II. TEN PRINCIPLES OF MARRIAGE AND FAMILY IN SOCIETY
By Witherspoon Institute
Continuation from the first part
1. Marriage is a personal union, intended for the whole of life, of husband and wife.
Marriage differs from other valued personal relationships in conveying a full union of husband and wife- including a sexual, emotional, financial, legal, spiritual, and parental union. Marriage is not the ratification of an existing relation; it is the beginning of a new relationship between a man and woman, who pledge their sexual fidelity to one another, promise loving mutual care and support, and form a family that welcomes and nurtures the children that may spring from their union. This understanding of marriage has predominated in Europe and America for most of the past two thousand years. It springs from the biological, psychological, and social complementarity of the male and female sexes: Women typically bring to marriage important gifts and perspectives that men typically do not bring, just as men bring their own special gifts and perspectives that women typically cannot provide in the same way. This covenant of mutual dependence and obligation, solemnized by a legal oath, is strengthened by the pledge of permanence that husband and wife offer to one another-always to remain, never to flee, even and especially in the most difficult times.
2. Marriage is a profound human good, elevating and perfecting our social and sexual nature.
Human beings are social animals, and the social institution of marriage is a profound human good. It is a matrix of human relationships rooted in the spouses’ sexual complementarity and procreative possibilities and in children’s need for sustained parental nurturance and support. It creates clear ties of begetting and belonging, ties of identity, kinship, and mutual interdependence and responsibility. These bonds of fidelity serve a crucial public purpose, and so it is necessary and proper for the state to recognize and encourage marriage in both law and public policy. Indeed, it is not surprising that marriage is publicly sanctioned and promoted in virtually every known society and often solemnized by religious and cultural rituals. Modern biological and social science only confirm the benefits of marriage as a human good consistent with our given nature as sexual and social beings.
3. Ordinarily, both men and women who marry are better off as a result.
Married men gain moral and personal discipline, a stable domestic life, and the opportunity to participate in the upbringing of their children. Married women gain stability and protection, acknowledgment of the paternity of their children, and shared responsibility and emotional support in the raising of their young. Together, both spouses gain from a normative commitment to the institution of marriage itself-including the benefits that come from faithfully fulfilling one’s chosen duties as mother or father, husband or wife. Couples who share a moral commitment to marital permanency and fidelity tend to have better marriages. The marital ethic enjoining permanence, mutual fidelity, and care, as well as forbidding violence or sexual abuse, arises out of the core imperative of our marriage tradition: that men and women who marry pledge to love one another, “in sickness and in health” and “for better or for worse,” ordinarily “until death do us part.”
4. Marriage protects and promotes the well-being of children.
The family environment provided by marriage allows children to grow, mature, and flourish. It is a seedbed of sociability and virtue for the young, who learn from both their parents and their siblings. Specifically, the married family satisfies children’s need to know their biological origins, connects them to both a mother and father, establishes a framework of love for nurturing the young, oversees their education and personal development, and anchors their identity as they learn to move about the larger world. These are not merely desirable goods, but what we owe to children as vulnerable beings filled with potential. Whenever humanly possible, children have a natural human right to know their mother and father, and mothers and fathers have a solemn obligation to love their children unconditionally.
5. Marriage sustains civil society and promotes the common good.
Civil society also benefits from a stable marital order. Families are themselves small societies, and the web of trust they establish across generations and between the spouses’ original families are a key constituent of society as a whole. The network of relatives and in-laws that marriage creates and sustains is a key ingredient of the “social capital” that facilitates many kinds of beneficial civic associations and private groups. The virtues acquired within the family-generosity, self-sacrifice, trust, self-discipline-are crucial in every domain of social life. Children who grow up in broken families often fail to acquire these elemental habits of character. When marital breakdown or the failure to form marriages becomes widespread, society is harmed by a host of social pathologies, including increased poverty, mental illness, crime, illegal drug use, clinical depression, and suicide.
