This feels like a downer given all the optimism about love in the air in recent days. Writing the majority opinion for Obergefell v. Hodges, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that marriage is a central institution that affirms an “enduring bond” and provides “loving and nurturing homes” for children. The petitioners, Kennedy argued, only wanted to build on this central social reality, making their appeal from a deeply held respect for its “recognition, stability, and predictability.”
But if Ross Douthat is right, this is “one of the ironies in which the arc of history specializes” – because while the “conservative case” for marriage’s centrality is winning in court, the “liberationist case” against marriage’s centrality is winning the culture. While 65% of the Silent generation, 48% of Boomers, and 36% of Gen X were married between ages 18 and 32, for Millennials the number is at a meager 26% and falling. The percentage of unmarried births (40.6%) has hit a record high, while the birth rate for women in their early twenties (83.1 births per 1,000 women) has hit a record low. In short, people are opting for more open-ended family structures and fewer children, a principle which lent support to a new form for marriage, but inevitably causes it to feed back into the decline of marriage overall.
It remains to be seen whether millennials can buck the trend and restore the nuclear family to something like “centrality.” In the meantime, a show like True Detective reveals the tyranny of this liberation, a wider and stronger current that sets the parameters for and subsumes whatever new family models we construct to outlast us. The characters all look depressed and burdened by this new rule, and you can see the desire for truth still flickering inside – but in Vinci, there is no oasis.
If that makes for an unnerving show, so be it. My strong suspicion is we get the entertainment we deserve.
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.