The End of Marriage in
Scandinavia: Is America Next?
by Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr.
July 19, 2004
we witnessing the end of marriage? In a fascinating study, researcher
Stanley Kurtz of the Hoover Institution indicates that marriage
is already dying in Scandinavia, and his evidence demands attention.
In Sweden and Norway, a majority of children are now born out of
wedlock. A full 60-percent of first-born children in Denmark have
The background to Kurtz's research is the claim
made by advocates of same-sex marriage that the legitimization of
homosexual relationships poses no threat to the institution of marriage.
Nonsense, responds Kurtz. "Same-sex marriage has locked in
and reinforced an existing Scandinavian trend toward the separation
of marriage and parenthood. The Nordic family pattern--including
gay marriage--is spreading across Europe. And by looking closely
at it we can answer the key empirical question underlying the gay
marriage debate. Will same-sex marriage undermine the institution
of marriage?" Kurtz is ready with an answer to his own question:
"It already has."
Of course, the concept of gay marriage did not begin
the process of family disillusion and the destruction of marriage
in Scandinavia. Kurtz, whose report appears in the February 2 edition
of The Weekly Standard, explains that the recognition of gay marriage
has "widened the separation" between marriage and parenthood,
further undermining the institution of marriage. "Instead of
encouraging a society-wide return to marriage, Scandinavian gay
marriage has driven home the message that marriage itself is outdated,
and that virtually any family form, including out-of-wedlock parenthood,
is acceptable," he explains.
Just how bad is the situation in Scandinavia? A
recent study published by Harvard University Press indicates that
some young married couples in Scandinavian countries are reluctant
even to admit that they are married. Since the cultural expectation
is cohabitation, marriage has become something of an embarrassment
for the minority of young couples who have formalized their relationship
through either a secular contract or a sacred covenant. That represents
a moral transformation of awesome importance, for it represents
the reversal of millennia of moral wisdom.
Kurtz gets to the point quickly: "Scandinavian
marriage is now so weak that statistics on marriage and divorce
no longer mean what they used to." The fact is that divorce
rates are in a precipitous decline in Scandinavian nations. Does
that sound like good news? To the contrary--a couple must first
get married before they can divorce. By definition, the end of marriage
also means the end of divorce.
Throughout Scandinavia and much of Western Europe,
marriage and parenthood are being separated in both concept and
practice. Those who insist that marriage is a moral requirement
for the bearing of children are considered odd and out of date.
For the last twenty years or more, the trend has
been toward young couples cohabitating through the birth of their
children and staying together for at least several years after the
children are born. This is a marked distinction from the pattern
in the United States, where unmarried parents tend to be alone rather
than in any stable partnership with the other parent.
For this reason, divorce becomes a much less useful
category for understanding the health of family life. As Kurtz reports,
in Scandinavia "what counts is the out-of-wedlock birthrate,
and the family disillusion rate." Family disillusion is the
separation of birth parents after the birth of the child. "Because
so many Scandinavians now rear children outside of marriage,"
Kurtz explains, "divorce rates are unreliable measures of family
weakness. Instead we need to note the rate at which parents (married
or not) split up."
Those statistics are further evidence of the breakdown
of family life in Scandinavian countries. Without the moral, social,
and legal obligations of marriage, couples are free to separate
As a team of three respected Danish sociologists
explained, "Marriage is no longer a precondition for settling
a family--neither legally nor normatively.... What defines and makes
the foundation of the Danish family can be said to have moved from
marriage to parenthood." But, as a matter of social policy,
parenthood without marriage simply does not produce the kind of
stability necessary for the successful raising of children.
Scandinavia has been the center of cultural liberalism
in Europe for decades now. Soon after World War II, those nations
moved toward a general acceptance of the welfare state and the separation
of public morality from Christian roots. Some historians point to
the rather "thin" Christianity that marks many of the
Nordic countries. By any measure, Scandinavian cultures are far
more secularized than the other [largely secularized] nations of
Europe--but those other nations are catching up.
The dominance of secularism means the explicit rejection
of Christian morality and the loosening of all sexual morality.
Kurtz traces this pattern with a specific concern for the separation
of marriage and parenthood.
