Article Jun 26, 2015

The roots of marriage’s redefinition: How we got where we are today

Americans now find themselves on the other side of the same-sex marriage debate. The Supreme Court has ruled, and ruled against an understanding of marriage supported by the Bible and all of human civilization. How did we reach a point where an institution older than recorded history could be redefined and altered by an idea unknown before the year 2000?

To most observers not accustomed to monitoring every cultural debate, the pace at which same-sex marriage has advanced throughout American society can easily be characterized as breathtaking. We now find ourselves less than fifteen years removed from marriage’s electoral dominance and stand on a major precipice of marriage’s continued erosion.

Yet, when we examine the academic arguments made, cultural attitudes cultivated, and court rulings issued over the last four or five decades, how we’ve arrived at our current destination is not altogether surprising. Rather, like a domino effect, the culmination of marriage’s redefinition represents a troubling and logical sequence put in place long ago and carried out quite consistently as the result of academic, cultural, and legal revolutions targeting marriage and family life.

In general, a “redefinition” occurs when the composite structure of an entity’s essence or nature has been altered, added to, or subtracted from. What does “redefinition” mean as applied to marriage? In the case of marriage, a redefinition occurs when the goods of marriage are removed from the marital union itself and experienced elsewhere in a substitute, and cheapened form. A “good” is an irreducible feature that is good for its own sake and stands on its own. This will be explained further below. Once the goods of marriage are capable of being actualized apart from marriage, marriage’s composition and poise retain less attractional pull. For the sake of this article’s argument, let us assume that marriage’s goods are threefold: Romantic union, companionship, and procreative capacity. As this article will argue, once these goods were all de-coupled from the bounds of marriage, the likelihood of marriage’s further devaluation and redefinition were inevitable.

Sex as  non-marital

Though precise dates are debated, starting in the 1950s and 1960s with the introduction of industrialized access to hormonal contraception, America began its sexual revolution. For the first time in American culture, sexual intercourse could be experienced recreationally. As a result, sexual activity as something non-conjugal, i.e., non-marital, became an increased reality. Now, it would be both ignorant and naïve to assume that up until this era people who were not married were somehow all sexually abstinent. This surely was not the case. Rather, what occurred starting in the 1950s and 1960s was the idea that sex need not occur strictly within the confines of marriage. Over time, social taboos around promiscuity lessened, such that the formerly sacred assumption that sex be reserved for marriage is now itself a taboo. Whether one calls it “pre-marital sex” or “fornication,” the idea that sex was a privileged commodity reserved only for spouses became outmoded.

No longer was the marital act—what Scripture calls “the one flesh union” (Gen 2:24)—believed necessary to occur only within in marriage. From a natural law perspective, once sex is removed from the marital boundary in which it is assumed necessary, commonplace, and proper to experience, marriage and the goods that comprise it, namely intercourse, becomes de-linked from one another. This notion of intercourse being inherently conjugal (as related to a husband and wife) is echoed in the Apostle Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 6:15-17 to flee sexual immorality. According to Paul’s argumentation, and one that also comports with natural law reasoning, to sexually join one’s self to an individual not your spouse is to engage in an act assumed to be strictly marital in nature. To this line of thinking, a sexual act is a conjugal act and therefore a marital act.

Thus, once sexual intimacy is severed from marital intimacy, a redefinition of marriage and what it is reserved for has already taken place.

Sex as non-procreative

The act that seals or bonds the marriage union is the same act that brings forth life. Through the sexual union of a husband and wife, the potential for children and the common task of caring and providing for any children, are united. Though contraceptive devices vary, and indeed, while some forms are more morally problematic than others, contraception by its very nature acts to disrupt or thwart what would otherwise be the logical and teleological purpose of sexual intercourse—new life. While related to the question of fornication and de-linking sexual intercourse from marriage, the impact of contraception forged a new paradigm of sexual activity: childless sex. Once the effects of sex can be cut off from the premises of sex, it would not take long until sexual activity would be misused (and at no small harm to women and children as a result).

Now, as a Protestant Christian, I do not personally hold to a prohibitionist position concerning contraception. I have grave concerns about the contraceptive worldview taking root as a way of conveniencing one’s sex life and disavowing the blessing of children, but with respect to my Catholic friends, I do not believe contraception in all forms is itself immoral. My concerns with contraception are its effects in introducing and radicalizing sexual autonomy in general; and the aftereffects of de-linking children altogether from the sexual bond.

