know that each of these issues played a major role in shaping the culture of nineteenth-century America. Although the details varied with each issue, all of them involved a conflict over the definition of rights: who should have them and why.
In fact, the conflict over the expansion of rights is pretty much at the center of the American story, and Victorian-Era issues still exert a powerful influence on U.S. culture today. Among the contemporary issues that I’ve already listed, few have a more distinctly nineteenth-century flavor than marriage and the American family; or, more specifically, who has the right to define those terms. Which brings us to teh gayz. Yes, in contemporary America, nothing is scarier to some folks than the specter of two people of the same sex getting hitched. You see, marriage is a sacred institution that fuels sitcom jokes everywhere, and some people think that teh gayz should be denied the right to experience this holy sacrament/stand-up comedy staple.
One of the many ornery fellows out there who REALLY doesn’t like same-sex marriage is Douglas MacKinnon, a former aid to President Ronald Reagan. If anyone has a serious jonesing for the Victorian Era, it’s this guy. Recently, MacKinnon went on one of the nation’s infinitesimal number of right-wing radio shows to tout his new book, The Secessionist States of America: The Blueprint for Creating a Traditional Values Country … Now. Ho boy. In this mind-expanding tome, MacKinnon argues that the conservative southern states should secede from the Union and form a new nation called “Reagan” (really) which would be a bastion for “traditional values” — and, possibly, Jelly Belly jelly beans. Now, MacKinnon spends a lot of time making a “legal” case for the fundamentally illegal act of secession — an idea that should have been settled after the Civil War but nonetheless keeps popping up in right-wing circles — but I’m not gonna’ focus on that part of his nineteenth-century worldview. Instead, I’m gonna’ focus on WHY he wants to form the nation of “Reagan:” to escape the gayness.
MacKinnon does not like anything that’s even remotely gay. “The world has been turned upside down if you do happen to believe in traditional values,” he whined. He went on to claim that:
If you happen to make a donation in favor of traditional marriage, you can lose your job. If you happen to refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple because it goes against your religious beliefs, you can be driven out of business. If you’re a football commentator and you happen to just say, innocently, that you know maybe I wouldn’t have drafted a gay football player because I wouldn’t want to deal with the distraction, many people on the left will try to drive you out of your job as well.
So MacKinnon REALLY doesn’t care for gay people, and he wants to inoculate himself from their nefarious gay influence by forming a new country that would take a stand for “traditional values,” and, more specifically, “traditional marriage” between one man and one woman. Indeed, keeping marriage limited to a man and a woman is the Alamo-call of many social conservatives, who like to claim that this type of marriage is “traditional,” because it’s “biblical” as well. For example, the Colorado-based advocacy group Focus on the Family asserts that “family is the fundamental building block of all human civilizations, and marriage is the foundation of the family.” They see marriage as being “under attack” by “the push for so-called same-sex ‘marriage’ and civil unions” that supposedly threaten the tradition of “male-female led families” that “have constituted the primary family units of human society.”
Other like-minded conservatives, such as celebrity pastor Rick Warren, claim that “traditional marriage” was “God’s intended, original design.” Never mind that the bible depicts all kinds of marital arrangements, including polygamy and women being sold into sexual slavery. For social conservatives, “God’s design” coincidentally coincides with their own, and they’ve amassed plenty of rhetorical and legislative ammunition to fight this battle in the larger culture war.
But here’s the problem: the ideal, “traditional” American nuclear family — a bread-winning husband, a stay-at-home wife, and their dependent children — that social conservatives view as a common thread that links America to biblical times is, in fact, a product of the bourgeoise notion of the family that emerged in the nineteenth century. During this period, distinct cultural separations between work and the home solidified, love and intimacy became (forgive me) wedded to the notion of marriage, and children came to be viewed not as smaller versions of adults, but as agents to be nurtured and protected from the outside world.
In her sweeping study Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, historian of the family Stephanie Coontz explains how, for much of history, marriage was primarily an “economic and political” transaction. From dowries to land deals; from property in assets to property in women; from forging political alliances to guaranteeing more workers for the family farm, marriage in different societies at different points in history had little to do with love and child-rearing. The notion that there was ever a single, “traditional” version of marriage geared towards consolidating romantic affection and maintaining nuclear family stability is a very modern concept.
