Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Arguing For Marriage

Why the only convincing case for traditional marriage is the one made with our lives

The commenter “Jones” put a comment on a different thread. It was off-topic, and it was so good that I wanted to give it its own post. He writes:

This is not on topic. But I guess it sort of is, because I want to ask whether you’ve chosen the right topic.

This occurred to me after reading another article on this site, the great piece by F.H. Buckley. It has its problems, but the fundamental point is really valuable. We need systems other than law in order to come close to an optimal regulation of society.

Obergefell was clearly a crisis point for social conservatives. We lost the public debate on gay marriage; but more important was how we lost. Gay marriage showed that there was a great gap between what social conservatives want to say, and what the rest of the public is willing or able to hear. In short, what the process revealed was the inability of social conservatives to articulate, in a publicly convincing way, the basis of their own beliefs. The most striking fact about the whole process was this inarticulacy. When the crucial time came, SCs could not find the words to explain what they believed. For me, that was the crucial “revelation.”

I think you’ve decided that the problem is a retreat from Christian foundations of moral understanding. But whatever the cause is, we have a continuing responsibility to try to articulate these values in a way that is comprehensible in a secular debate—to correct our own inarticulacy. We have a responsibility to articulate our values, whatever their religious grounding may be, in a way that makes sense to people who do not necessarily share that grounding.

Often, this involves recovering a moral language that we have lost, or are at risk of losing. It also requires the humility to acknowledge that what you are saying doesn’t make sense to people, and trying to precisely diagnose why that is. As an intellectual task, this is huge. But it is far from impossible. Until we can speak in that moral language, and have it make sense to people, there’s no chance of going any further. I don’t think there’s any chance that these “lost values” will suddenly achieve mass appeal as a result of this basically interpretive project. But I think you first have to restore the intellectual credibility of those lost values. The fact that the odds are against it makes no difference. It has to be done if social conservatism is to survive in any form at all.

In this light, to say that the values inhere in Christianity, and therefore doubling down on Christian orthopraxy is the best we can do, is a mistake. Ultimately a big part of the burden is intellectual. For one thing, I think you forsake any elite appeal if you don’t take that approach, because elites will always want to know how a life of religious belief is compatible with modernity at all. As it is, there are clearly a lot of people who belong in the “elite” category who read your blog and are sympathetic to your views. These people are lost, but they obviously belong with your movement. Sooner or later, they will have to confront the contradictions that they live out everyday.

Readers, if you haven’t looked at the F.H. Buckley piece, I strongly recommend it to you. In it, he says that we lose something valuable when we turn to the law to settle even minor disputes, turning them into a contest of rights.


About marriage, I think it’s more accurate to say the problem is a bit more complicated than Jones states. It’s true that social conservatives lost the ability to articulate in a persuasive way the case for traditional marriage. But it’s also true, I think, that there is no way to make this case persuasive because the default values of our society have made that impossible.

I’ve just spent the morning talking a friend through a terrible, and terribly complicated, situation in which she is trying to extricate herself from a dysfunctional relationship with the man with whom she has been living for seven years. They are not married, and for a bunch of reasons, many of them bad decisions on her part, he holds all the financial cards, even though she has been the main breadwinner in this relationship. I’m not sure how she’s going to get out of this thing unless she walks away losing all her investments and personal property. I’m going to try to hook her up with a lawyer.

The thing I kept thinking as she told her story was how much easier this would be if she and the guy were married. The law would be on her side, or at least make sure she got a fair cut of what they built together. But they aren’t married, and now she’s at his mercy. The thing is, my friend comes out of a culture in which people have more or less ceased to marry. They just move in together, even have kids together, but nobody makes commitments. My friend is in a godawful legal situation in part because she comes from and lives in a working-class culture where marriage makes no intuitive sense to folks. Nobody goes to church. There are no real norms left regarding religion, family formation, sexual behavior, any of it. Only drift.

