Saturday, November 25, 2006

A. Carlson, The Real Purposes of Marriage


How odd! Here, in the early years of the 21st Century, a massive public debate proceeds about marriage. On November 7, the citizens of Wisconsin—like the voters in half a dozen other states—will vote on a Marriage Protection Amendment. Shall your constitution affirm “that only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state and that a legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state?” That’s a mouthful, to be sure. And for many it raises the questions: Why now? Why is this an issue in 2006?

These questions are amplified by signs suggesting that conventional marriage is—in fact—in decline. Just two weeks ago, the American media fixated on a new Census Bureau report showing that “married couple households” had, for the first time in our history, fallen below 50 percent of all households. Choosing a related number, the U.S. marriage rate has fallen by 50 percent since 1960. The proportion of American women ages 25-29 who have never married, about eight percent in 1960, reached 40 percent in 2002, a five-fold increase. Cohabitation and living alone are the growing lifestyles.

Indeed, we seem to be caught in a civilization wide shift. Recently, two European legal scholars—looking at both Europe and America—concluded that legal structures dealing with marriage that had been “fairly stable over several centuries have quite suddenly crumbled.” Where “marriage used to be for life,” an exit through divorce has now become easy and unilateral. The legal role of marriage in conferring legitimacy on children has also been swept away. Informal partnerships have gained a rough legal equality with traditional marriage. “[E]ven one of the last remnants of traditional family law, the requirement that spouses and parents be of different gender, has come under siege,” with some nations—and states—now extending “marriage-like rights to same gender couples.” As the authors conclude: “The principles that uncontestedly dominated family law for hundreds of years have been turned topsy-turvy.”

The foes of Wisconsin’s Marriage Protection Amendment would probably agree with this analysis. The times are changing, they might say. New lifestyles are emerging. Marriage itself is changing. Smart people go with the flow.

How should we respond? It is often true, for example, that those who “go with the flow” crash on the rocks downstream. However, I don’t want to go with that metaphor. Rather, I believe we should welcome the challenge posed by advocates for “same-sex marriage.” All Americans—here in Wisconsin, in my home state of Illinois, and in the other 48 states as well—all Americans had grown complacent and pleasantly confused over the last 40 years about the meaning of marriage. With little thought or debate, we had let this vital cultural and legal institution decay. The “same-sex marriage” debate woke us up; it has clarified the issues at stake; and it raises the vital question: Just what is marriage for? I have five answers:

First and foremost, marriage is about the procreation and rearing of children. Our era—the early 21st Century—is not the first time that marriage has been challenged in Western history. Over 200 years ago, for example, the Jacobins of the French Revolution also sought to tear down traditional marriage. They argued, just like social revolutionaries now, for a “freedom to marry” tied to easy divorce.

A great champion of marriage rose in response: Louis de Bonald. He began by clarifying “that marriage,…at bottom, has always been a civil, religious, and physical act at once.” Marriage drew the attention of public authorities because it was “the founding act of domestic society, whose interests should be guaranteed by civil authority.” However, this new domestic society did not rest on the needs or desires of spouses. As Bonald wrote: “the end of marriage is…not the happiness of the spouses, if by happiness one understands an idyllic pleasure of the heart and senses.” Rather:

[T]he end of marriage is the reproductive and, above all, the conservation of man, since this conservation cannot, in general, take place outside of marriage, or without marriage.

By “conservation,” Bonald meant the care, nurturing, education, and protection of children, which he believed could occur only in the married-couple home.

Again, Bonald insisted that if pleasure or happiness was the goal of marriage, then government had no business being involved. Instead:

[P]olitical power only intervenes in the spouses’ contract of union because it represents the unborn child, which is the sole object of marriage, and because it accepts the commitment made by the spouses in its presence and under its guarantee to bring that child into being.