On the assumption that sex is (wrongly) no longer reserved for the marital union coupled with the introduction of childless sex, yet another redefinition of marriage has taken place. Once the idea is introduced that sex must no longer be procreative or allow for the possibility of bringing forth new life, one will see how overstating contraception’s contribution to marriage’s redefinition cannot be emphasized too strongly.

Once sexual intimacy is severed from procreative capacity, a redefinition of marriage and its inherent connection to family life has taken place.

Marriage and Cohabitation

In recent years, the practice of living together prior to marriage, or in place of marriage altogether, has become routine and often assumed as standard practice amongst the young adult population. Its popularity is widespread and considered yet another step in the path toward relationship success.

The phenomenon communicates something very clearly: deep, life-long commitment that only marriage was once believed to offer individuals is now available through a pseudo-form of marriage known as “living together” or, more technically, cohabitation. Singles unsure of whether their potential mate meets all the criteria, so they think, utilize the practice to test-drive what they’re eyeing as a long-term investment. This is, of course, silly, and cheapens marriage by reducing it to a pre-nuptial agreement based on preferences on whether and how badly their potential spouse impedes on their idea of a perfect spouse. Foregoing living together refines those who commit to make their marriage work, regardless of whatever unpleasant habits one spouse discovers in another.

Once sexual intimacy and life-long companionship are severed from either a legal or covenantal marker, a redefinition of marriage and its inherent connection to companionship and fidelity has taken place.

Marriage and divorce

Prior to the 1970s, one party had to admit fault in order to obtain a legal divorce. Whether adultery, abuse, or abandonment, simply walking away from a marriage out of inconvenience was not a reality allowable by law.

While obtaining a divorce was always a legal possibility prior to the advent of No-Fault Divorce (NFD) laws, the law upheld marriage as an institution assumed permanent; and divorces as an exception. While hard to pinpoint a definite correlation and causation relationship, one would have to think that it is not by coincidence that NFD arrived on the American landscape right around the time of hormonal contraception. The de-linking of sex from childbearing, the opportunity at recreational and non-committal sex, and the easy dissolution of soured marriages work together too strongly to simply be accidental.

Today, no phenomenon has helped to calcify and atrophy marriage and cause relationship burnout more than the prevalence and availability of divorce, and not without enormous social costs in its wake. From economic hardship brought on by single parenting to the emotional turmoil by those involved in a severed marriage, divorce has fundamentally altered the family make-up of the American experience.

If marriage is no longer a bedrock of permanence, the possibility of its dissolution and abandonment amounts to redefinition.

Marriage and its imitators

We now find ourselves at what seems like the culmination of marriage’s redefinition: same-sex marriage. How did we arrive at this point in time where persons of the same-sex deem themselves eligible for marriage? Because, once again, the goods of marriage that are so enticing and inherent to marriage are now assumed widely available apart from the conjugal union of a husband and wife. Once the connection between marriage and family life is severed; once sex is believed to function non-procreatively; once companionship is esteemed and valuated apart from a bond of permanence, it is necessarily logical that the gay community will desire to imitate what heterosexual marriage once exclusively fulfilled in its own bounds. Thus, arriving where we have at this stage in modernity, it should be no surprise that once the goods of marriage have collapsed beneath the weight of heterosexual revision, attempts by gay persons to experience not only the goods of marriage, but the essence of marriage, will occur as well.

Same-sex marriage represents the height of irrationality that attends to marriage’s breakdown. The logic of same-sex marriage presents no limiting principle in itself that won’t further chip away at marriage’s intelligibility. There’s no inherent principle attending to same-sex marriage that explains why loosening marriage of its complementary structure won’t also lead to its loosening of exclusivity and permanency as others grounds of marriage’s intelligibility. Those of us engaged in the debate about family structure in America have been predicting this for some time, often to the laughs and jeers of our opponents. But if any principle can stand true amidst the sexual revolution, it is this: Give it enough time, and anything is possible.

Conclusion: Defining marriage down

Marriage is threadbare in America. We’ve reached a time where the marriage rates show fewer persons choosing to marry. At the same time, individuals who do choose to marry are doing so at later ages than ever before. While still regarded as a cherished institution due to the attention and flare of the wedding industry, marriage cannot be said to be in a prosperous state in American culture, and throughout must of the Western civilization. What we’re witnessing amidst the redefinition of marriage is the negation of marriage itself. Once the goods of marriage are redefined apart from marriage, and celebrated and heralded as goods located outside of marriage, the prosperity of a civilization and its connection to marriage and family life grow dimmer.

We lament the moment we’re in. But that won’t stop our advocacy.