On the Public Purposes of Marriage
reviewed by Robert W. Patterson
Fourteen years ago, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead vindicated an embattled Dan Quayle in The Atlantic Monthly by showcasing the social science literature that demonstrates that, yes, Murphy Brown, the country’s experiment with family “diversity”—whether single parenthood, divorce, or step-parenting—has not been good for children.
While ending her 16,500-word feature with the suggestion that “societies can change, particularly when it becomes apparent that certain behaviors damage the social ecology, threaten the public order, and impose new burdens on core institutions,” she wasn’t willing to predict any pending turnaround. Whether she would be encouraged today is not clear, as marital patterns remain largely unchanged and the country finds itself debating not so much marriage but “gay marriage.”
Ironically, many social scientists who would agree with Whitehead seem unwilling to include same-sex intimacy with those behaviors that unravel the social fabric. Whitehead herself endorsed a book, Jonathan Rauch’s Gay Marriage, that argued that allowing individuals of the same sex to marry would shore up the social foundations of marriage.
So if the social scientists, who should know better, are unwilling to defend holy matrimony as the natural union of one man and one woman, who will? Enter Allan Carlson, president of the Howard Center, with his concise book, Conjugal America.
The Deeper Crisis
A leading social historian, Carlson lays out a case not only for what marriage does for adults and children but also what it is: an unchanging institution “rooted in human nature” that, representing the economic and sexual union between man and woman, dates back to primeval times and stands at the core of every human society.
In contrast to same-sex substitutes—which no society has ever sanctioned (except for very recent and limited experiments)—marriage, explains Carlson, exists for bearing and raising children, binds the generations and society together, and embodies the dynamics that make liberty and self-government possible.
Based largely on a 2004 lecture series at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., Conjugal America warns that “gay marriage” is not so much a threat as a symptom of a deeper crisis: the deconstruction of the institution of marriage and a rejection of the natural family in Western culture. Carlson ties that crisis to the “industrial impulse” that has severed the economically productive functions from the family, including the separation of the sexual act from marriage and of marriage from procreation.
The crisis was evident before the courts started pushing “gay rights”: Witness the high incidence of divorce, out-of-wedlock childbearing, and intentionally childless couples, not to mention the downsizing of families and the downplaying of sexual differences.
He claims that the current disregard for the confinement of sexual relations and procreation to the marital bond—what he terms the “unwritten sexual constitution of society”—turns back the clock to the late Roman Empire. Then, both sexual hedonism in society and the Gnostic heresy within the early Christian Church rejected marriage and scorned procreation.
Carlson explains how the church fathers framed a responsible sexual ethic out of the chaos, advancing a consensus that upheld procreation as the “first purpose of marriage,” which Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther helped to preserve in Western culture for another 400 years.
Two US Supreme Court cases, however, marked the unraveling of this achievement: the 1965 Griswold decision that created, as “gay-marriage” advocate Evan Wolfson notes, a constitutional right for married couples not to procreate, and the 1971 Eisenstadt decision that defined marriage as a voluntary association of individuals not bound to anything but their own desires.
With the help of no-fault divorce and the loss of the shame of illegitimacy (which helped to confine childbearing to marriage), the Gnostic heresy has returned with full vengeance. “Nothing that is natural, traditional, cultural, religious, social, or moral,” Carlson warns, “is safe from the Gnostic idea.”
A Public Institution
Carlson demonstrates that only an understanding of marriage as a public institution for the creation and nurture of children offers promise of protecting marriage against the multiple forces that seek to unravel it. In a chapter exploring the communal nature of wedlock, he reveals how marriage is not simply a legal contract between two individuals, but a dynamic relationship that stands at the core of a complex web of social bonds that begins with the bride and groom, anticipates their unborn children, finds support from their respective families and extended kin, and extends to society at large.
Even where a couple is unable to conceive, marriage nevertheless upholds potential and not simply actual fertility, while modeling to children the complementarity of the sexes, two insights he draws from the nineteenth-century French statesman Louis de Bonald.
Without intending to rebut Rauch, Carlson shows how the principles of the American way of life, such as constitutional government and civil liberty—which Rauch thinks justify legalizing same-sex pairings—find their strongest reinforcement in heterosexual marriage. Referencing Alexis de Tocqueville, Carlson suggests that “the new [American] Republic depended on marriage, rightly understood,” as “in marriage Americans crafted the necessary balance between liberty and order . . . the most important of political tasks.”
Carlson says marriage performs this public role because it is, as G. K. Chesterton put it, the only self-renewing and voluntary society: a truly independent entity that precedes the state and every other social organization. This explains why totalitarian and socialist regimes often identify the marital bond as public enemy number one.
Although the Nazis, for example, appeared initially to promote marriage, Carlson shows in a unique discussion of the subject how the Third Reich aimed to replace family bonds with total allegiance to the Führer. He also untangles the complicated attitudes of the Nazis toward homosexuality—which have been mischaracterized to suggest that any proscription of homosexual behavior, or any definition of marriage that precludes same-sex relationships, are inherently fascist—by documenting the prominent role of bisexuals and homosexuals in the Nazi movement.
Redeeming Public Policy
One of Carlson’s key achievements is to demonstrate that public policy must rise above the short-sightedness of the social science industry, which has historically reduced marriage and family issues to welfare programs serving low-income populations.
While calling for “fully reconfiguring” Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to reward recipients for staying or getting married, he does so as a part of a comprehensive policy vision that includes reintroducing “fault” into divorce statutes and restructuring federal population policies to welcome large families created through marriage, perhaps including the de-funding of “family planning” services intended to do just the opposite.
He also advocates changes to the tax code and Social Security system. These include a return to full income-splitting between husband and wife, a doubling of the personal exemption and of the $1,000 per child tax credit, a universal tax credit for preschool children to replace the Dependent Care Tax Credit, and granting to married mothers three years of employment credits for Social Security purposes for each child born.
Whether these recommendations gain traction may depend upon Conjugal America’s receiving the same attention from elites as did Rauch’s Gay Marriage. That Carlson may be ignored unfortunately illustrates the severity of the struggle that moral traditionalists face. Yet his book points the way to a recovery of the marriage ideal that, as the popularity of “chick flicks” demonstrates, still resonates deeply with the American people.
The Howard Center’s website address is www.profam.org. Carlson’s The Natural Family, co-authored with Paul Mero, was published by Spence Publishing in March.
Robert W. Patterson is a former Presbyterian minister who is now Research Fellow of the Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society and writes on domestic policy issues in Washington, D.C.
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“Marital Bedrock” first appeared in the May 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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