The Future of Our Society Depends on the Health of Traditional Marriage
The most interesting—and revealing—comments on this week’s posts have been those that said marriage is simply whatever sort of interpersonal relationship consenting adults—be they two or 10 in number—want it to be; sexual or platonic, sexually exclusive or open, temporary or permanent.
That idea sounds like the abolition of marriage. Marriage is left with no essential features, no fixed core as a social reality—it is simply whatever consenting adults want it to be.
If so, how can redefining marriage for public purposes to include same-sex relationships be a demand of justice? A matter of basic fairness and equality? From the wide variety of interpersonal consensual relationships that adults can form, why should the state pick out same-sex ones?
Indeed, some of those who posted comments saw this logic, and thinking that marriage has no form and serves no social purpose, they concluded that the government should get out of the marriage business.
If so, how will society protect the needs of children—the prime victim of our non-marital sexual culture—without government growing more intrusive and more expensive?
Marriage benefits everyone, because separating the bearing and rearing of children from marriage burdens innocent bystanders: not just children, but the whole community. It’s the community that often must step in to provide (more or less directly) for their wellbeing and upbringing. A child born and raised outside marriage is six times more likely to experience poverty than a child in an intact family—and therefore welfare expenditures grow. So by encouraging the norms of marriage—monogamy, sexual exclusivity and permanence—the state strengthens civil society and reduces its own role.
But marital norms make no sense—as matters of principle—if marriage is redefined. There is no reason of principle why emotional union should be permanent. Or limited to two persons, rather than larger ensembles. Or sexual, much less sexually exclusive. Or inherently oriented to family life and shaped by its demands.
If marriage isn’t founded on a comprehensive union made possible by the sexual complementarity of a man and a woman, then why can’t it occur among more than two people? If marital union isn’t founded on such sexual acts, then why ought it be sexually exclusive? If marriage isn’t a comprehensive union and has no intrinsic connection to children, then why ought it be permanent?
This isn’t to say that couples couldn’t decide to live out these norms where temperament or taste so motivated them; but that there is no reason of principle to demand it of them. So legally enshrining this alternate view of marriage would undermine the norms whose link to the common good justifies state action in the first place.
This highlights the central questions in this debate: what marriage is and why the state recognizes it. It’s not that the state shouldn’t achieve its basic purpose while obscuring what marriage is. Rather, itcan’t. Only when policy gets the nature of marriage right do we reap the civil society benefits of recognizing marriage.
The future of our country, then, relies upon the future of marriage. The future of marriage depends on citizens’ understanding of what it is and why it matters—and demanding that government policies support, not undermine, true marriage.