From the January/February, 2005 issue of Touchstone

Five Rings & a Wedding by Allan Carlson

Five Rings & a Wedding

Marriage & the Concentric Communities That Surround It

by Allan Carlson

As one Massachusetts advocate of a pluralistic bent has phrased it, “The right to love and to celebrate our relationships, in whatever form they take, is a fundamental human right that should be protected.” As a Coloradoan of a more libertarian persuasion puts it, “To be licensed by a bunch of bureaucrats for the most private and sacred act of marriage—that’s demeaning. It’s simply none of the government’s business whom I marry.”

“The Marriage Resolution” put into effect in San Francisco last year reads: “Because marriage is a basic human right and an individual choice, Resolved, the State should not interfere with same-gender couples who choose to marry and share fully and equally in the rights, responsibilities, and commitment of civil marriage.”

Such challenges to the institution of marriage are nothing new. The Soviet Bolsheviks waged war on marriage and home for the first two decades of the Russian Revolution. A century and a quarter earlier, the Jacobins of the French Revolution also sought to tear down marriage laws resting on traditional principles. The proposed French Civil Code of 1801, for example, promised “freedom to marry” and easy divorce.

Ignoring both Christian thought and the evidence of all history, the radical authors of this measure argued that “what marriage itself is was previously unknown, and it is only in recent times that men have acquired precise ideas on marriage.” Building on the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, they urged that marriage be made “natural,” by which they meant animalistic, subject to the ebb and flow of the passions. Marriage, as such, should be easy to enter and easy to leave.

Private Marriage?

Such is the idea of the freedom to marry. In this view, the government’s role is simply to register those couples freely entering civil marriage, so they might qualify for the benefits and public blessing involved.

This appeal to freedom is false and misleading. It is no expression of true liberty but an effectively libertine invitation to social disorder. The “freedom to marry” presupposes that marriage is a private event, an arrangement by and for the couple that exists only to recognize their love and promise of devotion to each other and to bless their companionship. The one promised public benefit, in this otherwise privatized and minimalist view of marriage, is the sexual and romantic pair’s reduced promiscuity.

And yet the very nature of the average wedding event belies such a narrow view of marriage. The gathering of kith and kin, of friends and neighbors, of former teachers and co-workers, the boisterous celebration, the feast spread out for them, all testify that the wedding is more than an end to promiscuity or the public recognition of a love affair. The wedding is a communal event, where various levels of community find their own renewal and hope. Focusing only on the desires of the couple ignores the communitarian nature of true marriage and the claims others have on each marriage.

In the traditional Christian wedding, the minister asks the congregation: “Does anyone here know a reason why this man and this woman should not be joined together? If so, speak now or forever hold your peace.” This acknowledges the community’s interest in the wedding, letting others assert themselves to prevent a marriage that threatens broader relationships. It also reminds the marrying couple that their vows are made not only between themselves, but with concentric rings of others, all of whom have a vested interest in the making and preservation of their marriage.

What are these concentric rings of others, of community? Why do they also have a claim on each true marriage? There are five: the communities of (1) potential parents with their unborn children; (2) kin or extended family; (3) the neighborhood; (4) the community of faith; and (5) the nation as community. They have their claims for reasons we shall examine.

Parents & Their Unborn

Louis de Bonald, a statesman and a founder of modern social science, rose in defense of traditional marriage and in particular of the community of the parents and their as yet unborn children. His extraordinary 1801 book, titled in English translation On Divorce, remains a most valuable resource in helping sort out issues regarding marriage. It defends traditional marriage through an appeal to reason and the natural order. Bonald’s first task was to clarify “that marriage, in itself and at bottom, has always been a civil, religious, and physical act at once.” He then set out to rescue the label “natural” from the disciples of Rousseau. Marriage was, in fact, both divine and human, he said:

It derives from the constitution of our being, of our nature, and is a natural act: for the true nature of man and the real constitution of his being consist in natural relationships with his being’s author [i.e., God], and in natural relationships, both moral and physical, with his fellows.