As Coontz writes, “for centuries, marriage did much of the work that markets and governments do today.” Throughout much of history, marriage was deeply functional. “It organized the production and distribution of goods and people. It set up political, economic, and military alliances. It coordinated the division of labor by gender and age. It orchestrated people’s personal rights and obligations in everything from sexual relations to the inheritance of property,” Coontz notes.* Thus, in many ways, marriage was the foundation of civilizations, but not in the way social conservatives describe as a spiritual/moral bulwark against a corrupt outside world. That particular ideal of marriage and the family, which conservatives see as being threatened by extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, is a product of nineteenth-century America — yet it’s an ideal of marriage and family relations that we still cling to today.
During the Victorian Era, the U.S. underwent a series of changes that fundamentally altered American life and paved the way for our contemporary society. Most significantly, the Market Revolution unleashed a trend towards an increasingly industrial, increasingly urban society that began undercutting the importance of family farms as self-sustaining economic units. This transition to a society based on industrial mass-production and mass-consumption spurred the growth of a middle class that placed a greater emphasis on leisure, romantic courtship, delegated gender roles, and the notion that children should be specially cared for in a domestic sphere that shielded them from the cold, public sphere of the marketplace. Basically, with increased leisure and affluence, and a decreased need for familial farm-hands, kids made the cultural transition from being miniature adults to “children” in need of nurturing.
Historians Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg detail the emergence of the modern family in their classic book, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. Released from earlier conceptions of the family as a ‘little commonwealth’ that acted as a “microcosm” of the larger society, the nineteenth century saw the family transform into a “‘haven in a heartless world,’ a bastion of morality and tender feeling” that was separate from the “aggressive and selfish world of commerce.” Mintz and Kellogg also note that during this period, marriage became more explicitly identified as the natural reflection of romantic relations between husbands and wives.* This is how American social conservatives — and much of the general population — continues to view marriage today. When they say that allowing gays and lesbians to marry threatens the “traditional,” “biblical” concept of marriage, what they’re really saying is that they’ve accepted a particular ideal of marriage and the family that emerged in a very specific time-period — and they don’t want to give it up.
Although additional visions of the family influenced American life throughout the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Victorian, bourgeoise notion of the nuclear family became especially appealing to Americans in the post-World War II era. During this period, the recent memory of the most violent conflict in world history, coupled with the threat of the emerging Cold War nurtured a preference for the “traditional family” as a shelter of love and protection from a hostile outside world.
Stephanie Coontz notes that the resurgence of the nuclear family ideal in the post-war period was bolstered by vanilla 1950s sitcoms like “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave it to Beaver,” which reinforced the ideal of the breadwinner father, the homemaker mother, and those adorably dependent kids. Of course, just as the Victorian Era saw the growth of a new leisure class, the post-war boom in employment and the attendant growth in consumer spending allowed Americans to once again populate their homes with store-bought goodies and plenty of family love that stood as a solid reef in the bigger, scarier, more tempestuous Cold War-era ocean. “Putting their mouths where their money was,” Coontz writes, “Americans consistently told pollsters that home and family were the wellsprings of their happiness and self-esteem.”*
Of course, as Coontz notes, the messy reality of family life in the fifties was far more complex, but the ideal of the perfect, financially secure, Wonderbread white, and decidedly not-gay American nuclear family lives on in contemporary society. The loss of this supposed family ideal is what conservatives lament when the rail against gay marriage. And however they frame this ideal, either as “traditional” or “biblical,” they’re yearning for an ideal of marriage and family life that only emerged in the nineteenth century and became more entrenched in the post-World War II era. Of course, conservatives tend to prefer a worldview based on clear-cut hierarchies and black-and-white moral divisions, so they’re likely to perish — Ahab-style — chasing the anti-gay marriage white whale in a sea of historical nuance. This is unfortunate, because those wishing to strengthen American family bonds would do well to permit all loving couples to marry, gay or straight. After all, the fate of civilization hangs in the balance, no?
* See Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Penguin, 2005), 9.
* See Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (New York: Free Press, 1988), xv.
* See Stephanie Coontz, The Way we Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 25.