Marriage: It’s Not Just About the Couple
By Allan Carlson
The most damaging myth regarding marriage today is that it’s all about the couple: about theirpsychological ties; about their love for each other; about their future companionship. Among other consequences, this belief has helped to fuel the push for same-sex marriage. As the argument goes: If a wedding is simply recognition of a love affair, why shouldn’t same-sex couples be allowed to marry?
Forgotten is an old truth that a wedding is not just about the couple. Of equal, or perhaps even greater, importance are the community- and economic-centered attributes of marriage. Indeed, there are five public purposes of marriage.
First and foremost, marriage is about the procreation and rearing of children. Our era – the early 21st century – is not the first time that marriage has been challenged in Western history. In the 1790s, for example, the Jacobins of the French Revolution sought to tear down traditional marriage. They argued, just like social revolutionaries do now, for a strange new “freedom to marry” tied to easy divorce.
A great Christian champion of marriage rose in response: Louis de Bonald. He began by clarifying “that marriage …at bottom, has always been a civil, religious, and physical act at once.” He was clear that this new little domestic society formed by marriage did not rest on the needs or desires of spouses. As Bonald wrote: “[T]he end of marriage is…not the happiness of the spouses, if by happiness one understands an idyllic pleasure of the heart and senses.” Rather:
“[T]he 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 of man,” Bonald meant the care, nurturing, education and protection of children, which he believed could successfully occur only in the married-couple home.
Again, Bonald insisted that if pleasure or happiness were the goal of marriage, then government had no business being involved. Instead:
[P]olitical 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.
Put another way, a marriage “is truly a contract between three persons, two of whom are present, one of whom (the [potential] child) is absent, but is represented by public power, guarantor of the commitment made by the two spouses to form a society.”
The second purpose of marriage is to renew concentric rings of community: extended family or kin; neighborhoods; and religious communities. Through a wedding, two extended families merge in a manner that perpetuates and invigorates both, extending the great chain of being, binding the living to their ancestors and to their posterity. Still in our day, family members will travel great distances to attend the wedding of a nephew, a niece, or a cousin, acknowledging the importance of the event to their own identity and continuity. As the great pro-family President Theodore Roosevelt once wrote, a people existed only as its …
sons and daughters think 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.1
Or, as Kentucky poet Wendell Berry explains, the new 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.” These vows bind the lovers to each other, “to forebears, to descendants … to Heaven and earth.” Marriage is “the fundamental connection without which nothing holds.”2
The third purpose of marriage is to bind together the sexual and the economic, which is the bond that creates a home. I underscore that these are scientific statements, not personal opinion. As the anthropologist Edward Westermarck explained more than 100 years ago: “Among the … [primitive], as well as the most civilized races of men, we find the family consisting of parents and children, [rooted in marriage,] with the father as its protector.” In his great anthropological survey of 1949 titled Social Structure, George Murdoch discovered that “the nuclear family is the universal human social grouping.” Murdoch concluded:
[M]arriage exists only when the economic and the sexual are united into one relationship, and this combination only occurs in marriage. Marriage, thus defined, is found in every known human society.3
Such statements about human nature and marriage should come as no surprise to Christians, Jews or Muslims. All three faiths accept Genesis, chapters 1 and 2, where marriage is cast as a never-changing aspect of God’s creation, fixed from the beginning.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” … Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh.4
Here we see marriage affirmed as both heterosexual (“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”) and economic (the passages regarding “subdue” and “have dominion”). In its discussion of marriage, it might even be said that Genesis agrees with the anthropologists Westermarck and Murdock.
The fourth purpose of marriage is to stand for liberty. Said another way, marriage is political. It is no coincidence that the architects of every major political tyranny – from the Jacobins of the French Revolution to the Communists of the Russian Revolution to the Nazis of Germany’s Racial Revolution to the Maoists of the Chinese Revolution – all targeted marriage and the home for destruction. All tyrants recognize that the family based in marriage is their most vigorous foe, the primary obstacle to their quest for total power.
The early 20th-century English journalist G.K. Chesterton has said it well. He identifies the family as an “ancient” institution that pre-exists the state, one that “cannot be destroyed; it can only destroy those civilizations which disregard it.” Chesterton writes that this “small state founded on the sexes is at once the most voluntary and the most natural of all self-governing states.” He underscores how all modern governments – not just the open tyrannies – seek to separate or isolate individuals from their families, the better to control them; to divide in order to weaken. Yet the family is self-renewing, an expression of human nature that builds on the bond of marriage. As Chesterton concludes:
The ideal for which [marriage] stands in the state is liberty. It stands for liberty for the very simple reason … [that] it is the only … institution that is at once necessary and voluntary. It is the only check on the state that is bound to renew itself as eternally as the state, and more naturally than the state.
Finally, marriage holds a special meaning to the American nation. The famous French visitor to America in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, emphasized how America’s unique balance between liberty and order depended on marriage, rightly understood:
There is certainly no country in the world where the tie of marriage is more respected than in America, or where conjugal happiness is more highly or worthily appreciated. … While the European endeavors to forget his domestic troubles by agitating society, the American derives from his own home that love of order which he afterwards carries with him into public affairs.5
That is, marriage formed the very basis for the distinctive American bond of order to liberty. As the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in its 1888 decision in the case Maynard v. Hill, 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 the family and of society.”
In short, each wedding is a broadly communitarian and economic act, vital to the future of the commonwealth.
The author, Dr. Allan C. Carlson, is director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Community and Economy, president of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, and distinguished visiting professor at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Dr. Carlson founded the World Congress of Families in 1997. He has written for numerous publications including the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Intercollegiate Review, and is the editor of The Family in America. He is the author of nine books, including The Natural Family: A Manifesto (Spence, 2007), which he co-authored with Paul T. Mero.
1. Theodore Roosevelt, The Works of Theodore Roosevelt: Memorial Edition, Vol. XXI (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1924): 263.
2. Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (New York and San Francisco: Pantheon Books, 1992, 1993): 120-21, 133, 139.
3. George Peter Murdock, Social Structure (New York: The Free Press, 1965 ): 1-8.
4. Genesis 1:27-28; 2:24 (Revised Standard Version).
5. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Book Three, Chapter XI.