Marriage attracted the attention of civil legislators because it was “the founding act of domestic society, whose interests should be guaranteed by civil authority.” But this domestic society did not really rest on the needs or desires of the spouses: “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, “The end of marriage is the reproduction 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, rearing, education, and protection of children, which he believed could occur successfully only in the married-couple home.

If pleasure or happiness were the goal of marriage, then the civil authority had no business being involved. Instead: “Political 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.”

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

This also explains why civil marriage was restricted to heterosexual pairs: “Political power cannot guarantee the stability of the domestic persons without knowing them; hence, the necessity of the civil act, which makes known the commitment of the man and woman, and of the birth certificate, which makes known the father, mother, and child.” Bonald understood that public policy on marriage must be built on this ideal family structure, and not on some lowest common denominator “of the heart and the senses.”

Bonald also explained why the marriage of a man and a woman who proved infertile or unable to create a child remained valid. Many of the French Revolution’s philosophers worried about the size of the French population and called for easy divorce in cases of infertility so that new pairings of men and women might be tried to produce the needed children for war. Bonald replied: “Whatever 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.”

In short, government should not be in the business of fertility tests. Rather, it should understand the potential fertility of all male-female bonds (perhaps even modern ones via the petri dish) and the powerful positive effects on children of the complementarity of man and woman. The state then holds together the potential or actual parents for the sake of good “conservation” of the potential or actual child.1

The Extended Family

The second community with a vested interest in the making and preservation of a marriage is the couple’s extended family. Each marriage is a covenant between the couple and their kin. In marriage, two families merge in a manner that perpetuates and invigorates both.

It is true that issues of property are not nearly as important in a wedding today as they were, say, 500 years ago. But the great chain of being, binding the living to ancestors and to posterity, remains as important as ever. Every wedding of young people forges a new link in that chain, for the family’s future still rests in their potential fertility. Even today, family members will travel great distances to attend the wedding of a cousin, nephew, or niece, still acknowledging the importance of both the promise and the event itself to their own identity and continuity.

As President Theodore Roosevelt once wrote, a people existed only as its “sons and daughters thought 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.”2 Indeed: “The great chain of creation and causation” over the generations appeared, link by link, through new marriage.

Marriage also serves as the natural solution to human society’s dependency problem. Just as marriage brings forth and cares for new life, it creates bonds and obligations that provide care for the very old, the weak, and the infirm. In a society with a culture of true marriage, kin networks care for the aged or disabled and ensure that no family member falls through the extended family’s safety net. It is the chain of fertility—child, parent, grandparent, blood kin—that brings to fruition these natural sentiments of intergenerational care.

Where a culture of marriage fails, these tasks pass to the public purse, to government, at huge expense. Indeed, a common goal of the contemporary women’s movement and modern socialism has been to replace the bonds of marriage and kin with a universal dependence on the welfare state.

The feminist analyst Carol Pateman argues that women’s growing dependence on the state is a logical corollary to feminist goals, and a stimulus to state entitlements as a substitute for family-centered care. Frances Piven stresses the “large and important relationship” of women to the welfare state as direct employees of its program, noting that nearly three-quarters of government welfare jobs are held by women. Put another way: less true marriage means more government.3

The Neighborhood

Neighbors and friends also have a deep interest in nurturing and preserving true marriage. For some reason, this attribute of marriage seems best captured by fiction and poetry. The Kentucky poet Wendell Berry, in his A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, underscores how each couple on their wedding day renew their place on earth, their community:

Again, hope dreams itself
Awake. The year’s first lambs
Cry in the morning dark.
And, after all, we have
A garden in our minds.

We living know the worth
Of all the dead have done
Or hoped to do. We know
That hearts, against their doom
Must plight an ancient troth.

The two being married

. . . must begin again
The work divine and human
By which we live on earth.

In Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, Berry explains that the 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.” In his wonderful short story, “A Jonquil for Mary Penn” (which appears in Fidelity: Five Stories), he uses a rural Kentucky setting to explain how a young marriage merges into a neighborhood:

On rises of ground or tucked into folds were the grey, paintless buildings of the farmsteads, connected to one another by lanes and paths. Now [Mary Penn] thought of herself as belonging there, not just because of her marriage to Elton but also because of the economy that the two of them had made around themselves and their neighbors. She had learned to think of herself as living and working at the center of a wonderful provisioning . . . the little commerce of giving and taking that spoked along paths connecting her household to the others.

And in a poem addressed to his wife, Tanya, on their thirty-first anniversary, the poet illuminates how their marriage encompasses “many others”—neighbors, friends, kin, and posterity:

Another year has returned us
to the day of our marriage
thirty-one years ago. Many times
we have known, and again forgot
in our cruel separateness,
that making touch that feelingly
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, who will not know us
even so little as we know
ourselves, who have already gone
so far beyond our own recall.

Marriage and its fruit, children, bind us to neighborhood, space, and time, giving substance to our loyalties toward “a place on earth.” Berry writes in Entries: Poems:

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.

The Community of Faith

The community of faith is the fourth community with a vested interest in the making and preservation of a marriage. In Western Europe before the Reformation, governments were not usually engaged in the registration and regulation of marriage. This was left to the Church, centered in Rome. Church marriage courts handled disputes and considered cases for potential annulment. With marriage deemed a sacrament, grounded in divine mystery, divorce was an impossibility. In a civilization with only one recognized church, this structure worked reasonably well.

The Protestant movement of the sixteenth century shook the system to its core. On the one hand, the Reformers argued that there was no biblical warrant for considering marriage a Christian sacrament and—where they held sway—commonly abolished church marriage courts. They also reasoned that the Gospel text allowed for divorce in cases of adultery, with remarriage possible for the offended spouse.

On the other hand, they said that marriage was a spiritual bond superior to all other natural arrangements, including the celibacy practiced by the Catholic priesthood and religious. In Martin Luther’s words, marriage was the highest of estates, “the real religious order on earth,” divinely ordained, “pleasing to God and precious in his sight,” and designed to fulfill God’s ordinance to “be fruitful and multiply.” The Reformers called on rulers to govern marriage through biblical principles and to punish those who offended Christian morality.

And for three or four centuries, one could conclude that their system also worked reasonably well. Still, as one Catholic writer, R. V. Young, has summarized, Protestantism enhanced marriage in social status and “as a means of personal companionship and individual, earthly happiness, but in desacramentalizing it, lowered its resistance to the pressures of the secular world.”4

Indeed, strains and disorders were evident by the middle decades of the nineteenth century. In Britain and America, for example, divorce had remained rare until then. A special act of Parliament, or of a state legislature in America, had been required for divorce, underscoring the grave and rare nature of the act. Yet a great loosening of divorce laws began around 1850, as the process was transferred to civil courts.

In the twentieth century, this disorder fed into the “no-fault” divorce revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Despite changes during the prior century, until then the notion of “fault-based” divorce had still underscored the public nature of marriage. Adultery, desertion, or cruelty had to be proved. This institution was still something larger than the will and emotions of the spouses; the public interest dictated that “fault” be determined before society would relinquish its claims on the couple’s vow.

Indeed, divorce still had something of the quality of a crime against the social order. But as the American states embraced “no fault,” they unwittingly destroyed the last remnants of the Protestant scheme: that is, the expectation that rulers and judges would govern marriage by Christian principles, broadly defined.

Living Issue

All the same, the issue has not yet died. The “covenant marriage” movement of the last half-decade has sought, with some success, to restore to law elements of both the public interest in marital stability and Christian covenantal thinking. More directly, some individuals have begun to challenge the “no fault” divorce regime as a violation of religious liberty, or, put another way, as a violation of the implicit agreement reached between church and state back in the sixteenth century.

