My wife and I recently celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. The planning of how we would mark the occasion was at my discretion. Maybe I should have taken her on vacation – a second honeymoon of sorts.
Instead, I planned a gathering of a few dozen friends back home. Maybe I’m cheap, but one of the main reasons I did this is because I view our marriage as a public thing, even though few people actually know the inner workings of our married life.
Our marriage is an entity with ramifications and consequences that resonate outside our home. The same goes backwards: what happens in other marriages can affect ours. A marriage needs friends, and it can also bring friendship to the unions of others.
It is deeply important that a society understands marriage as a public matter or simply as a private matter. Yet few Christians spend much time pondering whether marriage is fundamentally public or private. Young adult Christians tend to view marriage as a private matter (with some public events). Marriage is a public event, but the marriage itself is not considered anyone’s business.
Decisions to divorce are private, although they involve public legal filings and declarations, social changes in the status of relationships, the creation of separate households, etc. Westerners in general tend to downplay these public aspects of divorce, expecting little or no objection from others. Most disagree with Jessica – a 31-year-old Catholic fiancÃ©e from Austin – who imagines marriage as creating circles that reverberate “on the extended family, community, nation, and society as a whole. . . “
But that’s exactly what marriage does – it creates concentric circles by creating families, connecting generations, and forming friendships. Yana, a twenty-seven-year-old Orthodox woman who lives in Moscow and is married to an atheist, also characterizes marriage as a public phenomenon. She compares it to “a small reactor, a small power plant that produces more than enough energy to light up and heat up.”
She continues: âI really like when a family is so well established that this resource, this warmth that is inside, is also enough to bring it out, to share with relatives, distant relatives, at work, in the home. subway, in the street, in a store. Yana’s reactor metaphor is clever. But also think about what can happen inside a reactor if it is do not maintained: a ruptured core and an explosion that can contaminate everything around it.
Divorce breaks up much more than a solitary marriage, even if the union has not produced any children. In-laws are usually cut off from an ex-spouse, and friends often find themselves forced to choose sides. (I refer to divorce as âthe gift that keeps on taking.â) Marriage and divorce have broad social ramifications in the lives of others.
Civil marriage versus Christian marriage
Confusion about the public aspects of marriage has led some Christians to support civil (but not religious) same-sex marriage. For Thomas, a thirty-year-old married Catholic telecommunications director from Austin, civil marriage is simply “a contract to live together and reap the benefits of the state.” He just extends the benefits to alternative arrangements: âBasically two people can get married, which is good, because you make a contract out of that.
This understanding allows Thomas to ignore much of the conflict between modern civil marriage and the sacramental understanding of his faith in union. âSo my argument is to get the government out of the marriage business,â he explained, âand let it be just the churchâ. (Never mind that this does not count for the âcontractâ he just approved, which an entity has to regulate). Thomas’ idea allows him to operate at ease in a world where marriage is thought of as a social construct – a moving, malleable target.
Thomas admits that his colleagues would quibble with his distinction between what they see as marriage and the sacrament which he considers a “real marriage”. But tension is rarely, if ever, recognized or treated. This calm allows her to agree to any definition of civil marriage, while keeping a religious definition in her heart.
Fighting for that is pointless, he believes, since “the Supreme Court has decided that we are going to call it marriage, and that’s what it’s going to be.” Thomas knows that other Christians are more worried about it than he is, but he finds a more reasonable selfless position: âI mean, the Church is actively fighting it, I guess, but I think it’s futile, because that it does not matter what the law says. Ultimately, the Church has not changed.
The law, however, is a very effective teacher. It is important that US marriage law now teaches nothing basic and supportive expectations of marriage. Thomas is right about one thing: marriage has been reduced to a symbol and a set of benefits. He’s wrong about another – that it doesn’t matter.
Who âownsâ the marriage?
