When it comes to today’s historic Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, a few of my friends on the left agree with the fulminating curmudgeon Antonin Scalia. Not about gay marriage itself, of course, but about the purple prose of Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion. “The opinion is couched in a style as pretentious as its content is egotistic,” Scalia sneers. In a footnote, he compares his colleague’s words to “the mystical aphorisms of a fortune cookie.” My friend and Nation editor Richard Kim more or less concurs, calling it, in a tweet, “sentimental” and “barfy.”
I think, though, that the schmaltzy sentimentality is perfect. After all, the intense American romanticism about marriage is what allowed a movement that was marginal only a decade ago to triumph so quickly. To see why marriage equality won, just compare Kennedy’s version of wedlock to Scalia’s.
“Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other,” he writes. His soaring final paragraph says, “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”
Americans overwhelmingly believe this, even though marriage rates are plummeting. Sociologists tell us that single mothers tend to revere marriage every bit as much as those who are wed, which is why they’re unwilling to marry under adverse circumstances. People who do get married empty savings accounts and go into debt to stage elaborate pageants to the ideal that Kennedy describes.
Worldly, cynical liberals are not immune. Indeed, the fight for gay marriage has allowed them—us—to express romantic desires that would otherwise seem embarrassingly hokey. (You’re going to hear Kennedy’s words read at every liberal wedding you go to for the rest of your life.)
Contrast Kennedy’s paean to eternal love to Scalia’s grouchy, dutiful vision of matrimony. Scalia begins with a mocking quotation of Kennedy: “The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality.” Then, in a long parenthetical, he asks, “(Really? Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie. Expression, sure enough, is a freedom, but anyone in a long-lasting marriage will attest that that happy state constricts, rather than expands, what one can prudently say.)”
This is a view of marriage as primarily about obligation, not love. And as Scalia’s marvelous appeal to the “nearest hippie” suggests, it’s a view of marriage that both the left and the right have often shared, though one camp celebrated the obligation and one wanted to escape it. As Stephanie Coontz wrote at the beginning of her book Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, “For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage.” Such a view, she wrote, was considered “a serious threat to the social order.”
But that social order has long since been overturned; today Scalia and his hippie friend are outliers. Americans overwhelmingly cherish the notion of marriage as love’s apotheosis. And when love conquered marriage, to use Coontz’s phrase, the prohibition on same-sex marriage became untenable, an absurd expression of arbitrary bigotry. Kennedy’s peroration celebrates the way we’ve made monogamous, amorous love a surpassing social ideal. It’s a historically radical idea that has today become deeply conventional, and it made today’s great victory for equality possible. #LoveWins.