Specifically, in September 2000, I testified as an expert witness in Harris County, Texas, Family Court in the case of Waite v. Waite. Here, the wife, Margaret Waite, had filed unilaterally for divorce, claiming under the 1970 Texas “no fault” statute that she had “irreconcilable differences” with her husband that destroyed “the legitimate ends of the marital relationship.” However, her husband objected to the divorce, arguing that the 1970 law had abrogated the Christian principle of covenant marriage and so had violated his religious liberty.

Eighty-seven percent of persons marry in churches, he argued. In assuming authority to govern marriages, the state of Texas also took on the duty to protect the covenantal religious nature of the bond. “No fault” divorce violated that obligation.

Despite my own best efforts on the witness stand, the family court judge denied Mr. Waite’s claims. He took the case to an appeals court, where he again lost. This time, though, the vote of the three-judge panel was 2 to 1. That is, one justice—Kem Thompson Frost—agreed with Mr. Waite’s contention that the state had an obligation to protect the religious covenant in marriage and that “no fault” divorce violated the religious-liberty provision of the Texas Constitution. This was, in a way, a legal breakthrough. More should be heard from this argument in the future.

Some now argue that marriage should be completely privatized: that government should get out of the matrimony business and return the process to religion. This could work if the United States had one church—as in medieval Europe—and granted that church the police powers needed to enforce its rulings in the inevitable disputes.

“Privatization” could also work if the government agreed to enforce the disparate marital rules of each religious faith on its members: “indissoluble marriage” for Roman Catholics; up to “four wives” for Muslims; temple marriages for all eternity for Mormons; divorce only for the victims of adultery for Lutherans (Martin Luther recommended executing the former spouse who had committed the adultery); and creative divorce for Unitarians. Or “privatization” could work if marriage was stripped of all legal, economic, and social status, existing merely as a symbolic act of friendship.

But the first two possibilities are, quite frankly, impossible in the current American context. And the third possibility would undo the very essence of marriage, making the whole exercise moot. This “privatization” idea, I believe, can be safely cast aside.

The Nation as Community

The nation also has a claim on the marital pair. It is the fifth community with a vested interest in the making and preservation of a marriage. Simply put, the future of every people comes through the cradles found in married-couple homes. The case of the European peoples is instructive here, where a dramatic decline in fertility since 1970 has been accompanied by—even led by—a fall in the marriage rate. Consider, for example, the case of Ireland, where a 43-percent decline in the “total first marriage rate” brought on a 50-percent decline in fertility; or look to Spain, where a 42-percent fall in the marriage rate preceded a 59-percent decline in fertility.

These numbers suggest that as traditional marriage fades, there will be a paucity of children and a diminished nation. The retreat from true marriage and the retreat from children go together. Also, if the children that are born appear outside of traditional marriage, their prospects for productive lives sharply diminish, just as the odds that they will become public charges—as welfare recipients or as prisoners—grow. These facts of household life are now indisputable, and they give support to a preferential option for traditional marriage by the nation-state, be it evidenced through marriage-sensitive tax provisions, welfare policy, or simple marriage law.

This was, of course, once understood in this land. As the US Supreme Court put the matter back in 1888, in its famed Maynard decision, 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 society.” Eighty-four years later, though, the Court grew strangely blind to this deep national interest, arguing instead in Eisenstadt v. Baird that “the marital couple is not an independent entity with a heart and mind of its own, but an association of two individuals, each with a separate intellectual and emotional make-up.”

This view proved consistent, too, with the logic of no-fault divorce, which also denied the public’s interest in wedlock. It seems useful to note here that “no fault” divorce is actually neither a new idea, nor some inevitable result of social evolution or modernity. Rather, it seems to be a standing temptation for any society or era. For men, at least, “no fault” was the rule in Old Testament times.

