The Two-Party Coalition to Destroy Marriage, Part I

For decades I have been studying the institution of marriage, and when, about a dozen years ago, conservative Republicans began agitating for laws defining and strengthening marriage, I attempted to make an argument, rooted in human history and biology and framed by the Christian tradition, that government intervention would only make matters much worse.  In giving the State the power to define marriage, conservatives were opening the door to the Supreme Court to pervert their intentions and to future presidents and legislators to use that same power to destroy marriage.  With the President's signature today, my worst predictions have been realized, but no one has yet contacted me to apologize for condemning my argument--as so many Catholics did--ten years ago.  This is the slightly corrected text of one of a series of speeches I gave on the subject.  This one was delivered in 2013.


Let us begin by finding out where we stand on the subject of marriage.  I am going to list a series of propositions.  If you are willing, please raise your hand for as long as you agree with the statement.  Marriage is:

1) a binding relationship between one man and one woman.  To include Muslims and Middle-Eastern Jews, let us even say—one or more women.

2) for the primary though not necessarily exclusive purpose of begetting and rearing children;

3) a life-long commitment entered into voluntarily by people capable of making a rational agreement and possessing the capacity to marry each other—this means essentially that neither of the parties is insane, impotent, or so closely related that the union would be incestuous.

4) Marriage is the foundation of the social order, the seed-bed of the commonwealth, as Cicero said, and for a government to attempt to destroy marriage is tantamount to destroying society itself; 

5) Therefore, it is an important and necessary role of any government, particularly the governments of the United States, to regulate, promote, and protect marriage in its traditional form and even to draw up a government-sanctioned definition of the institution.

I believe that just about everyone in this room accepts the first four, and a large majority, unless you are attentive readers of Chronicles, would endorse number 5.  That, I submit to you, is a fundamental mistake, and it prevents us from taking any effective steps to oppose the cultural and moral revolution that has been destroying marriage and the family from since before I was even born.

At least since the 1920's the leading members of the intelligentsia and the news media have been chattering about the marriage crisis and the decline of family functions: Specifically, we have been informed of the decline in the number of young people getting married, the rise of illegitimacy, the increase in the rates of divorce, popular acceptance of adultery and abortion, and, most recently, the legalization of marriage between members of the same sex or the Republican alternative, which amounts to exactly the same thing, so-called civil unions.  

By the way, can anyone here tonight tell me the difference between a state-licensed marriage and a civil union?  There is none, which means that the political debate between the Democrats and the Republicans is a shadow-boxing contest in which leftists are playing in earnest and conservatives merely playing.  Governments do not marry people; they only issue a civil license.  All government-approved marriages are nothing other than civil unions, and once civil unions are permitted, the revolution has accomplished its goals.

An aside:  Everyone is aware of the decline in marriage both in the US and in Europe.  There are many causes, principally the collapse of Christianity, but think about this:  Why should anyone get married?  Marriage is no longer a sacrament or a solemn religious occasion, it no longer binds two families together, and it is not expected to last more than a few years.  Marriage now is a government-regulated short-term contract that is expected to last between 7 and 8 years.  Even shack-ups in Sweden last longer.  Why in the world should non-Christians go into debt and get entangled with the government for such a meaningless formality?

Conservative opponents of same-sex marriage have legislative proposals to solve the marriage crisis.  Most of these proposals have to do with legal redefinitions of marriage and human life and the use of tax money to subsidize families with children.  None so far has succeeded even in slowing the pace of revolutionary change.  

Conservatives are by definition people who accept the status quo or at best want to turn back the clock a decade or so.  Conservatives will not be part of any solution until they give up being part of the problem.  Before a problem can be fixed or an institution can be reformed, we first have to know what it is we are dealing with.  Any debate over marriage law has to begin with a clear definition of the essential institution. 

