|Scholars Defend Institution's Role in Society
PRINCETON, New Jersey, 25 FEB. 2006 (ZENIT)
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
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
"To disregard the needs of children, the traditions that have understood
these needs, and contemporary social science evidence offends natural
justice," they observe.
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
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
marriage and the family
that previously acted as a mediator between individuals and the state,
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? ZE06022501