Divorce’s Costs

Indeed, it is through an analysis of divorce that we can better understand the public nature of marriage. After all, divorce is merely the backside of marriage. Legally, the marital covenant is only as strong as the provisions that govern an exit from its terms. It is possible to calculate, using hard numbers, the nation’s profound interest in marriage if we use the negative calculus of divorce.

To begin with, we know that one measurable cost of “no fault” divorce has been more divorce. Advocates of this change during the 1960s and 1970s always claimed that their goal was simply to remove acrimony from the divorce process, for the good of all concerned. Divorce rates were already climbing, and, in the words of one prominent sociologist, “the adoption of no-fault divorce was a late and largely redundant step in the lowering of moral, social, and legal barriers to divorce.”

However, more careful research analyzing divorce trends in 34 states for the 10 years before and after the introduction of “no fault,” found that this legal innovation “contributed directly to more divorce or sooner divorces than would have happened otherwise.” The researchers even calculated that “57,000 extra divorces” occur each year in the United States due directly to the no-fault revolution.5

Second, we can also count the effects of divorce on children, Bonald’s “third party” in the marriage, whom the states no longer really protect. Specifically:

• The children of divorce have significantly more health problems than children in intact homes.6

• The children of divorce have much higher incidences of depression, fear of abandonment, and delinquency.7

• The children of divorce are more likely to drop out of high school and less likely to graduate from college than are children in intact homes, even when compared to families losing a father through death.8

• And the children of divorce are more likely to engage in pre-marital sex at a young age, to become parents before marriage, and to need psychological help.9

Of course, the costs imposed by divorce on young lives can never adequately be added up. Who can put a value on the diminished hopes of even one child’s life?

But it turns out that we can put a dollar figure on the costs of divorce that accrue to the public at large. David Schramm, a family economist at Utah State University, shows in a 2003 study that divorce imposes a heavy financial burden on all taxpayers. Direct costs to the state include increased Medicaid expenses, child support enforcement, funds for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), food stamps, and public housing assistance. Indirect costs include increased incarceration in prisons, more elderly persons without spousal support, and greater illegal drug use.

Using careful (and probably low) assumptions, Schramm calculates that “the ‘average’ divorce costs state and federal governments $30,000.” In a given year, the total is $33.3 billion for the nation as a whole, or $312 for each American household. In crude, materialistic terms, this public cost of divorce underscores the profound social interest in marriage.10

Communal Marriage

In sum, marriage is a social and communal, rather than a private, event. Alongside the marital couple, it engages at least five levels of community: the unborn or potential children; extended family or kin; the neighborhood; the religious communion; and the nation. This civil institution exists for the propagation of children and for their “conservation” through nurture, education, and protection.

Only the union of man and woman can properly fulfill both of these tasks. Public policy toward marriage must assume and build on this ideal structure, rather than on some lowest common denominator of the passions. All five levels of community have a deep and compelling interest in the formation and preservation of true marriages. The wise government lifts up obstacles and checks on divorce, for its real costs will fall on vulnerable children and the community at large.

So-called same-sex marriages trivialize the true institution, for these unions are unable to meet the two ends of marriage: the propagation and conservation of children. Concerning propagation, these pairings are sterile by definition. When they do claim children, it is usually through either the trauma of divorce or the unnatural and sometimes dangerous manipulation of the laboratory. Moreover, these pairings cannot effect proper conservation of children, for again by definition they exclude either man or woman, so denying the complementarity of the sexes on which the good, nurturing home rests.

And so, on that day when, perhaps, an Episcopalian priest in a Massachusetts church intones, “If anyone present knows a reason why this man and man should not be joined together, speak now or forever hold your peace,” the proper response is: “I do.”


1. On Divorce, ed. by Nicholas Davidson (Transaction, 1992), pp. 36–37, 63–64, 175.

2. Theodore Roosevelt, The Works of Theodore Roosevelt: Memorial Edition, vol. XXI (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924), p. 263.

3. Carol Pateman in Democracy in the Welfare State (Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 231–260; and Frances Fox Piven in Women, the State and Welfare (University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), pp. 251–264.

