My wife and I recently celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Planning how we would mark the occasion was left to my discretion. Maybe I should have taken her on a vacation—a second honeymoon of sorts. Instead, I planned a gathering of a few dozen friends at our house. Perhaps I’m cheap, but one of the key reasons I did so is that I think of our marriage as a public thing, even if few people actually know the inner workings of our marital life.
Our marriage is an entity with ramifications and consequences that echo outside our home. The same is true in reverse: what happens in other marriages can affect ours. A marriage needs friends, and it can likewise supply friendship to others’ unions.
It matters profoundly whether a society understands marriage as a public concern or merely a private matter. Yet few Christians spend much time thinking about whether marriage is fundamentally public or private. Young adult Christians tend to consider marriage a private matter (with some public manifestations). The wedding is a public event, but the marriage itself is considered nobody’s business. Decisions to divorce are private, though they entail public legal filings, and declarations, social shifts in relationship status, the creation of distinct households, etc. Westerners in general tend to minimize these public aspects of divorce, expecting little to no objection from others. Most do not share the perspective of Jessica—a thirty-one-year-old engaged Catholic from Austin—who imagines marriage as creating circles that ripple out “to the extended family, to the community, to the nation, and to the entire society.”
But that is exactly what marriage does—it creates concentric circles by building families, connecting generations, and forming friendships. Yana, a twenty-seven-year-old Orthodox who lives in Moscow and is married to an atheist, similarly characterizes marriage as a public phenomenon. She likens it to “a small reactor, a small power plant that produces more than enough energy to illuminate and warm itself.” She continues: “I love it very much when a family is set so well that this resource, this heat that is inside, is also enough to bring it out, share with loved ones, distant relatives, at work, in the subway, in the street, in a shop.” Yana’s reactor metaphor is clever. But consider also what can happen inside a reactor if it is not maintained: a ruptured core and explosion that can contaminate everything around it.
Divorce severs far more than a solitary marriage, even if the union has yielded no children. In-laws are commonly cut off from an ex-spouse, and friends often wind up forced to pick sides. (I refer to divorce as “the gift that keeps on taking.”) Both marriage and divorce have extensive social ramifications in others’ lives.
Civil versus Christian Marriage
Confusion about the public aspects of marriage has led some Christians to support civil (but not religious) same-sex marriage. For Thomas, a thirty-year-old married Catholic telecommunications manager from Austin, civil marriage is simply “a contract to live together and reap benefits from the state.” He’s content with extending the benefits to alternative arrangements: “Basically, any two people can get married, which is fine, because you turn it into a contract.”
This understanding enables Thomas to ignore much of the conflict between modern civil marriage and his faith’s sacramental understanding of the union. “So kind of my argument is to get the government out of the marriage business,” he explained, “and have it just be the church.” (Never mind that this doesn’t account for the “contract” he just endorsed, which some entity must regulate). Thomas’s idea allows him to operate at ease in a world where marriage is thought of as socially constructed—a moving target, malleable.
Thomas acknowledges that his coworkers would quibble with his distinction between what they consider marriage and the sacrament he considers “real marriage.” But the tension is seldom, if ever, recognized or addressed. This quiet enables him to acquiesce to whatever civil marriage definition holds, while retaining a religious definition in his heart. To fight over it is pointless, he figures, since “the Supreme Court has determined we’re going to call it marriage, and that’s what it’s going to be.” Thomas knows that some other Christians are more perturbed about the matter than he is, but he finds a disinterested stance more reasonable: “I mean, the Church is actively fighting it, I guess, but I think it’s futile, because it doesn’t matter what the law says. Ultimately the Church hasn’t changed.”
The law, however, is a very effective teacher. It matters that American marriage law now teaches none of the core and supporting expectations of marriage. Thomas is right about one thing: marriage has been reduced to a symbol and set of benefits. He’s mistaken about another—that it doesn’t matter.
Who “Owns” Marriage?
