Gay-Marriage Opponents Distort Moynihan’s Views

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s widow, Elizabeth, was puzzled

to learn that her husband’s name had been cited in the Senate debate over gay

marriage.

Republican Senators Sam Brownback of Kansas and John Cornyn of

Texas are the New Yorker’s unlikely new acolytes. “Senator Moynihan also wrote

that ‘the principle objective of American government at every level should be

to see that children are born into intact families and that they remain so,’”

Mr. Brownback said on July 12, explaining his opposition to gay marriage.

Mrs. Moynihan didn’t recognize that line from any of her

husband’s 19 books or many articles. “That doesn’t sound like him,” she said.

Mrs. Moynihan has a point. The quote, it turns out, is a heavily

doctored version of something Moynihan said on Meet the Press in 1993. The gist is the same-Moynihan, after all,

had been sounding the alarm on the collapse of two-parent families since 1965.

But the original quote lacks the total confidence so characteristic of the

Senate majority.

“What do we do?” NBC’s Tim Russert had asked his old boss during

a discussion of social policy.

“We state, right now, the principal social objective of American

national government at every level to be-if it can have any effect-is to see

that children are born to intact families and that they remain so and that this

become an object of the churches, of the society at large. And if you work at

it, work at it, work at it, in about 40 to 50 years, you may have something to

show for it,” Moynihan replied.

The Republicans’ doctoring of Moynihan’s quote reflects a broader

tendency to cut corners in making a case against gay marriage. Call it, says

the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Rauch, “defining Moynihan down,” a nice

echo of Moynihan’s famous 1993 speech in which he coined the phrase “defining

deviancy down.” The central leap is from the widely accepted notion that

children do better with two parents to a hazy link between gay marriage in

Massachusetts and the high divorce rates that preceded it by more than 40

years.

“People try to use muddled arguments when they won’t use their

real arguments,” said Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, who noted that Moynihan was an early ally of the gay-rights

movement on the issue of employment discrimination and voted against the 1996

Defense of Marriage Act. The real argument against gay marriage, he said, “is

that one [homosexual] is enough, two together are revolting.”

Political opposition to gay marriage does rely on those who think

homosexuality is a sin and even that gay sex should be criminal. But there are

scholars, like David Blankenhorn at the Institute for American Values in New

York, who make an argument against gay marriage that doesn’t tacitly veer into

bigotry. Putting it as clearly as it comes, he says gay marriage is “an effect

that will become a cause” of the collapse of marriage. Like the Senators last

week, he leans on Moynihan, who started talking about the crisis in American

families in a then-controversial, now-obvious 1965 report entitled The Negro Family and the Case for National

Action.

“If there was one thing he did make clear over and over again, it

was the importance of the two-parent, mother-father, married-couple family,”

Mr. Blankenhorn said.

The problem with this is that, as the report’s title indicates,

Moynihan was concerned about African-American children and their single

mothers, not gay and lesbian couples who are unlikely to find themselves with

unwanted babies. The Senator seems not to have considered same-sex marriage

directly. In his “defining deviancy down” speech, Moynihan approvingly quotes

criticism of “alternative family structures;” but he added that, for his purposes,

“alternative” means “other than two-parent families.” He doesn’t dwell on the

gender of the parents.

Mrs. Moynihan said she thought her husband would likely have

supported same-sex marriage.

“It’s totally out of context [for the Republicans] to quote Pat

on something like that,” she said. “It was the breakup of the family that he

was objecting to. Gay marriage, that’s people saying marriage is good.”

Most of Moynihan’s old aides

and colleagues declined to speak for a Senator whose views were hard to predict

while he lived. Harvard’s Nathan Glazer e-mailed that “perhaps James Q. Wilson

would risk a quote.” Mr. Wilson, famous for his work on “broken windows” and

crime, wouldn’t channel Moynihan’s views on gay marriage, but added, “I doubt

he would have favored amending [the Constitution] in order to define marriage.”

On that question, too, Senators Brownback and Cornyn have chosen

the wrong ally. Moynihan’s views were clear: “There is nothing inherent in

American democracy,” he said in 1995, “that suggests we amend our basic and

abiding law to deal with the fugitive tendencies of a given moment.”