6. Marriage is a wealth-creating institution, increasing human and social capital.
The modern economy and modern democratic state depend on families to produce the next generation of productive workers and taxpayers. This ongoing renewal of human capital is a crucial ingredient in the national economy, one that is now in grave peril in those societies with rapidly aging populations and below-replacement fertility rates. It is within families that young people develop stable patterns of work and self-reliance at the direction of their parents, and this training in turn provides the basis for developing useful skills and gaining a profession. More deeply, marriage realigns personal interests beyond the good of the present self, and thus reduces the tendency of individuals and groups to make rash or imprudent decisions that squander the inheritance of future generations. Families also provide networks of trust and capital that serve as the foundation for countless entrepreneurial small-business enterprises (as well as some large corporations), which are crucial to the vitality of the nation’s economy. In addition, devoted spouses and grown children assist in caring for the sick and elderly, and maintain the solvency of pension and social-insurance programs by providing unremunerated care for their loved ones, paying taxes, and producing the children who will form future generations of tax-paying workers. Without flourishing families, in other words, the long-term health of the modern economy would be imperiled.
7. When marriage weakens, the equality gap widens, as children suffer from the disadvantages of growing up in homes without committed mothers and fathers.
Children whose parents fail to get and stay married are at increased risk of poverty, dependency, substance abuse, educational failure, juvenile delinquency, early unwed pregnancy, and a host of other destructive behaviors. When whole families and neighborhoods become dominated by fatherless homes, these risks increase even further. The breakdown of marriage has hit the African-American community especially hard, and thus threatens the cherished American ideal of equality of opportunity by depriving adults and especially children of the social capital they need to flourish. Precisely because we seek to eliminate social disadvantages based on race and class, we view the cultural, economic, and other barriers to strengthening marriage in poor neighborhoods – especially among those racial minorities with disproportionately high rates of family breakdown – as a serious problem to be solved with persistence, generosity, and ingenuity.
8. A functioning marriage culture serves to protect political liberty and foster limited government.
Strong, intact families stabilize the state and decrease the need for costly and intrusive bureaucratic social agencies. Families provide for their vulnerable members, produce new citizens with virtues such as loyalty and generosity, and engender concern for the common good. When families break down, crime and social disorder soar; the state must expand to reassert social control with intrusive policing, a sprawling prison system, coercive child-support enforcement, and court-directed family life.3 Without stable families, personal liberty is thus imperiled, as the state tries to fulfill through coercion those functions that families, at their best, fulfill through covenantal devotion.
9. The laws that govern marriage matter significantly.
Law and culture exhibit a dynamic relationship: changes in one ultimately yield changes in the other, and together law and culture structure the choices that individuals see as available, acceptable, and choiceworthy. Given the clear benefits of marriage, we believe that the state should not remain politically neutral, either in procedure or outcome, between marriage and various alternative family structures. Some have sought to redefine civil marriage as a private contract between two individuals regardless of sex, others as a binding union of any number of individuals, and still others as any kind of contractual arrangement for any length of time that is agreeable to any number of consenting adult parties. But in doing so a state would necessarily undermine the social norm which encourages marriage as historically understood – i.e., the sexually faithful union, intended for life, between one man and one woman, open to the begetting and rearing of children. The public goods uniquely provided by marriage are recognizable by reasonable persons, regardless of religious or secular worldview, and thus provide compelling reasons for reinforcing the existing marriage norm in law and public policy.
10. “Civil marriage” and “religious marriage” cannot be rigidly or completely divorced from one another.
Americans have always recognized the right of any person, religious or non-religious, to marry. While the ceremonial form of religious and secular marriages often differs, the meaning of such marriages within the social order has always been similar, which is why the state honors those marriages duly performed by religious authorities. Moreover, current social science evidence on religion and marital success affirms the wisdom of the American tradition, which has always recognized and acknowledged the positive role that religion plays in creating and sustaining marriage as a social institution.4 The majority of Americans marry in religious institutions, and for many of these people a religious dimension suffuses the whole of family life and solemnizes the marriage vow. It is thus important to recognize the crucial role played by religious institutions in lending critical support for a sustainable marriage culture, on which the whole society depends. And it is important to preserve some shared idea of what marriage is that transcends the differences between religious and secular marriages and between marriages within our nation’s many diverse religious traditions.
© The Witherspoon Institute 2006
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