- Marriage is especially important to civilizing men, translating dangerous, destructive, potentially anti-social passions towards providing for the needs of wives and children. Tweet This
- Marriage and family life are deeply political institutions, reflecting the public’s understanding of justice and the good life and honor. Tweet This
- The undermining and dishonoring of stable families in our communities fuels poverty, inequality, and unhappiness. Tweet This
Our politics and culture used to support marriage as an enduring community. The Supreme Court saw marriage as “fundamental to our very existence and survival” as a self-governing people. Lawmakers across the land contributed to a culture that encouraged couples to marry and stay together and to have children and raise them to honorable adulthood. Divorce was rare and discouraged. Obscenity was proscribed and less able to corrupt minds.
Over the past two generations, opponents of marriage have delivered a wide-ranging critique of this idea of marriage. For many today, the traditional idea of marriage as an enduring community limits individual freedom. They imagine, instead, a marriage dedicated to autonomy, “expression, intimacy, and spirituality,” as Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his 2015 decision on same-sex marriage.
This denigration of marriage has, predictably, disrupted it. For the first time in our history, only half of Americans over 18 years old are married, down from 72% in 1960. Trends among the young are even more dramatic: 35% of Americans between 18 and 50 years old have never been married, whereas that number was only 9% in 1970. Birth rates are also at historic lows. According to Pew Research, each passing generation has less of an attachment to communal marriage, with children at its core.
The new ideas of marriage may have yielded more freedom and equality, but they come at a price. This disruption of marriage has disrupted domestic tranquility. Many citizens are less happy, less stable, and less responsible as a result.
Traditional marriage is increasingly rare in our great cities and in swaths of rural America. There, children and especially young men are less likely to have the habits and character that lead productive lives, to complete education, to follow the law, and to get and stay married. The sexes are often suspicious of one another, and they are less likely to have easy, peaceful relations. Instead, sexual relations are more likely to be exploitative and transitory. With less of a sense of belonging, suicide, drug use, and criminality among men and increasingly among women undermine the prospect of self-government and call into question the goodness of civilization. This has set a vicious circle in motion in one America.
It is high time we re-recognize the value of marriage and family life for the well-being of citizens, for civilization itself, and especially for republican self-government. Marriage and family life are deeply political institutions, reflecting the public’s understanding of justice and the good life and honor. How we legislate on marriage has profound effects on how people imagine it and live it.
A political community that honors marital community best answers the deep patterns of nature and the demands of civilization. Men and women dedicate themselves to a common good in a marital community. Spouses succor and support one another, in good times and bad. This fulfills a great human need for acceptance, trust, and close-knit community. Not much we do as a people prepares our young to make such communities anymore. Many lack examples. Others do not know to prioritize marriage in their busy lives. Yet those without such community are more often lonely and depressed, while those with a close-knit family can survive and even thrive in tough times like a pandemic.
Until Americans recover the central importance of marriage to stable and loving families and healthy communities, there will be no progress toward a humane society where all have the chance to rise.
Marriage is not just any community. Unlike friendship, marriage responds to physical realities and sex differences. Marriage is most likely to produce children, and thus regenerate the world. Enduring, monogamous marriage helps translate the natural sexual desires of men and women toward fulfillment that is consistent with their natures. Through marriage, men’s sexual passions are connected to a wife and family. Marriage is especially important to civilizing men, translating dangerous, destructive, potentially anti-social passions towards providing for the needs of wives and children. It also stabilizes women, making them hubs of a richer, meaningful community.
Marriage is also the best school for parenthood. Living for a common good, married couples are more likely to have children and to take responsibility for raising them. Building a family tangibly connects fathers and mothers to eternity. Couples seek to secure the liberty and happiness for “themselves and their posterity.” And families create responsible networks where people are better able to care for the elderly. Taking responsibility in marriage and parenthood provides many people with a big part on life’s purpose.
Parenthood itself calls forth different things from men and women, though it is unfashionable to say that. Men learn to provide security for the family and demand excellence from their children, while women are more likely to provide care, unconditional love, and nurturing for their young charges. Men open children to the wider world, while women are more likely to be partisans on their behalf. Children thrive best with both perspectives.
As a result, children from enduring marriages are most likely to exercise self-control, provide for themselves, obey laws, and participate in the making of laws. Children thrive best in an atmosphere of stability, security, and love.
Fashionable opinion pins the deterioration of our communities on structural changes in the economy and elsewhere. Such material causes are no doubt important. But these theories miss how prominent ideologies point young men and women away from marriage and destroy a culture dedicated to it. The undermining and dishonoring of stable families in our communities fuels poverty, inequality, and unhappiness. It makes for many unhappy women and purposeless men. Until Americans recover the central importance of marriage to stable and loving families and healthy communities, there will be no progress toward a humane society where all have the chance to rise.
No families, no peace. Know families, know peace.
Scott Yenor is a Washington Fellow at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life, a professor of political science at Boise State University, and the author of The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies (Baylor, 2020).