Do you know what “marriage fundamentalism” is? Everyone should. It is a regressive, inaccurate, stigmatizing ideology that is a threat to the dignity and well-being of all adults who are not married and all children living in families not headed by two married parents. Really, it is a threat to everyone – including even married couples and their families – who care about basic values of equality, autonomy, interdependence, multiculturalism, and respect for the many important people in our lives.

A report released in April 2019, The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism: Embracing Family Justice for All, is a wake-up call for all of us. It demonstrates that efforts to reward and celebrate just one kind of family – headed by a man and woman in their first marriage – and stigmatize and maybe even punish every other variety, are frighteningly systematic and well-funded. The report also outlines a vision of social justice that would open its arms to embrace and protect people in all of their life paths and all the kinds of families they create.

I have been writing about the report for Unmarried Equality (UE) and for my other blogs, too. I want to share my UE posts here, and I thank the organization for permission to do so. This is the first of my UE articles about “The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism.”

For advocates of unmarried equality, “The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism: Embracing Family Justice for All” is one of the most important reports of our time.

Anyone who cares about unmarried equality, and about justice for families in all of their shapes and sizes, is up against formidable forces. In the U.S., matrimania is rampant. Married people and their families are respected, honored, valued, and treated to more than 1,000 special legal benefits and protections. They are also glorified and celebrated in movies, television shows, novels, song lyrics, and children’s books.

To those who are not deeply immersed in the scholarship and politics of marriage and family (that is, just about everyone), the reasons for the privileging of married people and their families may seem obvious. Isn’t there something natural and universal about the family of mom, dad, and the kids? Hasn’t it always been at the center of societies in the U.S. and elsewhere, now and in the past? And doesn’t social science support the belief that married people are better than everyone else and that their families are ideal for children?

The answer to all of those questions is no. Historians and anthropologists debunked claims about universality a long time ago. The findings from scientific research are not as advertised. And yet, claims about the inherent specialness of married people and their families are widely accepted and rarely questioned. These are not just any old beliefs; they are so powerful, I think they qualify as an ideology.

I. “The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism”: For Advocates of Unmarried Equality, One of the Most Important Reports of Our Time

The American embrace of the ideology of marriage and family did not unfold naturally, as some inevitable outcome of the way humans are built or how societies function. Instead, a highly organized and generously funded array of religious-right and evangelical organizations, as well as think tanks and academic institutions, have systematically promoted beliefs in the superiority of married people and their families. They sell marriage as a solution to poverty and inequality. They have popularized dubious notions such as the “success sequence” and succeeded in influencing political leaders to make major policy changes. Their fingerprints are all over the misrepresentation of the science of marriage and family.

Family Story, a think tank, documented the rise of what they call “marriage fundamentalism,” critiqued it, then set out their own principles and policy recommendations in a new report released this month (April 2019). “The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism: Embracing Family Justice for All” is a landmark achievement. The reporting is meticulous, the critiques are incisive, and the values it espouses are consistent with the goals of Unmarried Equality. If the report were taken seriously and even just some of its policy recommendations were implemented, we would be rewarded with significant progress toward justice for people of all marital and relationship statuses and all families, including the families we choose.

II. What Is “Marriage Fundamentalism” and Who Is Promoting It?

The heart of marriage fundamentalism is “the idea that a family composed of a man and a woman in their first marriage is “the best” or “ideal” type of family, especially for children.” The report points to claims from the Heritage Foundation that marriage is “society’s best way of ensuring the well-being of children,” “America’s greatest weapon against child poverty,” and the “safest place for women and children.” The Family Research Council offers some gems as well – for example, the claim that marriage is “the foundation of civilization, the seedbed of virtue, and the wellspring of society.”

The lead researchers and authors on the Family Story report, attorney Shawn Fremstad and sociologists Sarah Jane Glynn and Angelo Williams, see the movement to promote marriage fundamentalism as arising out of significant social changes that posed a threat to the place of “traditional” marriage and nuclear family:

  • The proportion of unmarried Americans started growing in the mid-1900s and never stopped; by 2010, more heads of households were unmarried than married.
  • The civil rights movement, second-wave feminism, and the gay rights movement were unsettling to the marriage fundamentalists, too.

In response, “conservative foundations funded a culture war to promote marriage fundamentalism and move American politics to the right.” Some of the major sources of funding include The Bradley Foundation and The John Templeton Foundation. But mainstream foundations, and even some liberal ones, have contributed, too. For example, the Ford Foundation and the Anne E. Casey Foundation funded a 2016 report that recommended a mass media campaign to promote marriage.

The Family Story report lists 14 institutions promoting marriage fundamentalism:

Religious-Right/Evangelical Institutions

  1. Focus on the Family
  2. Family Research Council
  3. American Family Association
  4. World Congress of Families
  5. National Organization for Marriage

Think Tanks and Academic Institutes

  1. Heritage Foundation
  2. Manhattan Institute
  3. American Enterprise Institute (AEI)
  4. Witherspoon Institute
  5. Brookings Institute
  6. National Marriage Project
  7. Institute for American Values
  8. Institute for Family Studies
  9. Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture

I asked Nicole Rodgers, the Founder and Executive Director of Family Story, about comparable progressive groups. “There are a lot of advocacy organizations that are aligned on some specific narrow aspects of our work,” she said, and named a few. “That said,” she concluded, “there is absolutely nothing comparable, in terms of organization size, or influence on the left, to groups like Focus on the Family or Family Research Council. It’s still a David vs. Goliath battle fighting marriage fundamentalism.”

III. The Work of the Marriage Fundamentalists: Examples of Several “Successes” and One Big Failure

In 1965, the notorious Moynihan Report described the matriarchal Black family structure as key to what was infamously called the “tangle of pathology” in the Black community. The report became a blueprint for marriage fundamentalists in the projects they pursued.