In the 2018 Post-Midterm Election Study survey, two out of every three Americans—but far more among the most religious—disagreed with the statement, “Marriage is an outdated institution.” There remains wide goodwill toward marriage. This raises a pair of questions that few ever consider: Are the irreligious doing something different from Christians when they get married? Who retains oversight of marriage in general—and what does that even mean?
The late University of Chicago ethicist Don Browning wrote that the Protestant Reformation “made marriage a public institution but one that could be blessed by religious institutions.” Most agree with Browning that this was a game-changer for religious oversight of marriage, though it didn’t often alter how marriages functioned. The magisterial Reformers (like Luther and Calvin) tended to argue that marriage was not a sacrament but was ordained by God. To them, marriage was not a “natural institution” made sacramental by the Church’s elevation of it, but a human institution—and hence subject to the jurisdiction of civil authority that was itself somehow answerable to divine law and principle. With this, marriage comes to be understood widely as a contract, because contracts are what civil authorities adjudicate. In other words, the Reformation politicizes marriage.
Church and state would thereafter compete as authorities over marriage law. In hindsight, it is a remarkable concession—to give a secular institution authority over what includes moral questions involving sexual expression, childrearing, and the care of family members. In Calvin’s Geneva, it may not have seemed like such a large leap from the church to the city council. It does today.
Historically, Christian marriage in the United States has been widely thought of as a spiritual dimension added to an earthly reality that is typically (but not always or entirely) adjudicated on secular terms. In his book Christian Marriage, conservative Presbyterian sociologist David Ayers notes that for the first sixty-five years in New England, Puritan ministers in the colonies were forbidden to perform marriages. That role was reserved for civil magistrates. Moreover, according to the late Harvard sociologist Carle Zimmerman, “courtship, bundling, precontracts, marriage, adultery, and behavior of children were all subjects of lawmaking” in seventeenth-century New England. And it was not until 1733 that all ministers were enabled to perform wedding ceremonies.
The result is a blend of authority—more secular than religious—with individual pastors or committees becoming arbiters of acceptable marital practices in their organizations and congregations. Their attempts to adjudicate and enforce their own rules about divorce and remarriage, however, are hamstrung by the ease with which disgruntled or “disciplined” members can simply change churches.
Christians Can’t Be Libertarians on Marriage
Geoff, a twenty-four-year-old Baptist from Austin, differs from Thomas in his opinion about state involvement in marriage. The state, he holds, has too much invested in the positive by-products of marriage to just step out of the way now:
I think the government should care about marriage because of economic reasons, because of societal reasons, because when you have a society where marriages are flourishing, you’re inevitably going to have a society that is flourishing in other areas. . . . People who are married earn more, and they perform better in their work. They live longer. They build families and reproduce, which carries on the society and makes society more stable. So government should care about marriage.
Christians like Geoff will continue to dispute social change in civil marriage forms, while others, like Thomas, will take the libertarian route, pressing for the state to get “out of the marriage business.” An identical pattern has already emerged, or else will soon, in many other countries where there is comparable divergence between civil and religious marriage and a similar perspective on marriage as a primarily private matter.
But libertarianism is not viable on this count. We can learn this from the natural experiment of the Soviet sexual revolution, which took place in the 1920s. It was undergirded by an explicitly libertarian approach to marriage. The Soviets minimized marriage law, recognized the “fluidity of personal relationships,” and tried not to favor one union over another, stressing “the right of the individual to be free of state interference,” as historian Wendy Z. Goldman observed in Women, the State, and Revolution. It was a fiasco then, and it won’t work now, so long as human beings act in predictable ways.
Some still hope, though. Anti-marriage activist Clare Chambers, author of Against Marriage, proposes “piecemeal regulation” of intimate relationships. In reality, breaking up marriage’s public “privilege” is a recipe for an unruly mess that will only extend state regulation ever further into our private lives. In other words, if marriage becomes a “private” matter, no relationship will actually be so. There won’t be less regulation, but far more.
What future alterations are in the works for marriage law, I cannot say. I just know that my own marriage is still “good enough,” and gives far more than it takes.
This essay is excerpted and adapted from The Future of Christian Marriage (Oxford University Press, 2020).