In his words, "In Sweden, as elsewhere, the
sixties brought contraception, abortion, and growing individualism.
Sex was separated from procreation, reducing the need for 'shotgun
weddings'. These changes, along with the movement of women into
the workforce, enabled and encouraged people to marry at later ages.
With married couples putting off parenthood, early divorce had fewer
consequences for children. That weakened the taboo against divorce.
Since young couples were putting off children, the next step was
to dispense with marriage and cohabit until children were desired."
Sound familiar? "Americans have lived through
this transformation," Kurtz acknowledges. "The Sweds have
finally drawn the final conclusion: If we've come so far without
marriage, why marry at all? Our love is what matters, not a piece
of paper. Why should children change that?" Someone had better
answer that question.
The question points to the most important social
value of marriage as it produces the context for the raising of
children and the perpetuation of the human race. For millennia,
humans have assumed that children need the stability, social legitimacy,
and moral nurture of married parents. Only in recent years has that
fundamental assumption been questioned--and the legitimization of
unmarried parenthood has been a social disaster of massive proportions.
The Scandinavian picture is, we must acknowledge,
somewhat different than the American model. Given the Scandinavian
dependence upon the welfare state, inter-generational and extended
family relationships are far less important to individual well being.
Since the government supplies a basic level of economic support,
young couples--including their children--do not require or expect
support from the extended family.
The welfare state comes with its own incredibly
high costs. Even as the Scandinavian economy is breaking under the
strain of excessively high taxation, the welfare state demands higher
and higher taxes in a never-ending cycle of dependency, spending,
and governmental growth.
Since parents must spend so much time in the workplace,
children spend a large amount of their time under the supervision
of governmental or quasi-governmental caregivers.
How does all this relate to gay marriage? Kurtz
demonstrates that the acceptance of gay marriage has accelerated
the separation of marriage and parenthood and the breakdown of family
stability. As he argues, "Gay marriage is both an effect and
a cause of the increasing seperation between marriage and parenthood."
This separation among heterosexuals has allowed gay marriage to
become a conceivable reality. "If marriage is only about a
relationship between two people, and is not intricately connected
to parenthood, why shouldn't same-sex couples be allowed to marry?"
Once gay marriage enters the picture, "That
change cannot help but lock in and reinforce the very cultural separation
between marriage and parenthood that makes gay marriage conceivable
to begin with."
Kurtz is careful to argue that gay marriage did
not emerge in a vacuum nor did it begin the breakdown of family
life in Scandinavia. Nevertheless, his research is a significant
counter to the arguments made by homosexual activists such as William
Ekridge, Jr. and Andrew Sullivan.
Once marriage is redefined to include same-sex relationships,
an already weakened institution is virtually dissolved into meaninglessness.
When marriage is reduced to one lifestyle option among others, it
can also be redefined to mean anything a society might consider
legitimate at any moment.
For nearly a half-century, the nations of Western
Europe and North America have been engaged in a massive process
of social experimentation. These societies have embraced an official
secularism and have accepted a worldview that amount to some form
of moral relativism. Once the most basic institutions of society
are delegitimated and reduced to mere options, a force as strong
as human sexuality breaks out from cultural confines and leads to
a radical acceleration of social change.
This is precisely what is being experienced even
now in the United States, with Massachusetts moving at lightening
speed towards homosexual marriage and other states poised to take
similar action. Homosexual activists are counting on this momentum
to be virtually unstoppable. Of course, their push for homosexual
marriage opens the flood gates for other experiments in human sexuality
and other demands for normalization.
Or as Kurtz warns, unless something unexpected changes
the picture, the Nordic present is America's future. The same process
of secularization is evident in America--though delayed by as much
as a decade from Scandinavia.
"Americans take it for granted that, despite
its recent troubles, marriage will always exist. This is a mistake,"
Kurtz asserts. The forces that lead to the dissolution of marriage
in Scandinavia are active in all Western cultures.
Americans who wonder what the acceptance of same-sex
marriage would mean for society do not have to turn or resort to
speculation--they can just look to Scandinavia. We will protect
and defend heterosexual marriage as our social norm, or we will
see marriage disappear all together.
See a summary of Stanley Kurtz's research at www.weeklystandard.com.