Put another way, a marriage “is truly a contract between three persons, two of whom are present, one of whom (the [potential] child) is absent, but is represented by public power, guarantor of the commitment made by the two spouses to form a society.”

Bonald also explained why the marriage of a man and a woman who proved infertile, who were unable to create a child, remained valid. Many of the French Revolution’s leaders worried about the size of the French population, for they wanted more children to serve as soldiers in future wars. And so, they called for easy divorce in cases of failed fertility so that new pairings of men and women might be tried to produce the needed children. Bonald replied:

[W]hatever importance may be attached to population by these great depopulators of the universe; they would doubtless not dare to maintain that in human marriages one should, as on stud farms, proceed by trial.[1]

Simply put, the government should not be in the business of fertility testing. Rather, it should accept the potential fertility of all male-female bonds and acknowledge the powerful positive effects on the wellbeing of children of growing up with their two natural parents.

On the same point, and much closer to our time, Valparaiso University Law Professor Richard Stith asks a pointed question: Why do truly democratic governments leave most forms of friendship free and unregulated, while continuing to register and legally burden heterosexual unions? Stith replies:

Everyone knows the answer: Sexual relations between women and men may generate children, beings at once highly vulnerable and essential for the future of every community….Lasting marriage receives public [recognition and support]… because it helps to produce human beings able to practice ordered liberty.[2]

In short, the state registers and regulates heterosexual unions for the sake of the children, real or potential. All other forms of friendship are left unregistered and unregulated, for the sake of liberty.

The second purpose of marriage is to renew concentric rings of community: extended family or kin; neighborhoods; and faith communities. Marriage is not just about the love affair of two individuals. Through a wedding, two extended families merge in a manner that perpetuates and invigorates both, extending the great chain of being, binding the living to their ancestors and to their posterity. Still in our day, family members will travel great distances to attend the wedding of a nephew, a niece, or a cousin, acknowledging the importance of the event to their own identity and continuity. As the great pro-family President Theodore Roosevelt once wrote, a people existed only as its…

sons and daughters think of life not as something concerned only with the selfish evanescence of the individual, but as a link in the great chain of creation and causation [forged by] the vital duties and the high happiness of family life.[3]

Poets also remind us that marriage is more than a bond between two people. I think particularly of the Kentuckian Wendell Berry, who underscores that marriage exists to bind the couple as “parents to children, families to the community, the community to nature.” The new bride and groom “say their vows to the community as much as to one another, and the community gathers around them to hear and to wish them well, on their behalf and on its own.” The very health and future of the community in question depends on the successful endurance of these vows. As Berry explains, they bind the lovers to each other, “to forebears, to descendants,… to Heaven and earth.” Marriage is “the fundamental connection without which nothing holds.”[4] Even the touch of one married lover to another:


persuades us what we are:
one another’s and many others’….
How strange to think of children
yet to come, into whose making we will be made….[5]

Berry insists that sexual love, mediated through marriage, “is the heart of community life,” the force connecting persons to the Creation and to the earth’s abundance and fertility. Using a favorite metaphor, Berry says that marriage “brings us into the dance that holds the community together and joins it to its place.” As he writes in another poem:

Come into the dance of the community, joined

in a circle, hand in hand, the dance of the eternal love of women and men for one another

and of neighbors and friends for one another.[6]

The third purpose of marriage is to bind together the sexual and the economic, which is the bond that creates a home. I underscore that these are scientific statements, not personal opinion. As the anthropologist Edward Westermarck explained over 100 years ago: “Among the…[primitive], as well as the most civilized races of men, we find the family consisting of parents and children, with the father as its protector.” Holding this universal family system together was marriage, which combined “a regulated sexual relation” with “economic obligations.” In Westermarck’s view, distinct maternal, paternal, and marital instincts all existed, each rooted in human nature.[7] In his great anthropological survey of 1949, George Murdoch discovered that “the nuclear family is the universal human social grouping.” Moreover, he said, “[a]ll known human societies have developed specialization and cooperation between the sexes roughly along this biologically determined line of cleavage.” Murdoch concluded:

