A few weeks back I put forward the idea that millennials--the generation who appear ready to heave marriage overboard--will actually save marriage. Admittedly, the assessment is one made on the ragged edge where belief and hope collide. I believe we can do it, and I hope we will.
One of my friends was less than enthused by my assertion that marriage has already been redefined in the public mind to now mean solely “love and commitment.” If that anemic vision of marriage is all that’s left, “Why save it? Why not let it die?” he asked. Those are fair and honest questions.
In his recent conversion to supporting the legal redefinition of marriage, Catholic thinker Jody Buttom similarly asked, “If heterosexual monogamy so lacks the old, enchanted metaphysical foundation that it can end in quick and painless divorce, then what principle allows a refusal of marriage to gays on the grounds of a metaphysical notion like the difference between men and women?”
Let me put that in midwestern parlance: If the cob has rotted, why fight over the husk?
As I wrote in my first foray, “what we are talking about is the weakening of a marriage culture and all the collateral damage that entails...what we’re countenancing in redefining marriage is the deliberate exacerbation of these trends—the creation of intentionally fatherless or motherless households.”
Even as we struggle to restore a cultural understanding of marriage that goes deeper than “love and commitment”, we dare not hold our tongues when the form of marriage (one man and one woman) is assailed. We might point to the law’s role as a teacher; will we sit by when, as Andrew Walker recently put it, the law enshrines a fiction? We might point to the church’s role as the conscience of the state, and that the proper role of government isn’t to redefine reality. But while the political and philosophical wars rage, there are the children who may become a casualty of social policy. And this, as a young father, weighs heavily on my mind.
The social science research on the benefits reaped by children raised in homes headed by their married, biological parents is overwhelming. No other family structure competes. Many children, for a host of reasons, will never have this advantage. But are we sure we want to institutionalize disadvantage? For that is almost certainly what we did with no-fault divorce.
Recalling the ways that our last tinkering with divorce law changed society, the late Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote,
“One need only reflect on previous alterations in the regulation of marriage in order to understand that changes in marriage law have consequences that intellectuals, politicians, and citizens alike should think through thoroughly before endorsing…
But we have now learned that divorce is strongly associated with the immiseration of women: studies indicate, for example, that between one-fifth and one-third of women fall into poverty in the wake of a divorce. At the time, there were a few who argued that no-fault divorce would have significant social repercussions, but the ensuing highly-charged debate, again narrowly cast in terms of individual rights, muted their voices. Any opposition was construed as anti-feminist, despite the fact that many of the concerns expressed were precisely about the well-being of women who faced divorce.”
If we don’t think that children are the ultimate losers in the effort to tinker with the legal definition of marriage, we are fooling ourselves. And so while it is true that our vision of what marriage is has been decimated by no-fault divorce (undermining life-long commitment), the sexual revolution (undermining monogamy and fidelity), and now the dissolution of sex differences in marriage, the only way forward is to stand firmly on all three of these fronts. I should say too, that even when our cultural understanding of the meaning of marriage is lacking, children and communities still benefit from the married union of a man and a woman. In some cases, we can think the wrong things about marriage and still do the right things, both accruing and conferring the benefits of marriage. Charles Murray has observed the phenomenon that elites may advocate for marriage’s redefinition, and yet behave in their own marriages like traditionalists. The result of not preaching what you practice, however, has been that many Americans who can least afford not to marry, aren’t.
That we may appear to be selectively fighting for the “form” of marriage (man and woman) due to its public nature, while neglecting the “substance” (fidelity, monogamy, openness to children) due to the largely private nature of this work is what my father might call “the breaks”. It’s simply a reality we must account for while we continue to do the next right thing. But for those good faith interlocutors--and if the comment thread on my last post is an indicator, they’re out there--a simple tally of the budgets of Christian ministries dedicated to strengthening families compared with those explicitly seeking to influence public policy on marriage would dispel the idea that we’re only concerned with the form of marriage fairly quickly.
To my friend who asked “why not let it die?” I’ll borrow a line from Miracle Max: “There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.” We can affirm love and commitment, the “why” of marriage as Josh Bishop recently put it, while working to restore a deeper understanding of marriage and reviving a marriage culture. In fact, we mean to.Media: