I have written next to nothing on same-sex civil marriage — not because I am thrilled at the prospect, but largely because I regard it as a relatively unimportant symptom of a much larger malady. Take a look at this brief but telling piece on the blog of The Spectator, and I think that you will see what I mean. Here is a taste of the argument on offer:
A friend of mine, quite a distinguished lawyer, takes the view that marriage ceased to make sense after no-fault divorces came in. What, he says sternly, is the point of a contract when there’s no sanction if you break it? Well, quite.
But if no-fault divorce pretty well invalidates marriage after the event, prenups do quite a good job of undermining it beforehand. The point of marriage is that it’s meant to be a lifetime affair – the hint being in the ‘til death do us part’ bit – and the point of prenups is that they make provision for the thing ending before it even gets underway. You’re putting your assets out of the reach of the spouse before you’ve got round to endowing her with all your worldly goods, if the Anglican service is your bag.
And here is a bit more:
The one thing, though, that prenups do have going for them is that they encourage an element of frankness in conversations between engaged couples which is, I think, rather healthy. It would be rather useful if couples were to talk less honeymoon and more money, income, assets and who’s earning what when children turn up, before the event. (And in this context, view me as an object lesson; it didn’t even occur to me to think finance before I married.)
Indeed, it’d be handy if would-be spouses talked more about all sorts of things. A friend of mine runs Catholic pre-marriage courses and one trick in his book is that he gets the assembled couples to shut their eyes and hold up their fingers to represent the number of children they’d like. And it’s remarkable, not just that couples differ – four versus two say – but that, when they open their eyes, they’re rather surprised by what their intended seems to want. As for the religion, if any, of the offspring…you’d be surprised how rarely they get round to talking through that too.
Prenups are an outward sign of one of the most troubling elements of the culture: our collective inability to make binding promises, ones that commit us into the future. But the plain speaking involved…that’s something even the properly committed can learn from.
If I do not regard same-sex civil marriage as a great threat to the institution, it is because I think that we lost sight of what marriage is all about quite some time ago.
Here is something further to chew on. No-fault divorce had its origins in the early 1950s in Oklahoma —”the buckle on the Bible belt” — and its chief advocates were Baptist ministers who feared that making divorce awkward and difficult would promote that worst of all evils — drum roll, please: fornication.
What resulted was a system of serial civil monogamy. When I left Oklahoma for Hillsdale seven years ago, Oklahoma ranked first in the nation in divorce — not because Oklahomans were especially given to fornication and adultery, but because they were especially given to what we now mistakenly think of as marriage. Those who merely shack up never end up in divorce court.
The last time I checked, however, the Baptist ministers in Oklahoma were beginning to have doubts as to whether serial monogamy is the best response to Wanderlust, and they were talking about introducing something akin to the pre-Cana conferences required of Catholics who want to get married in the Church. Having gone through these conferences when I was preparing to marry the woman who became the mother of my four children, I can say that we were forced to confront all of the practical questions singled out in the quotea above — and, let me add, it was a damned good thing. Erotic longing may be necessary for forming a lasting marriage, but it is far from sufficient.
One final comment. In ancient Greece and Rome, the marriage ceremony (which had legal force) consisted of an agreement between the bride’s father and the prospective husband — in which the former said to the latter, “I give you this woman for the procreation of legitimate children.” This is surely not the entire story. There is a reason why the Christian Church shoved the bride’s father aside and grounded marriage in a covenant between husband and wife. But the the logic underpinning pagan Greek and Roman practice is, I believe, an essential part of the story, and all of the Christian churches used to be in agreement in this regard (along with Jews and Muslims of every stripe). To this day, Catholic priests refuse to marry a young man and a young woman unwilling to declare that they are open to having children.
Think about the matter from a purely political perspective. Why would the political community have any interest in marriage at all were it not somehow bound up with the polity’s survival? Why would marriage not simply be an entirely private matter unworthy of public notice? And if the procreation and rearing of children is, from a political perspective, the end and purpose of marriage and the only reason why it receives public sanction, how could it be sensible to make provision for no-fault divorce and prenuptial agreements?
After all, children need stable homes in which marriages last for decades. When we substituted for “until death do us part” the rubric “until things get awkward or inconvenient for at least one of us,” we decided to subordinate the welfare of our offspring to our own whims and desires, and we in effect abolished civil marriage as it has existed from at least the time of Hammurabi and put something else in its place.
If, as now seems to be the case, wedlock is nothing more than a temporary arrangement designed to serve the convenience and pleasure of the parties concerned, then there is no reason why it should not be available to any two, three, four, or five human beings who think that they might gain advantage or amusement from it. Same-sex civil marriage is nothing more than a ratification of what we as a nation have already done — and, as the folks who run the entertainment industry seem to understand, legalized polygamy comes next.
Perhaps the real reason why so many Americans find same-sex civil marriage anathema is that to accept it is to acknowledge what we have already done.