It might surprise the New York State legislature, fresh off its legalization of same-sex marriage last week, to know this isn’t our first national debate about marriage.
In the 19th century, Mormons in Utah forced a different debate. The Supreme Court upheld a ban on polygamy in 1885 with these words:
“Certainly no legislation can be supposed more wholesome and necessary in the founding of a free, self-governing commonwealth … than that which seeks to establish it on the basis of the idea of the family, as consisting in and springing from the union for life of one man and one woman in the holy estate of matrimony; the family is the sure foundation of all that is stable and noble in our civilization; the best guarantee of that reverent morality which is the source of all beneficent progress in social and political improvement.”
The court held what once was obvious: “traditional” marriage is the basis of a free society.
It’s a historically observable fact that we humans extrapolate our government arrangements from our domestic ones. That’s why anyone who’s ever wanted to understand — or radically change — a political culture has always started from the family. Plato and Aristotle started there. So did Rousseau and Marx.
The erotic impulse is beautiful and (Christians believe) God-given, but unregulated, it creates chaos. Marriage is the institution that takes sexual passion and stabilizes it.
There has never been a polygamous society, for example, that respected the equal dignity of each person, because the polygamous culture is that of the “Alpha” male. With multiple “wives” available, no man ever goes off the market. He sees all women as his potential lovers and all men as his sexual rivals. A winner-take-all atmosphere prevails, with weaker men (and teenage sons) driven off.
Monogamous marriage stabilizes sexual competition, making the mutual trust on which civic life is built possible.
Heterosexual marriage extends this principle of equality not only to other men, but to women.
Behind the apparently arbitrary “rule” that a man must marry a woman before bedding her lies the deeper message that a woman is precious. She is a person worth a lifetime commitment of love and service, not an object to be used.
A young woman hearing that she must “save herself” for one man learns simultaneously that a man is a person whose heart isn’t to be toyed with.
The lived experience of marriage teaches each spouse — and the children who grow up in their home — in a practical way to respect the gifts and talents of the other sex. In an unspoken way, the interior logic of traditional marriage transmits to its children a set of powerfully embedded assumptions: that all persons have equal dignity, that both sexes have unique gifts to be treasured, and that individuals often must sacrifice their own desires for the common good.
As the Holy Father put it to a group of politicians in Croatia last month, it’s in the family that children develop a conscience adequate to the task of building a just society:
This logic of gratuitousness, learnt in infancy and adolescence, is then lived out in every area of life, in games, in sport, in interpersonal relations, in art, in voluntary service to the poor and the suffering, and once it has been assimilated it can be applied to the most complex areas of political and economic life so as to build up a polis that is welcoming and hospitable, but at the same time not empty, not falsely neutral, but rich in humanity, with a strongly ethical dimension.
This is the culture created by one-man, one-woman marriage. It happens to be the only one strong enough on which to build a republican government — one where the people govern themselves. And it’s strong enough to absorb exceptions from the norm (those who never marry, widows, even the pregnant out of wedlock and sexual rebels), so long as the norm persists.
The effects of the destruction of marriage may not be immediate. A healthy culture can withstand upheavals when they’re short-lived, but we permanently change the interior logic of marriage at our peril.
If marriage is nothing more than an expression of desire and affection, then people are not persons, but objects of desire. Go ahead and treat them as you like. Which, pursued to its utmost, is another way of saying, “Might makes right.”
The equal dignity of each human person is the internal logic of heterosexual, monogamous marriage. It’s a pre-condition for self-government, and no society has ever been free without it.
Note: an earlier version of this column originally ran at Faith & Family magazine.