In the 2018 Post-midterm electoral study survey, two in three Americans – but many more of the more religious – disagreed with the statement: “Marriage is an obsolete institution”. There is still great goodwill towards marriage. This raises a pair of questions that few people ask: Do irreligious people do something different from Christians when they get married? Who retains oversight of marriage in general – and what does that even mean?
The late University of Chicago ethicist Don Browning wrote that the Protestant Reformation “made marriage a public institution, but one which could be blessed by religious institutions.” Most agree with Browning that it has been a game-changer for religious marriage surveillance, although it has not often changed how marriages work.
Master reformers (like Luther and Calvin) tended to hold that marriage was not a sacrament but has been ordained by God. For them, marriage was not a “natural institution” made sacramental by its elevation by the Church, but a human institution – and therefore subject to the jurisdiction of the civil authority which was itself in some way responsible for divine law and principle. With this, marriage comes to be understood broadly as a contract, as contracts are what civil authorities judge. In other words, the Reformation politicizes marriage.
Church and state would now compete as authorities over marriage law. Looking back, that’s a remarkable concession – giving a secular institution authority over what includes moral issues involving sexual expression, child rearing, and caring for family members. In Calvin’s Geneva, maybe it didn’t seem like such a big leap from church to city council. This is the case today.
Historically, Christian marriage in the United States has been widely viewed as a spiritual dimension added to an earthly reality that is generally (but not always or entirely) judged in secular terms. In his book Christian marriageConservative Presbyterian sociologist David Ayers notes that for the first sixty-five years in New England, Puritan colonial ministers were prohibited from performing marriages. This role was reserved for civilian magistrates.
Further, according to the late Harvard sociologist Carle Zimmerman, “courtship, reunification, pre-contracts, marriage, adultery, and child behavior were all matters of law” in 17th-century New England. century. And it wasn’t until 1733 that all ministers were allowed to perform wedding ceremonies.
The result is a mixture of authority – more secular than religious – with pastors or individual committees becoming the arbiters of acceptable marriage practices in their organizations and congregations. Their attempts to judge and enforce their own rules on divorce and remarriage, however, are hampered by the ease with which disgruntled or “disciplined” members can simply change churches.
Christians cannot be libertarians in marriage
Geoff, a twenty-four-year-old Baptist from Austin, differs from Thomas in his opinion of the state’s involvement in marriage. The state, he argues, has invested too much in the positive byproducts of marriage to pull out now:
I think the government should be concerned about marriage for economic reasons, for societal reasons, because when you have a society where marriages are flourishing, you will inevitably have a society which flourishes in other areas. …
Married people earn more and perform better in their jobs. They live longer. They start families and reproduce, which perpetuates the society and makes it more stable. The government should therefore care about marriage.
Christians like Geoff will continue to challenge social change in forms of civil marriage, while others, like Thomas, will take the libertarian path, pushing for the state to “get out of marriage.” A similar pattern has already emerged, or will soon be, in many other countries where there is a comparable divergence between civil and religious marriage and a similar perspective on marriage as a largely private matter.
But libertarianism is not viable on this level. We can learn this from the natural experience of the Soviet sexual revolution, which took place in the 1920s. It was underpinned by an explicitly libertarian approach to marriage. The Soviets played down the marriage law, recognized the “fluidity of personal relations” and tried not to favor one union over another, stressing “the right of the individual to be free from state interference. â, As historian Wendy Z. Goldman observed in Women, the State and the Revolution. It was a fiasco then, and it won’t work now, as long as human beings act in predictable ways.
Some still hope. Clare Chambers, anti-marriage activist, author of Against marriage, proposes a “piecemeal regulation” of intimate relationships. In reality, breaking the public âprivilegeâ of marriage is the recipe for an unruly mess that will only extend state regulation even further into our private lives. In other words, if marriage becomes a “private” matter, no relationship will actually be. There will not be less regulation, but much more.
What future changes are in the works for marriage law, I can’t say. I just know that my own marriage is always “good enough” and gives way more than it takes.
This essay is extracted and adapted from The future of Christian marriage (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Republished with permission from Public discourse.