How do we go about defining the universal human institution of marriage?  I should first clarify what I mean by calling marriage a universal human institution.  The word "institution" has many meanings (institution for the criminally insane, the institution of a facility or law, it even means system of education) What I am thinking about here is a formal way of satisfying natural needs.  Human beings obviously enjoy food to survive, sex to propagate, and violence to defend what they have.  They also are inclined to seek power, wealth, and prestige.  Now, if we were all wild individuals, the strongest males would violently seize all the food, wealth, and women.  Fortunately, all animals have ritualized or institutionalized behavioral patterns that govern and moderate their impulses and desires.  In a fight, for example, a defeated wolf or dog will roll over on its back and expose its genitals.  By canine rules, it has surrendered and the winner backs off.  We humans have rules of warfare, dietary laws, property rights, and, to regulate sexual behavior, marriage and family.  

So, then, marriage is an institution for regulating our sex lives.  What sort of institution is it?  How would we describe it?  Defining a human institution such as marriage is not as straightforward as defining a line as the shortest distance between two points.  Geometry and mathematics deal with abstractions and absolutes, but when human practices and institutions are concerned we have to begin not with the postulates of geometry we all learned in the 10th grade, but with concrete examples, from which we can then proceed to draw up general principles.  Before deciding how people ought to behave, we first have to find out how they do behave and how they can behave.  

If we were to begin by defining the human race as a type of bird capable of flight, we might end up leaping from a tall building in a single bound.  Marxists have mis-defined man as an open-ended work in progress that can do without wealth, property, or status.  The predictable results of such a definitional mistake are often catastrophic.  The would-be superman may hit the ground before the Marxist, but the disaster known as the new Soviet Man was equally terrifying.  The New Democratic Man in America, who can do without history or sex distinctions, is an even greater mess than his Soviet counterpart.

If we search out human history and the anthropological record for examples, we shall discover that human marriage is a strong, long-term, and more or less exclusive sexual bond between one male and one or more females, who conceive children and together rear the offspring of their coupling. We could go further and say that although the human male tends mildly toward polygamy and promiscuity, the basic model is one man and one woman.  This is so partly because of the numbers question—every Muslim sheik or Mormon elder with 4 wives is depriving three other men of a wife, but also because polygamous societies are generally less stable and less successful than monogamous ones.  Besides, even in polygamous countries, monogamy is the norm--most men have to be content with one wife.

But seeking more than this description of what marriage is, we would then ask, "What is marriage for?"  To answer that one, we would look at the function of marriage in biological terms.  Christians are often afraid of evolutionary biology, but they need not be.  Most biologists are not trouble-making atheists but simply hardworking men and women who study what they call Nature and what we call Creation.  Yes, there is an evil materialist philosophy that has grafted itself onto evolutionary biology, but there are also evil magical traditions associated with mathematics.  We don't reject mathematics because some great mathematicians (like Newton) have also practiced astrology or black magic. 

Evolutionary biologists like E.O. Wilson will explain that universal behavioral patterns like marriage usually make individuals more successful, more fit.  Since fitness basically means success in reproducing, the function of marriage is to facilitate the bearing and rearing of children who are also successful in reproducing.  In Genesis, man and woman are told to "Be fruitful and multiply," but Charles Darwin would have said the same thing.  By the way, since Christians are out-producing liberals and scientific atheists, it obviously means that we are more fit

So then, marriage is, in natural terms, typically a long-term, preferably indissoluble sexual relationship between a man and a woman who have agreed to conceive, bear, and rear children.  But historically, it is not just any men who get to pair off with just any women.  There are other parties involved, particularly the future grandparents. 

I have been studying marriage for decades, and I can tell you with confidence that in pre-modern societies, including the ancient Greeks, Jews, and Romans—the peoples who gave us our civilization and our religious traditions--marriage was an agreement between two families or kin groups to unite a male and a female for the purpose of bearing and rearing offspring to perpetuate either one or both of the bloodlines and to transmit property to legitimate heirs.  The Romantic inclinations of oversexed and hormone-crazed adolescents did not enter much into the negotiations until societies became so urbanized and rich they could afford the luxury of hedonistic stupidity.  In beginning to address the current marriage crisis, we should purge our brains of all the Tin Pan Alley love songs that have encouraged the mistake that marriage is basically about sexual desire and romantic feelings.

Procreation and child-rearing arranged and approved by the two families of the bride and groom—that is the natural foundation on which Christian marriage was built, but the Church did not invent marriage, it only took over and strengthened a universal human institution dictated by nature.  We do not have to look at church documents to find out the Christian view, since the fundamental principle was given by Our Lord.  Expounding upon the description of Adam and Eve in Genesis, He tells us explicitly: “Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”  

He does not present this as an ideal for Christians to aim at but as the law of nature.  Moses, he explained to his Jewish audience, had permitted divorce “because of the hardness of your hearts, but from the beginning it was not so.”  Divorce, in other words, had not been permitted to Adam and Even and their descendants.  It was only granted as a concession to human incorrigibility by Moses, and that concession was now being withdrawn.  

Therefore all marriage, by its very essence, is an irrevocable union.  Christ concluded, [Mark 10:11-12]  

“Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.  And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.”  

Many vocal opponents of same-sex marriage today have been strangely silent on the subject of divorce.  Oh, yes, they might have complained a bit that no-fault divorce laws passed in the 60s and 70s impoverished women and children, but government-sponsored divorce was never seen for what it was: a direct assault on Christian marriage, one that prepared the ground for this latest phase.  

Christianity reformed marriage but hardly affected the pre-Christian wedding and marriage customs the Church took over.  Early Christian marriages were Greco-Roman in outward form, but that form was filled with a Christian spirit that rejected such common practices as adultery, abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and divorce. It is not too much to say that a religious sect that permits contraception and divorce will sound find itself condoning abortion and same-sex marriage.

Although the Church did not invent marriage, it did impose its rules.  Nonetheless, marriage remained largely a family affair down to the later Middle Ages, when Christian marriages could be held at home, rather than in Church, and priests were not actually required to solemnize the union.  This was especially true in central Italy.  The essence of the marital union remained, as it always had been, an arrangement between two families to secure grandchildren to inherit property.  Christian law, like Roman law, also required the consent of the two parties.

If marriage was not primarily a religious affair, it was definitely not an affair of state.  An ancient government that required a marriage license would have been denounced as tyrannical.  For Greeks, Romans, and Jews, the state's interest in marriage was not in the institution per se but in its effects on inheritance of property and on citizenship.  Under the more aggressive Roman Empire, steps were taken to encourage marriage and discourage adultery, but no emperor was mad enough to think he could redefine the nature of marriage or even grant a permit.  Some liaisons—for example, marriage to a foreigner or a slave—might not constitute a legal marriage, but that really only affected the status of the children, who would not be Roman citizens or heirs to their father's estate.  This would only matter where there was an estate to fight over.

Down to the 16th century, Christian governments had very little to do with marriage.  In fact, European rulers were often the biggest offenders against the ideal of Christian marriage.  Many kings of France—including Clovis and Charlemagne--lived in open adultery and more than one of them tried to divorce his wife and marry his mistress.  In the early days, the Church was comparatively weak but by the 10th century, She successfully cracked down on libidinous French kings and nobles, and it was not until Henry VIII that a European monarch could successfully defy the Church by divorcing his wife and marrying his mistress—which was even a greater scandal since Henry had slept with Anne Boleyn's sister.  In seizing control over marriage, Henry also seized control over the church in England.



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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    largely a family affair down to the later Middle Ages, when Christian marriages could be held at home, rather than in Church, and priests were not actually required to solemnize the union. This was especially true in central Italy. The essence of the marital union remained, as it always had been, an arrangement between two families to secure grandchildren to inherit property. Christian law, like Roman law, also required the consent of the two parties.“
    This entire article is very good but this paragraph particularly reminded me of the reality of many American Christian settlers “moving out west.” Marriages were on many occasions approved by families and entered into long before a circuit riding preacher or Franciscan missionary would come by on horseback , sometimes once or twice a year, maybe less, to witness the consent and promises made months or years before.
    There is more involved in the life and story of Christian marriage but nothing less. The secular “ guv ment” has always been about hardened hearts and civil unions from Henry VIII and Abe Lincoln to Little Joe Biden and his civil pol partner, Nancy Pelosi. I think there were 86 Catholic apostates in Congress who voted for this most recent defense and civil protection for public orgies, child abuse and the silencing of all dissenters to the practice of cultural suicide.