Why Is It So Difficult to Discuss Marriage?

 
 

Redefining marriage will bring profound and perhaps unintended consequences for the ways in which we think of ourselves as men and women, and for the kind of society we live in. Adapted from the Foreword to The Meaning of Marriage (2006).

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This book addresses a difficult issue, the status of the institution of marriage in twenty-first-century America. Unfortunately, the topic has entered our public life at a time when the terms of our public discourse seem poorly equipped to engage in a serious and nuanced discussion concerning the nature and purpose of marriage in American (or any other) society. The political and legal maneuvers leading to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in the spring of 2004 forced the marriage debate into American public discourse in a broader and more divisive way than in previous decades. The polarized, “rights monist,” and oftentimes over-moralized tone of American public discourse has made it difficult for intellectuals, scholars, and policymakers to model for the wider public a reasoned inquiry into the nature and purpose of marriage. At times, intellectuals seem to push for, or endorse, a breakdown of the very discourse that would enable Americans to consider this topic in all its depth and importance—as controversial and even painful as that might be.

Why is it so difficult to discuss marriage? One reason, of course, is that we all have a stake in the debate and its outcome. No one is left untouched by marriage, including those who never marry, because marriage is such a pervasive institution in our society. One recent estimate indicates that 88 percent of women and 82 percent of men will marry at some point.

Beyond that, the problem lies in a hardening of the categories of debate. I noted “rights monism” above. This stance is one that conducts public debate exclusively in a narrow language of rights and celebrates an individualistic notion of “choice.” The distinguished sociologist Robert Bellah, along with his colleagues, pointed out in the 1988 bestselling book Habits of the Heart that Americans have lost ways of talking about their commitments and what gives their lives meaning, except in and through a subjective kind of rights-talk. Other “languages” central to the American political tradition—civic republicanism or a rich scripturally-inspired language (here all one need do is read Abraham Lincoln’s great speeches)—have faded as rights-talk has triumphed.

This way of thinking and speaking tilts the debate from the outset. The benefits and burdens of traditional social relationships can be re-described only imperfectly in the language of individual choice. Therefore, anyone with doubts about same-sex marriage is often seen as “anti-choice,” or even bigoted, by those who uncritically adopt the contemporary terminology of the debate. Matters frequently stall out there.

Suffice it to say, there is much lacking in current debates over marriage. This book is one attempt to remedy the problem. An underlying presupposition for the essayists featured here—who range from moderate liberals to traditional conservatives—is that if we alter the institution of marriage as it is understood in our laws, there will be profound and perhaps unintended consequences for the ways in which we think of ourselves as men and women, and for the kind of society we live in. It will have consequences for what we think of the families to which we belong, what we think of how we should organize our lives as individuals and citizens, and what kind of citizens we attempt to cultivate. It will affect quite profoundly whether we continue our long tradition of supporting mothers and their children.

Given the importance of marriage as an institution for individuals and for society, the thoughtful citizen has every reason to expect, and even demand, a deep and thoughtful debate as the precondition for any change in how we understand marriage and encourage it to take shape. 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.

When one looks back on the debates that took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s over changing the divorce laws of this country—leading to the wide-scale institutionalization of no-fault divorce—there was much debate about the rights of women stuck in unhappy marriages. There were few serious discussions about what effects no-fault divorce would have on the institution of marriage; how social perception of marriage as a normative institution would subsequently change; how its purpose in society might be altered; what historical and philosophical roots anchored the movement; what effect widespread no-fault divorce might have on how we raise children and prepare them to become responsible citizens. Certainly people did not consider the negative impact no-fault divorce would have on women themselves!

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.

The case of no-fault divorce reminds us of the effect that laws regulating marriage may have. At the very least, it shows that just the act of considering such changes says something profound about a society’s fundamental commitments and values. Responsible social scientists and political theorists always caution that major social change—and same-sex marriage involves something more basic than no-fault divorce—always trails negative unintended consequences in its wake. If there are any constants or laws in political science, this is one. It follows that this recognition, for which there is a mountain of compelling evidence, should caution us to move with great care if we aim to alter the fundamental human institution that has always been the groundwork of social life.

Of course, our sense of “who” counts as family does change with the times—are big extended families the norm, or narrower, nuclear families? Some point to this variability as though it signals that marriage and the family are infinitely flexible and contingent. Not so.

Marriage has always involved men and women and this has served as a prima facie fact of the matter. Are we prepared to jettison this? Are we that wise and well-informed? Again, these are the questions we should be debating; unfortunately, we are not. Or, at least, those who do raise such issues in this debate have been shoved into the background by all the shouting.

Throughout human history societies have created many laws, customs, and institutions that have influenced the institution of marriage and the family, in ways planned and unplanned; but the overall social aim has always been to secure a safe place to rear children and establish an institution that helps to “moralize”—without necessarily being moralistic—human sexual behavior. (Marriage, in particular, should check male tendencies to wander, argued such prominent social theorists as Jane Addams. It was the women who should insist on a settled abode, she claimed.)

Although the matter wasn’t researched in a social scientific way for centuries, there has long been a shared recognition that a child’s formative years, and his or her sense of male and female mutuality, integrity, and endurance, exercises a profound effect on what sort of adult he or she becomes. Fundamental disruptions in the home invite disrupted lives across the board.

While nearly all of the essayists in this volume draw upon the disciplines of sociology, history, and economics, social science alone is not enough to discuss—and ultimately to understand—the phenomenon of marriage. These essayists also consider marriage from the perspectives of political theory, jurisprudence, and philosophy in order to clarify the nature and purposes of marriage as an institution.

Perhaps most importantly, the authors examine marriage in a context larger than the immediate same-sex marriage debates. This broader perspective helps us appreciate that debates about same-sex marriage are not mere moralistic disputes over an isolated practice. Rather, we should be considering questions about marriage’s place within a delicate and dynamic web of social relationships, no one of which can be revolutionized without altering the others.

Although the essayists believe marriage’s difficulties are linked to the institutionalization of same-sex unions, they do not lay blame with advocates of same-sex marriage. They acknowledge that well before the rise of the same-sex marriage debates, marriage as an institution was already under siege in American life and that children, alas, often paid the price. They recognize that on the legal, historical, philosophical, and economic fronts, the problems of marriage run much deeper than today’s headlines.

I shall end with a personal reminiscence. In the summer of 2005 I was one of four speakers debating—in a friendly way and to a learned and (it must be said) relatively affluent audience over the course of a week—the role of religion in public life in America. One of the speakers stated his own doubts about same-sex marriage and lamented the fact that we were not having the sort of debate about marriage as an institution we ought to be having. To my astonishment, he was booed by this respectable and mannered assembly. The hoots echoed across the audience.

This left me, although I wasn’t the target myself, with a rather bad taste in my mouth and a genuine sadness about the inability of such well-educated people, who are influential and accomplished in their fields of endeavor, to acknowledge the need for such a debate. Maybe it is too late and we shall never have this much needed discussion. But perhaps not. If not, this volume will make a contribution to a discussion on a higher order of intellectual rigor and specificity than we have had thus far. 

Jean Bethke Elshtain was, until her death earlier this week, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago, a Senior Fellow of the Witherspoon Institute, and a founding editorial board member of Public Discourse.

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