[M]arriage exists only when the economic and the sexual are united into one relationship, and this combination only occurs in marriage. Marriage, thus defined, is found in every known human society.[8]

Such statements about human nature and marriage should come as no surprise to Christians, Jews, or Muslims. All three faiths accept Genesis, Chapters 1 and 2, where marriage is cast as a never-changing aspect of God’s creation, fixed from the beginning.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth”… Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh.[9]

Here we see marriage affirmed as both heterosexual (“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”) and economic (the passages regarding “subdue” and “have dominion”). In its discussion of marriage, it might even be said that Genesis agrees with the anthropologists Westermarck and Murdock.

Indeed, more recent research by paleo-anthropologists—scientists who study the social life of pre-historic humans—further affirms that what we call traditional marriage lies at the foundation of human nature. Notably, C. Owen Lovejoy of Kent State University shows in an article for Science magazine that “being human” means “being married.” On the basis of extensive field research, he finds “the unique sexual and reproductive behavior of man”—not growth of the brain—to be the key to human origin. The human “nuclear family” is not a modern development. Rather, the scientific evidence shows that the pairing-off of male and female human ancestors into something very like traditional marriage reaches back over three million years, to the time when our purported ancestors left the trees on the African savannah and started walking on two legs. As Lovejoy concludes:

[B]oth advances in material culture and the Pleistocene acceleration in brain development [follow after] an already established hominid character system, which included intensified parenting and social relationships, monogamous pair bonding, specialized sexual-reproductive behavior, and bi-pedality. [This model] implies that the nuclear family and human sexual behavior may have their ultimate origin long before the dawn of the Pleistocene [era, two million years ago].[10]

It would be going too far to say that modern science and the Book of Genesis have fully converged. Significant disputes remain over key issues such as timing. However, it would be fair to say that modern science agrees with Genesis that humankind—from our very origin as unique creatures on earth—has been defined by heterosexual monogamy involving long-term pair bonding and resting on the special bond of the sexual and the economic: all big words, simply meaning marriage. Put in contemporary political terms, those who defend traditional marriage today have both religion and science on their side.

The fourth purpose of marriage is Standing for Liberty. Said another way, marriage is political. This is true in a narrow sense, such as the finding reported in Business Week that women are more likely to vote Democratic after a divorce and more likely to vote Republican after a marriage.

I am more interested in marriage as “political” in the broad sense. It is no coincidence that the architects of every major political tyranny—from the Jacobins of the French Revolution to the Bolsheviks of the Russian Revolution to the Nazis of Germany’s would-be Racial Revolution to the Maoists of the Chinese Revolution—all targeted marriage for destruction. All tyrants recognize that the family based in marriage is their most vigorous foe, the primary obstacle to their quest for total power.

The great English journalist G.K. Chesterton has said it well. He identifies the family to be a “triangle of truisms, of father, mother and child,” an “ancient” institution that pre-exists the state, one that “cannot be destroyed; it can only destroy those civilizations which disregard it.” Chesterton writes that this “small state founded on the sexes is at once the most voluntary and the most natural of all self-governing states.” He underscores how all modern governments—not just the open tyrannies—seek to separate or isolate individuals from their families, the better to govern them; to divide in order to weaken. Yet the family is self-renewing, an expression of human nature which builds on the bond of marriage. As Chesterton concludes:

The ideal for which [marriage] stands in the state is liberty. It stands for liberty for the very simple reason…[that] it is the only…institution that is at once necessary and voluntary. It is the only check on that state that is bound to renew itself as eternally as the state, and more naturally than the state….This is the only way in which truth can ever find refuge from public persecution and the good man survive the bad government.[11]

The famous French visitor to America in the 1830’s, Alexis de Tocqueville, emphasized how America’s unique balance between liberty and order depended on marriage, rightly understood:

There is certainly no country in the world where the tie of marriage is more respected than in America, or where conjugal happiness is more highly or worthily appreciated….While the European endeavors to forget his domestic troubles by agitating society, the American derives from his own home that love of order which he afterwards carries with him into public affairs.[12]

As the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in its 1888 decision in the case Maynard v. Hill, marriage is “something more than a mere contract”; it is “an institution, in the maintenance of which in its purity the public is deeply interested, for it is the foundation of the family and of society.”