Now, I have middle-class and upper-middle class friends who live by this ethic to some extent, but they usually have the good sense to keep their finances separate, and not to be snookered into being responsible for their partner’s debts. Whatever you might say about the morality of these relationships, at least if Jane decides she’s had enough of Jack, and wants out, she can usually leave free and clear because she’s been clever enough to protect herself in ways that never occurred to my working-class friend. My friend’s hard case is a good example of how more liberalized sexual values that the more educated and financially secure classes can handle stand to ruin the lives of the working class and the poor.

Over two decades ago, Robert Kaplan, in The Atlantic, wrote about “the coming anarchy” in what we still called then the Third World. As part of the article, he contrasted the chaotic poverty of the slums of West Africa with the slums of Ankara, in Turkey. All the Turkish poor lacked was opportunity; despite the poverty of their neighborhoods, Kaplan felt perfectly safe there, because those Turkish Muslims knew how to live:

My point in bringing up a rather wholesome, crime-free slum is this: its existence demonstrates how formidable is the fabric of which Turkish Muslim culture is made. A culture this strong has the potential to dominate the Middle East once again. Slums are litmus tests for innate cultural strengths and weaknesses. Those peoples whose cultures can harbor extensive slum life without decomposing will be, relatively speaking, the future’s winners. Those whose cultures cannot will be the future’s victims. Slums—in the sociological sense—do not exist in Turkish cities. The mortar between people and family groups is stronger here than in Africa. Resurgent Islam and Turkic cultural identity have produced a civilization with natural muscle tone. Turks, history’s perennial nomads, take disruption in stride.

There’s a lesson in that for us too. The “extensive slum life” among poor American blacks and, increasingly, among the white American poor and working class, has caused and is causing those cultures to decompose. I don’t say that judgmentally, but I do say we have to see this for what it is. Back when my folks were growing up, in rural poverty, the culture among the white poor (I don’t know about the black poor back then) was generally that of the Turkish slums. That is fast going, and has in many places gone.

What does this have to do with Jones’s point? We have reached a point in the broader culture in the United States in which many people do not instinctively feel the need for traditional religious values, or marriage. They do not understand what most cultures in human history have understood: that sexuality needs to be bound within authoritative structures in order to be controlled, for the good of the tribe and the individuals within it. This has meant untold hardship, usually falling on females, but strong marriage cultures also lessen the possibility of women like my friend falling into such a deep hole.

In the modern West, marriage is not tied to sexuality, childbearing, and integration into the larger community and family, unless those ties are chosen. There is little or no intrinsic and transcendent meaning to marriage. We marry because we wish to formalize the affection we have for our partner. Many people marry for more reasons than that, but the point is that the baseline in America today is that marriage is expressive and temporary by its nature. There is no penalty, either actual or felt, for having sex outside of marriage, or for a couple living together without being married. So why marry?

The case for traditional marriage makes little sense to modern people, even many modern Christians, because our sense of what marriage is has changed radically, especially after the Sexual Revolution. If marriage is only, or primarily, about two people (for now) formalizing in law and custom their mutual affection, then why deny it to same-sex couples? Ryan T. Anderson and Sherif Girgis made a powerful natural law argument for privileging traditional marriage. I read it, and it’s very solid. But I knew as I was reading it that it was futile. When you have to reason people into seeing the value of marriage, and keeping marriage between one man and one woman, you’ve lost the battle. Ours is a culture that has come to prize individual choice and personal autonomy above all things. You can show people on paper why this makes sense, but it’s not going to change minds, because their hearts are where the real decision is being made.

I read something from C.S. Lewis’s book The Discarded Image the other day that is relevant to this discussion. Lewis is talking about the collapse of what he calls the Model — that is, the metaphysical view held by the medievals, who believed that this material world was not self-subsistent, but rather anchored in transcendent reality. Lewis makes a point that would be greatly elaborated on decades later by Charles Taylor: that the metaphysical view of the medievals was one way of construing the world, and it is not necessarily a worse way than the way we do it. We think today that our model is better because it is truer, but this is much less true than we know:

There is no question here of the old Model’s being shattered by the inrush of new phenomena. The truth would seem to be the reverse; that when changes in the human mind produce a sufficient disrelish of the old Model and a sufficient hankering for some new one, phenomena to support that new one will obediently turn up. I do not at all mean that these new phenomena are illusory. Nature has all sorts of phenomena in stock and can suit many different tastes.