The “Success Sequence”

An example of one of the projects of the marriage fundamentalists was the popularization of their formula for avoiding poverty. According to their “success sequence,” if you finish high school, work full time, and get married – and be sure to get married before having children – then you will have a vanishingly small chance of being poor. Many politicians, such as Rick Santorum, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and members of the Trump administration, have swallowed it whole. It is, however, more misleading than magical. For example, the marriage part of the equation got smuggled in without carrying much weight. As Matt Bruenig noted, full-time work, by itself, accounts for low rates of poverty. (Other critiques are here.)

Less Support for Poor Children, Billions for the Promotion of Marriage

A chilling “success” racked up by the marriage fundamentalists involved taking economic support from poor children and channeling it into marriage promotion and marriage education programs marketed to adults. As the report notes, marriage fundamentalism “drove the repeal of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) – a social-security program that provided an income floor for eligible low-income children – and established marriage promotion as an explicit federal program.” Since then, marriage promotion programs have been the proud recipients of more than 2 billion dollars in funding. The results of those programs have been underwhelming.

The Weaponization of Social Science Research to Make Marriage and Married-Parent Families Seem Better Than They Are

The Family Story report considers the misuse and misrepresentation of research findings as one of the three key reasons to reject marriage fundamentalism, as discussed below. I think the fundamentalists’ contribution to the false narrative about the superiority of married people and married-parent families counts as one of their successes, and a very unfortunate and harmful one at that.

The Fundamentalists’ Failure: Same-Sex Marriage Was Legalized

The marriage fundamentalists worked hard to stand in the way of the legalization of same-sex marriage. Ultimately, of course, they failed. Some of them had an interesting response to that big loss. They cried “uncle” and decided to accept same-sex marriage, only to aspire to broader marriage promotion goals. They tried, with some success, to recruit people from across the political spectrum to sign onto the promotion of a “marriage culture.” It was the same old attempt to privilege married people, only this time gays and lesbians got included, too. (I wrote about this in my first column for UE, “The marriage opportunists are coming – we need to be prepared.”)

IV. What’s Wrong with Marriage Fundamentalism: 3 Significant Issues

“The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism” describes three key reasons to reject marriage fundamentalism.

  1. Marriage fundamentalism “is inconsistent with liberal, feminist, and multicultural values, including equality and autonomy.”

Marriage, of course, has a patriarchal and racist past. But sexism and racism are not just a thing of the past. For example, the disparaging of single mothers and their children – particularly Black single mothers – is continuing today.

The longstanding attempts to block marriage equality were heterosexist. Some leaders are still attempting to protect people and institutions that discriminate based on sexual identity or orientation.

Attempts to push people into marriage and away from other ways of living are inconsistent with the liberal value of autonomy. Rewarding only officially married people with benefits and protections is a violation of the liberal value of equality. Considering the religious underpinnings of marriage, it also tramples on the separation of church and state.

  1. Marriage fundamentalism “causes concrete political, social and psychological harms.”

Unmarried people are harmed when they are locked out of some very basic benefits and protections made available only to people who are married. They are hurt when the marriage fundamentalists stigmatize and shame them. Children are harmed when funding is taken away from programs that support them and given to organizations and media campaigns to promote marriage.

People in poverty are hurt when the marriage fundamentalists blame them for their supposed “bad choices” (for example, not marrying, or having children before marrying). They are harmed even more when that way of thinking means that policies that could foster greater economic security or reduce inequality are never enacted.

  1. The marriage fundamentalists have weaponized social science research to create misleading narratives about the superiority of married people and married two-parent families.

I am a social scientist with many scholarly publications, and I have taught graduate courses in research methods. When I first started reading the original research reports on the implications of marrying for health and well-being, I was stunned by what I found. Based on media reports and the conventional wisdom, I thought that there was strong and consistent evidence that people who married became happier and healthier than they were when they were single. There wasn’t. In many cases, the studies were greatly flawed methodologically, and could never support causal conclusions. Typically, the more sophisticated studies did not show what the cultural narratives claimed to be true.

Similar problems plagued the claims about the implications for children of being raised by single parents, or of having parents who divorced rather than staying together. For example, if you simply compare children of divorced parents to children of married parents, sometimes the children of divorced parents seem to be doing worse. But if you instead follow those children for years, starting when their parents were still married and continuing until after the divorce, you sometimes discover that the children’s problems started when the parents were still together, but at each other’s throats. Children were already having a hard time when they were living in a conflict-ridden or cold and neglectful household headed by two married parents. (I described my critiques in Singled Out and many other places.)

The Family Story report identifies four main problems with the way the marriage fundamentalists use research:

  1. The common-sense theory behind the supposed superiority of the married two-parent family is weak.
  2. Based on empirical research, there actually is no scientific consensus on the superiority of the married two-parent family for children.
  3. Marriage fundamentalists argue that increasing the marriage rate is necessary for reducing poverty; social science research does not support that.
  4. Marriage fundamentalists make selective use of research.

V. That’s Not All

There was much more to “The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism: Embracing Family Justice for All.” In future writings, I will describe the values and principles at the heart of the family justice agenda. (Here it is.) I will also outline some of the policy recommendations from the Family Story report and share Nicole Rodgers’s answer to my question of whether there is any reason for optimism in this political moment. (Here it is.) A few other possibilities are also in the works (here and here).

I hope many others will join me in thinking, conversing, and writing about “The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism.” It is rare for those of us who care deeply about unmarried equality to have such a significant document to embrace and share.

[Notes: (1) The opinions expressed here do not represent the official positions of Unmarried Equality. (2) I’ll post all these blog posts at the UE Facebook page; please join our discussions there. (3) For links to previous columns, click here.]