Alas, our state and Federal court systems have—in recent decades—been far less reliable in the defense of marriage as a vital American institution. This is why marriage amendments have become necessary at both the state and local level. However, America’s culture of marriage survives today in another, much more-unexpected place: Hollywood. What do the following popular films have in common: My Big Fat Greek Wedding; Maid in Manhattan; Sweet Home Alabama; Kate and Leopold; Notting Hill; Runaway Bride; You’ve Got Mail; Pretty Woman; Sleepless in Seattle; The Prince and Me; and The Lake House? My daughters call them “chick flicks.” A better label might be “marriage flicks,” for all of them cast marriage as the great, satisfying, and truly fulfilling event in a woman’s life…and in a man’s, as well. None of these films, let alone the whole genre, could have been made in cynical, libertine, post-marriage Western Europe. The Europeans do not believe in Cinderella or in the promise of marriage anymore; Americans still do. These films are distinctly our own; signs of a still vital cultural yearning for marriage and home.

Allow me to summarize. The purposes of civil marriage are:

• To promote the procreation and optimal nurture of children;

To renew the concentric rings of community: extended families; neighborhoods; and faith communities;

To bind together the sexual and the economic, in order to create stable homes;

To oppose tyranny and to stand for liberty;

And to shape and renew the nation, and specifically these United States.

The Marriage Protection Amendment, on which you will soon vote, protects and advances all of these goals simultaneously. This is not, I underscore, just another political issue, where the outcome matters little. Rejecting political distortions, you stand here in defense of truth, both religious and scientific. Moreover, the protection of children, the future of communities, the stability of homes, the defense of liberty, and the long term health of this great state and nation are all at stake in this debate.

The Family Research Institute of Wisconsin understands this larger picture. It has shown wisdom and courage in advancing this Amendment. FRI has faced the occasional slanders and slurs of the Amendment’s foes with dignity, responding not in kind but with the truth, openly told. Criticisms of the Amendment range from the misleading to the irrelevant to the absurd (my favorite example of the latter is the bogus charge that this Amendment would prevent some people from hunting deer on family-owned land). FRI has patiently replied, always pointing to the real issue, above all the need to do the very best we can for children. Please give this fine organization your every support.


[1] Louis de Bonald, On Divorce [1801], trans. and ed. by Nicholas Davidson (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1992): 36-37, 63-64, 175.

[2] Richard Stith, “Keep Friendship Unregulated,” The Cresset (Easter 2003): 47-49.

[3] Theodore Roosevelt, The Works of Theodore Roosevelt: Memorial Edition, Vol. XXI (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1924): 263.

[4] Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (New York and San Francisco: Pantheon Books, 1992, 1993): 120-21, 133, 139.

[5] Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997 (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1998): 99.

[6] Wendell Berry, Entries: Poems (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1997): 40.

[7] Edward Westermarck, The History of Human Marriage: 5th Edition (London: Macmillan, 1925): 26-37, 69-72.

[8] George Peter Murdock, Social Structure (New York: The Free Press, 1965 [1949]: 1-8.

[9] Genesis 1:27-28; 2:24 (Revised Standard Version).

[10] C. Owen Lovejoy, “The Origin of Man,” Science 211 (Jan. 23, 1981): 348.

[11] G.K. Chesterton , Collected Works: Vol. IV: Family, Society, Politics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987): 256.

[12] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Book Three, Chapter XI.

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