4. In Christian Marriage: A Historical Study (Herder & Herder, 2001), p. 274.

5. Joseph Lee Rodgers, et al., “The Effect of No-Fault Legislation on Divorce,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 59 (1997), pp. 1026–1030.

6. Jane Mauldon, “The Effect of Marital Disruption on Children’s Health,” Demography 27 (August 1990), pp. 431–446.

7. Judith Wallerstein and Joan B. Kelly, Surviving the Breakup (Basic Books, 1996), pp. 46–50, 211; and Ronald L. Simons, et al., “Explaining the Higher Incidence of Adjustment Problems Among Children of Divorce Compared with Those in Two-Parent Families,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 (Nov. 1999), pp. 1020–1033.

8. Timothy J. Biblarz and Greg Gottainer, “Family Structure and Children’s Success,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 62 (May 2000), pp. 533–548.

9. K. E. Kiesnan and J. Habcraft, “Parental Divorce During Childhood,” Population Studies 51 (1997), pp. 41–55; and Teresa M. Cooney and Jane Kurz, “Mental Health Outcomes Following Recent Parental Divorce,” Journal of Family Issues 17 (July 1996), pp. 495–513.

10. David Schramm, “What Could Divorce Be Costing Your State?”, June 25, 2003, Publication in Process, Department of Family, Consumer, and Human Development, Utah State University at Logan.

Marriage Saves the Miltons

One forceful advocate for “no fault” divorce was none other than the great seventeenth-century English poet, John Milton. Predictably, his views were shaped by his own troubled marriage. In 1642, when he was 34 years old, Milton traveled to Oxfordshire to confer on a debt owed to his father by one Richard Powell. A month later, Milton returned to his London home with a bride, 17-year-old Mary Powell, daughter of the debtor.

The marriage quickly developed problems: a husband twice the age of his wife; a young bride who missed her boisterous childhood home; and political differences. Civil war was about to descend on England; the Powells were staunchly Royalist, while the Miltons stood for Parliament. After Mary went back for a visit with her parents, she refused to return to her husband.

Milton grew enraged. He authored four pamphlets on divorce, arguing for quick dissolution of a marriage on the grounds of incompatibility and for a right to remarry. Sounding like a modern advocate for “Freedom to Marry,” Milton took a minimalist view of marriage’s purpose: “In God’s intention a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and noblest end of marriage.” Wedlock existed to make people happy by dispelling loneliness through companionship. If unhappiness resulted, the union should be dissolved: “Love in marriage cannot live or subsist, unless it be mutual; and where love cannot be, there can be left of wedlock nothing, but the empty husk of an outside matrimony.”

Indeed, he said, there was a moral duty to terminate an empty marriage. And the state must not interfere, for “to interpose a jurisdictive power upon the inward and irremediable disposition of man, to command love and sympathy, to forbid dislike against the guiltless instinct of nature, is not within the province of any law to reach.”

As a postscript, Mary did finally return to her husband in 1645 and they found a certain happiness. Moreover, John Milton would rescue his in-laws from impoverishment after the Royalist cause in Oxfordshire was crushed by the armies of Parliament. So true marriage works, to bind up the wounds and heal the divisions even of nations torn by civil war.

Allan Carlson

For more on marriage by Allan Carlson, see:

• The Family as the Fundamental Unit of Society
• Sexuality: A Litmus Test for Culture
• What Has Government Done to Our Families?
• Marriage on Trial: Some Lessons from History
• Marriage on Trial: Why We Must Privilege and Burden the Traditional Marriage Bond
• “Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace”: On the Communal Nature of Marriage
• Toward a Theory of the Autonomous Family

Allan Carlson is President of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society in Rockford, Illinois ( His books include Conjugal America: On The Public Purposes of Marriage and The Natural Family: Bulwark of Liberty. He is married and has four children and is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He is a senior editor for Touchstone.

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