A fundamental assumption of the ongoing debate on the definition of marriage is that it is. After all, in our ongoing public dialogue over marriage, nearly everyone assumes its benevolent nature. With advocates fighting over control of the hallowed ground of marriage, in order to change or preserve its scope and definition, one would think that the ultimate prize is a good thing.
But, in a recent article, Professors Laurie Essig and Lynne Owens of Middlebury College pose the question of whether marriage is bad for society.
Before one can analyze the general good, or not, of the institution of marriage, we have to first define what we’re talking about: marriage, the union of one man and one woman for life. If marriage is merely, in the words of Essig and Owens, “a structure of rights and privileges for those who least need them and a culture of prestige for those who already have the highest levels of racial, economic, and educational capital,” then I would agree that marriage has not served society well. Unfortunately, their definition is all too revealing about how we view this hallowed institution and why so many are so willing to question its effect on our society.
What we see today labeled as “marriage” is an institution of sorts, battered and ravaged by infidelity, divorce, and re-definition. As a society, we have treated this once-cherished institution with reckless disregard, eroding its social significance and reverence. Adultery services like ashleymadison.com conjoined with our country’s raging divorce industry are but just a couple of examples of this fact. Looking at today’s version of marriage, it is hardly a wonder that we are having serious discussions about its redefinition. Society has taken marriage to the brink; is it any wonder that people like Essig and Owens want to give it the final push?
However, the difference between marriage as the professors see it and marriage as it is meant to be lies not only in what it is, but in how we use it. An umbrella is a fine tool for keeping rain off your head, but if you choose to employ one as a parachute, you’re going to be disappointed (unless your name is Mary Poppins). The problem is not with the umbrella itself, but with the mistaken ideas about its purpose. Essig and Owens see how marriage is used and unfairly indict the institution itself. But when marriage is used merely to satisfy the temporal wants of adults instead of the lifelong needs of children and society, the result is undoubtedly bad.
Austin R. Nimocks is senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that has defended marriage and religious liberty in courts throughout the U.S.