According to a smarmy truism, you can make God laugh by telling Him your plans. Judging by todays’ Times headlines, you can make public opinion laugh by telling it your agenda.
On one side, there’s the news that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has signed gay marriage into legal existence. In this, he reflected attitudes prevalent not only in New York, but increasingly, across the nation. The latest Gallup polls show that 53% of Americans believe same-sex marriages should be valid, whereas 45% think they shouldn’t. Perhaps predictably, support for gay marriage among Americans 18-34 is much higher –70% to be exact. Bill Keller writes: “If Gallup polled high-school students, it would need a category called ‘Why are you even asking?’”
But, at the very same time — as many Catholics are overjoyed to note — support for abortion has declined. According to a 2009 Gallup poll, 51% of respondents identified themselves as “pro-life,” whereas only 42% identified themselves as “pro-choice.” It may be this shift in opinion that has emboldened six states to pass laws prohibiting the termination of a pregnancy after more than 20 weeks of gestation.
As evidence, this is all very sketchy, so drawing any conclusion requires the holding of breath and the crossing of fingers, but I wonder whether these two trends reflect some sort of internal logic equally unintelligible to the orthodox Christian and the orthodox feminist.
Four years ago, in the New York Observer, Lizzy Ratner noted (with some amusement) the emergence of “a breed of ambitious twentysomething nesters settling in the city, embracing the comforts of hearth and home with all the fervor of characters in Middlemarch.” Dubbing them the New Victorians, Ratner codifies their lifestyle to a turn:
While their forbears flitted away their 20’s in a haze of booze, Bolivian marching powder, and bed-hopping, New Vics throw dinner parties, tend to pedigreed pets, practice earnest monogamy, and affect an air of complacent careerism. Indeed, at the tender age of 28, 26, even 24, the New Vics have developed such fierce commitments, be they romantic or professional, that angst-ridden cultural productions like the 1994 movie Reality Bites, or Benjamin Kunkel’s 2005 novel Indecision, simply wouldn’t make sense to them.
Many older New Yorkers — especially those living in the newly fashionable sections of Brooklyn — refer to this bunch as the double-stroller crowd. Producing children like Honda produces affordable cars, the New Vics achieve economy of space by wheeling them down the street in tandem, in contraptions that claim for them an automatic right-of-way. New Vics may feature prominently in the ranks of helicopter parents, who regularly call for the Vernichtung of smokers like me. It’s easy to see how their reverence for the settled life could lend itself both to opposition to abortion and support for gay marriage. Gay marriage means more properly wed couples, which means more respectable guests for dinner parties.
Granted, it‘s unwise to read too much epochal significance into the attitudes of one privileged group. But some recent studies show that college students in general are quick to condemn what they consider promiscuous behavior. Here’s Jessica Grose, writing for Slate on the sensibilities of “Generation Scold”:
A new study confirms these findings. Sociologists Rachel Allison and Barbara Risman of the University of Illinois at Chicago surveyed over 17,000 college students through the Online College Social Life Survey and found that both men and women lost respect for members of the opposite sex who hooked up with a lot of people, according to a new report from the Council on Contemporary Families.* “In fact, slightly, but significantly more students [of both genders] say they would lose respect for a man who had hooked up and had sex with a lot than would lose respect for a similarly-engaged woman,” Allison and Risman observed. This wrinkle—that men are also now judging fellow men for promiscuity—is a new twist.
One reason for the shift, they hypothesize, is the increasing power of young women to determine the sexual mores. They’re definitely rejecting the double standard against women. But rather than embrace a more relaxed standard for all, as the Church Mailer generation did, they are using this new “leverage to overwhelmingly disapprove of college men who hook up with a lot of partners.” And some men are echoing that disapproval. If things continue to change in this direction, say Allison and Risman, “this change will move society toward a more restrictive standard for all, rather than toward increasing freedom to sexual pleasure wherever one may find and desire it.”
These findings are certainly compatible with the results of a recent Pew Research Center survey of Americans aged 18-29. Fifty-two percent of respondents said that being a good parent is “very important.” That only 30% of the same group assigned the same importance to having a good marriage appears anomalous, but might not actually be. Far from scorning marriage, these pups might simply have formed a hard-headed and realistic attitude toward it. Perhaps in their eyes, the value of a marriage — same- or opposite-sex — lies not in the amount of pleasure it afford the interested parties, but in its durability. Pew Researchers could clear this up by asking millennials what makes a marriage good.
If it’s the Church’s goal to attract or resonate with young people, all this news is to the good For decades, Church leaders have sought to make abortion the dividing line between us and them; increasing numbers may accept this proposition. As for the gay stuff –well, that’s always figured more prominently in the evangelical platform than it has over here. As I point out in an upcoming Patheos column, James Dobson might have outed Spongebob, but Arcbhishop Chaput never did as much for Dora the Explorer.