… I hope no one will think that I am recommending a return to the Medieval Model. I am only suggesting considerations that may induce us to regard all Models in the right way, respecting each and idolizing none. We are all, very properly, familiar with the idea that in every age the human mind is deeply influenced by the accepted Model of the universe. But there is a two-way traffic; the Model is also influenced by the prevailing temper of mind. We must recognize that what has been called ‘a taste in universes’ is not only pardonable but inevitable. We can no longer dismiss the change of Models as a simple progress from error to truth. No Model is a catalogue of ultimate realities, and none is a mere fantasy. Each is a serious attempt to get in all the phenomena known at a given period, and each succeeds in getting in a great many. But also, no less surely, each reflects the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age’s knowledge. Hardly any battery of new facts could have persuaded a Greek that the universe had an attribute so repugnant to him as infinity; hardly any such batter could persuade a modern that it is hierarchical.

It is not impossible that our own Model will die a violent death, ruthlessly smashed by an unprovoked assault of new facts – unprovoked as the nova of 1572. But I think it is more likely to change when, and because, far-reaching changes in the mental temper of our descendants demand that it should. The new Model will not be set up without evidence, but the evidence will turn up when the inner need for it becomes sufficiently great. It will be true evidence. But nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her. Here, as in the courts, the character of the evidence depends on the shape of the examination, and a good cross-examiner can do wonders. He will not indeed elicit falsehoods from an honest witness. But, in relation to the total truth in the witness’s mind, the structure of the examination is like a stencil. It determines how much of that total truth will appear and what pattern it will suggest.

You can see the application to our own society’s concept of sex, marriage, and childbearing. I’ve mentioned here before that some Christian college professors told me once that they despaired over their students making solid, stable commitments to marriage and family, because so many of them had never seen it modeled for them. It is obviously not the case that it’s impossible to form stable marriages and families, but if you don’t see it around you, you may not believe that it is achievable. This, I think, is the situation my friend finds herself in, and it has affected her adult children too. In our general case, our society decided that it did not want the burdens of lifelong marriage, and of the standard that restricted sex to marriage, that it would find more fulfillment if it cast them aside. This fits perfectly with the general movement of the culture towards individual autonomy. Cultures are made up of people, and people will only ask the questions to which they are prepared to hear answers. They won’t hear what they don’t want to hear. This is where we are on marriage and family.

I never tire of quoting Pope Benedict XVI’s saying that the best arguments for the Church’s claims are not its propositions and syllogisms, but the art it produces, and its saints. I think this is the case for marriage too, at least in this decadent culture. People are not persuadable by reason, mostly because they do not share the premises on which the arguments are based. We have to accept that. They will live out the consequences of the ideas they have chosen to believe. The truth of the way Jones, as a believing Muslim, and I, as a believing traditional Christian, have chosen to live will be vindicated by our lives, and the lives of our families. That will be our witness; no other can persuade people in the grip of this madness. That’s the only reason I became a believing Christian. I had the arguments down pat in my head, but my heart refused to accept the consequences, until I had driven my life into a ditch.

As Philip Rieff taught us, people believe Truth is therapy; it’s what makes us feel good. That’s a powerful idea. It happens to be a lie. But it’s one that people are going to have to learn for themselves. They will start asking questions that the secular liberal Model cannot answer, but we can. There’s going to be a hell of a lot of suffering before the Great Re-Learning takes place. Trads like us, Jones, are going to have to be around to help the walking wounded, and to show them by our lives that there is a better way. We must be prepared to meet them with mercy, not judgment, because the way it went with them, it could have gone with us as well.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now