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Moralistic Therapeutic Marriage

Cambridge prof says marriage should be abolished for egalitarian reasons. Do Christians have any real reason to object?

Clare Chambers, a Cambridge University philosopher, thinks marriage is a bad idea, period. Excerpts:

When the state recognises marriage, it does three things: it defines, it endorses, and it regulates.

First, state-recognised marriage means that the state defines marriage and controls access to it. In a marriage regime, the state dictates who may marry. It determines whether marriage must be between a man and a woman, or whether same-sex marriage is allowed. It determines how many people can be married to each other. It determines whether and when divorce and remarriage are available. In a marriage regime, the state may also place religious or racial restrictions on marriage.

In making these regulations, the state determines the meaning of marriage. Is it an institution for loving couples or an instrument of religious and cultural kinship? Does it institutionalise traditional religious values, or can it encompass diversity? State recognition of marriage directly and inevitably engages the state in making complex and controversial statements about value and meaning, statements that promote some ways of life and family forms, and demote others.

Second, when the state recognises marriage, it provides public and official endorsement of the state of being married. A marriage regime includes a state-sanctioned marriage ceremony, with officials and celebrants. Obtaining a state-recognised marriage is not like obtaining a driving licence or completing a tax return: it involves a solemnified and lauded ritual in which the state is intimately involved. And so, when the state recognises marriage, it declares that marriages are special.

The third aspect of state-recognised marriage is regulation: the state provides a married couple with legal rights and duties. Unmarried people have legal rights and duties too. But state-recognised marriage involves giving married people a bundle of rights and duties concerning many areas of life. These may include financial support, parental responsibility, inheritance, taxation, migration and next-of-kinship: crucial areas of life that affect everyone, married or not.

Well, she’s not wrong about that. Marriage is not and never can be a “neutral” institution. So what’s Prof. Chambers’s problem? More:

Each of the three aspects of state recognition have been used in ways that instigate and perpetuate a variety of hierarchies, most consistently based on gender but also on race, religion, sexuality and class.

Access to marriage has generally been limited to couples consisting of one man and one woman. Some countries have restricted access to marriage to people from certain racial or religious groups. For example, many US states had anti-miscegenation laws preventing interracial marriage, until such laws were found to be unconstitutional in the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v Virginia.

Access controls reflect sexist, heterosexist, racist and generally inegalitarian interpretations of the meaning of marriage, with the result that the honorific aspect of marriage is also applied unequally. Only some people are granted state sanctification for their relationship, and this unequal approval has been used to devastating effect, with unmarried couples and their children subject to stigma and discrimination.


State-recognised marriage means treating married couples differently from unmarried couples in stable, permanent, monogamous sexual relationships. It means treating people in sexual relationships differently from those in non-sexual or caring relationships. It means treating those in couples differently from those who are single or polyamorous. It expresses the official view that sexual partnership is both the ultimate goal and the assumed norm. It expresses the assumption that central relationship practices – parenting, cohabitation, financial dependence, migration, care, next-of-kinship, inheritance, sex – are bundled together into one dominant relationship. And so it denies people rights that they need in relation to one practice unless they also engage in all the others and sanctify that arrangement via the state.

Blah blah blah egalitarianism blah blah blah. It’s like she hasn’t given a moment’s thought to the reasons why marriage is an important institution. Chambers says that marriage should be abolished as a legal institution, and that the state “should regulate relationship practices.” Read the whole thing.

The reader who sent me that link writes:

Reading this article made me immediately think of the Benedict Option, as the millennial author’s [Note: Chambers was born in 1976 — RD] views on marriage are the end product of the cultural ‘inputs’ you elaborate on in your book. This is such a shallow, but thoroughly postmodern-Western, view of marriage that it is heartbreaking to read. This millennial lecturer is hardly alone in reducing marriage to a proxy for government sanctioned love, childbearing, and commitment. All these things, as the author points out, can be had outside of marriage. This is where a strong Christian community might step in to explain that, while marriages certainly have these things, that is not all they are. But we don’t live in a strong Christian community; the author can’t find a deeper reason for marriage, and so she concludes that the whole thing is (of course) an oppressive power structure and needs to be done away with. While I find her argument riddled with gaping holes, that really isn’t the point. The sad thing about this article is that we were too long complicit in viewing marriage in the same way the author does–a thing two people who love each other do, in the eyes of the government, to have a family and pick up a tax break.

Twenty years ago, Christians had no problem resting on the idea that marriage is about two people committed to loving one another. They couldn’t have dreamed how quickly and completely that logic would lead them to paths they didn’t wish to go down. By positioning marriage as a legal issue, we gave up on a higher, truer definition of marriage and essentially yelled to the culture that marriage could and would be ultimately defined by the government. In forfeiting our Christian identity, it suddenly became of great importance to us what the government chose to apply the word “marriage” to; we bet big that they would side with us, and we lost big.

I’m tired and having a hard time communicating what I’m trying to say, but it seems like we’ve created some kind of moralistic therapeutic marriage: just like this millennial author, most of us bought into the idea that marriage is just about two people in love, who want to spend the rest of their lives together and have children. If you fall out of love, you can just ‘consciously uncouple’. There’s no imagery of a consubstantial union reflecting the glory of God or Christ’s love of the church. No intimation of the sacrifice needed to love (in the deeper, non-contemporary sense) someone through sickness and health, good times and bad, ’til death do us part. No real metaphysical connection at all, really. Not even a church to get married in (and I know many ‘Christians’ who were married before a government official, but never a priest or pastor, further illustrating how much we bought into the idea that marriage is a government, and not a God, thing). When moralistic therapeutic marriage was used to justify gay marriage, we were in a logical conundrum, because these people love each other, and they want to spend their lives together, and some even want children. Most people could do little more than utter “…but the Bible says…” in defense of traditional marriage. If a Christian marries an atheist, no problem! But if a man marries a man using the exact same reasoning…now it’s an affront to God.

With this shallow proxy-based definition of marriage, is it any wonder this millennial wonders (in what is admittedly a terribly presented argument) if we should do away with the whole thing? I guess what it comes down to is this: presumably, if we were Christians and cared about what marriage meant for Christians, we would’ve just said, “They can call that thing anything they want; as far as we’re concerned, that’s not marriage.” Instead (again relating to BenOp), we tried to keep our political power, play the legal game, failed to recognize that the culture has no inkling of what marriage is beyond a privileged relationship between two people who love each other, and lost.

Yes, even if we had corporally decided before Obergefell that marriage was what we said it was, and that we’d treat it as such in our churches and communities without concern for government sanctioning, we’d still be derided, laughed at, sued, and all the rest. It’s not about saving face. But at least there would’ve been an alternative vision out there with a little more depth than “…but the Bible says…”. At least some additional people would come to know why marriage is different. At least this author would’ve had to have written, “True, Christians maintain that marriage does uniquely manifest and reflect divine love and grace like no other relationship because of what they believe to be the objective nature of their God,” before going on to call it BS and making her same ill-thought-out argument all the same.

I believe there are practical, non-religious arguments in favor of the institution of marriage, but the reader has a point. If Christians accept that the definition of marriage is only about ratifying and formalizing emotional commitments, then they have conceded too much. Being better catechized by pop culture than the church, many of us have.



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