Marriage as a Public Good

Scholars Defend Institution's Role in Society

| 403 hits

PRINCETON, New Jersey, FEB. 25, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Marriage's role as a public institution is increasingly under attack. In the midst of pressures for legalization of same-sex marriage, formal recognition of de facto couples, and the continuing problem of divorce, the traditional view of marriage is no longer clear to many people.



But a volume of essays just-published collects an impressive array of evidence by leading scholars defending marriage and arguing that it serves the common good. "The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market, and Morals" (Spence Publishing) is edited by Robert P. George and Jean Bethke Elshtain, professors at Princeton University and the University of Chicago, respectively.

Elshtain notes in the book's foreword that nobody is left untouched by the marriage debate, because it is such a pervasive institution in society. Discourse over the future of marriage, however, has become increasingly fractious as groups such as same-sex couples demand recognition of their "rights."

An underlying theme in the book, she continues, is the conviction that altering the institution of marriage will have profound and perhaps unintended consequences for ourselves as individuals, and for society in general.

In all observed societies some form of marriage exists, comments English philosopher Roger Scruton in his chapter. Not only does it play a vital role in handing on the work of one generation to the next, but it also protects and nurtures children, is a form of social and economic cooperation, and regulates sexual activity.

Long-linked to religion, the marriage tie in recent times has faced a steady de-sacralization. As well, social constraints tying husband and wife have diminished to the point where marriage has left behind the Christian undertaking of "till death do us part," and now resembles more a short-term contract.

Indeed, this loss of the religious aspect of marriage played a key role its weakening, Scruton argues. A sacred vow is a far more binding commitment than a civil promise. And little by little, the state has loosened the marital tie, to the point where, he contends, we now approach "serial polygamy." But these rescindable civil unions cannot carry out the traditional functions. In fact, they serve principally to "amplify the self-confidence of the partners," he maintains, and cannot guarantee security to the children.

What about the children?

The next essay in the book examines, in fact, the fate of children. In their joint contribution, Don Browning, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and Elizabeth Marquardt, author of a recent book on the effects of divorce on children, look at the effects of same-sex marriage on children.

They take issue with same-sex marriage advocates, and also the position taken by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts when it legalized same-sex unions. Making sexual exchange and affection the center of the institution of marriage, while ignoring its generative goals, is an error, they maintain.

And redefining marriage in this way dispenses with the principle that the individuals who give life to children should be the ones who raise them in an enduring relationship. Children have a right to parents and families, as even the United Nations in its Convention on the Rights of the Child affirms. They also have a right to be raised in a society where the legal and cultural institutions help ensure they will be raised by the parents who conceived them, argue Browning and Marquardt.

Ample evidence shows that children raised by their married biological parents do better, on average, than those raised by single parents or stepparents. There is little research so far on the fate of children raised by same-sex couples. But up to now, experience with alternative family forms suggests that these unions will not be able to duplicate the personal investments made by married heterosexual couples in their marriages, and the resulting solidity and positive effects, the authors assert.

"To disregard the needs of children, the traditions that have understood these needs, and contemporary social science evidence offends natural justice," they observe.

Healthier

A more detailed look at how marriage protects children is the subject of Maggie Gallagher's contribution. Gallagher, author of a number of books on the subject, notes that marriage:

-- increases the likelihood that children enjoy warm, close relationships with their parents;

-- reduces child poverty; and

-- leads to healthier children, who are also more likely to do well at school and graduate from college.

By contrast, children raised outside of intact married homes are more likely to divorce, have higher rates of substance abuse and mental illness, and suffer abuse as youngsters.

Gallagher acknowledges that scholars are still debating over the size of the marital advantage, and the mechanisms by which it is conferred. But there is no doubt that marriage is much more than just a private arrangement based on emotions. It is also a social good with profound influences on children.

Some advocates of same-sex marriage, she notes, argue that there is evidence demonstrating that children brought up in these unions do not suffer any disadvantages compared to children raised by heterosexual couples. But Gallagher points to studies that have demonstrated methodological failures in the research advanced by same-sex advocates as proof for their cause.

Among the problems are small sample sizes, a lack of long-term studies, and the fact that the vast majority of the studies compared single lesbian mothers to single heterosexual mothers, and not to married couples.

Economic role

In his essay, Harold James, professor of history at Princeton, reflects on the economic role of the family. Much attention has been given to the interaction between the state and markets, he notes, but relatively little to the impact of the family on the economy.

The family, James points out, is not only a source of stability, but also of dynamism, creativity and innovation. A look at economic history, and the situation in many countries today, quickly reveals the importance of family-run businesses. More than three-quarters of registered companies in the industrialized world are family businesses, and in Europe some of these include some very large enterprises.

Economist Jennifer Roback Morse takes issue in her essay with no-fault divorce. Turning marriage into a temporary contract not only has had serious social consequences. It also has weakened the institution itself, making it easier to argue for same-sex marriage, she argues.

Marriage, Morse explains, is a naturally occurring pre-political institution and plays a vital intermediary role in society. Its weakening leads the state to a far greater intervention in our lives. This happens through the expansion of welfare activities in dealing with the consequences of broken families. It also prompts the state to conceive of itself as the arbiter of marital and family structures, which can be remade in any variety of forms it pleases.

Consequently, society loses the functioning of a vital social institution -- marriage and the family -- that previously acted as a mediator between individuals and the state, Morse contends.

The economist also compares the marriage contract to a business one. No-fault divorce in reality is unilateral divorce, she notes, whereby one partner can simply break up a marriage, depriving the other of any possibility to contest the issue. Imagine the impact on the economy if this were the standard type of business contract, Morse points out. How would we do business if the law made no distinctions between those who kept the terms of a contract and those who don't?