Does marriage have a future?

The slogan on the white t-shirts for kids is short and bittersweet.

The simple blue letters declare, "My daddy's name is Donor." You can buy a baby bib with the same proclamation.

For a self-proclaimed "marriage nut" like David Blankenhorn, it's hard to see this consumer product as a positive statement about modern family life.

Of course, America has been evolving for several decades after the cultural revolutions that changed how millions of people live together, break up, get married, get divorced, have children or some combination of all the above.

Thus, the president of the Institute for American Values keeps hearing this big question: "What is the future of marriage?" It's a logical question, since his most recent book is called "The Future of Marriage." There is no easy answer, however, other than stating the fact that elite opinion makers and academics are convinced that old-fashioned, especially religious, traditions about marriage are fading.

"The smart money says, 'Down the tubes,' " said Blankenhorn, speaking recently at Gordon College, an evangelical Protestant campus near Boston. "The big word is 'deinstitutionalization.' ... It's this notion of redefining marriage into just being a kind of Hallmark greeting card that says, 'We're in love, we have a commitment, oh special us.' That's what marriage is."

This trend can be seen in current definitions of "marriage" -- legal and otherwise. During his two years of research on the question, he ran into several breezy answers to the question, "What is marriage?"

For some people, it is a "unique expression of a private bond and profound love," while others prefer a ''private arrangement between parties committed to love.'' If that doesn't work, try a ''specific relationship of love and dedication to another person" or even ''committed, interdependent partnerships between consenting adults.''

The highest court in Massachusetts, in its majority opinion in 2003 backing gay marriage, strategically called marriage the "exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other" offering "love and mutual support."

This last variation on the theme is crucial, because debates about the future of marriage are now -- like it or not -- part of our culture's bitter conflicts about the legal rights of gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Meanwhile, divorce rates remain high and millions of children are being raised in single-parent homes.

Blankenhorn consistently identifies himself as a Christian and as a political liberal who supports what he calls the "equal dignity of homosexual love" and of gay relationships. In an interview with the conservative magazine World, he bluntly said: "I know that many Christians believe that any sex other than sex between married spouses is wrong. I respect that view, but I do not share it."

However, Blankenhorn also argues that all attempts to define marriage as a vague, private, self-defined relationship will inevitably weaken an institution that -- across a wide range of cultures and faiths -- has emphasized the importance of children being raised by their natural fathers and mothers. Thus, he stressed, marriage has always had a civic and even legal dimension.

Contemporary definitions of "marriage" also strive to avoid two crucial words.

The first, Blankenhorn noted, is "S-E-X. Heat. Lust. Passion. Bodies entangled. Sex, behind closed doors in the bedroom. You know, because in the whole history of the world everybody -- up until about three minutes ago -- has always acknowledged that marriage is the social recognition of a sexual relationship that involves sex."

The second missing word is "children." Anyone who studies history and anthropology, he said, would quickly conclude that discussing marriage without mentioning children would be like having a "long discussion about General Motors and nobody mentioning cars."

But today, individual adults are convinced that marriage is all about them and that this means that they should be able to make their own rules. Thus, the key question is whether Americans believe that the individual couple is bigger than the institution of marriage or that "the marriage is bigger than the couple," said Blankenhorn.

"We have completely forgotten this idea that maybe there is something transcendent, maybe there is something bigger than us that shapes us," he said. "Maybe the vow shapes us. Maybe we don't simply come up with the vow ourselves and say, 'Here's our marriage -- wonderful sexy us.' No, there is something bigger than us that tells us what to be and that big something else is marriage."