Of marriage and politicians

Posted: Jan 27, 2004 12:00 AM

True (according to The Wall Street Journal), "By more than 7 percentage points, more married people identify as Republican than Democrats ... " That statistic could give you a less-than-complete view of the Bush administration's pro-marriage proposals. You might think in that circumstance, "Shame! -- taxpayer money for programs helping Republicans out-marry and out-breed the opposition."

Not quite. Marriage is a matter more complicated than that, particularly with so many gays clamoring nowadays for marriage rights and so many conservatives touting a federal constitutional amendment to define marriage officially as a heterosexual project.

It is not hard to see how we got to this point, amazing as the point would have seemed four or five decades ago. Marriage, which logically and generally precedes family, is the central human institution. It nourishes belief; it forms and shapes behavior. On marriage all social undertakings rest. Does marriage concern or interest government? If it doesn't, nothing does.

The Bush marriage proposal, costing $1.5 billion over five years, aims at

fostering "healthy marriages" among the poor, with whom such marriages are less common. The money would go for counseling services, marriage enrichment and the like. At precisely that notion, blood boils in certain veins. A libertarian spokesman for one prominent think tank sniffs, "1965-style Great Society liberalism" -- meaning do-gooding at taxpayer expense.

The impeachment has its ironic side. Great Society liberalism has been fingered (by scholar Charles Murray among others) as one of the causes of family decline from the '60s forward. A Murray-ite could argue that what the government undid (by encouraging welfare dependence) it now should work to restore (by funding marriage enrichment and so on).

The intensely private nature of marriage works against a $1.5 billion government spending program or, for that matter, a $1.5 trillion one; though it probably should be said that, compared with ventures on which the government wastes far more than $1.5 billion, marriage enrichment doesn't seem unworthy.

However, the essentially religious nature of marriage may be what most desperately needs recovering. Here, the First Amendment excludes government but not the churches.

The secularity of modern times works against marriage harder than the welfare system ever did. That secularity encourages the marriageable to think of marriage as a consumer choice, a lifestyle decision, a contract, without higher implications. Implications like what? Like the total, irrefrangible union of two lives, like, in the words of the old "Book of Common Prayer," "the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord ... "

It becomes hard to resist the idea of gay marriage when marriage, the institution, becomes just a convenient arrangement for two people who enjoy each other enough to share bed and board for a time. The churches themselves have helped society define marriage that way with their growing laxness about divorce and premarital relations.

Would we be talking now about a federal marriage amendment -- a public policy response to a perceived crisis in public policy -- if the relevant private institutions hadn't so frequently gone AWOL when challenged to show why marriage was rightly a sacred proposition?

The '60s and '70s, with their soaring divorce rates and heedlessness of sacred commitments, clearly can't be undone. But if social mainstreamers, including those rightly suspicious of government involvement in you-name-it, want to head off political positioning on marriage, different trees need barking up.

The government can't tell the churches what to do. The churches have to figure it out for themselves: which means, essentially, re-figuring and recovering their ages-old mission. Twenty-first century churches, in our secular climate, don't agree even on what they are in business for -- presenting a gospel of salvation or giving secular wants a kind of Christian massage and back rub.

Funny thing: A major secular hunger right now is for the kind of social stability provided by the churches back before the U.S. government decided impetuously to snatch a piece of the action.