My latest article (As the Family Goes) discussed the essential role of married mom-and-dad families for raising the next generation of Ohioans and advocated for restoring the traditional nuclear family to its rightful place in society. This article will begin to address how such a restoration might take place.
It must first be acknowledged that culture generally flows upstream of politics. In other words, laws usually result from prevailing societal attitudes. Thus, the restoration of the American family will rely primarily on the restoration of American culture. Nevertheless, a change in the political climate often affects cultural waters, as well.
This is because laws and decisions that carry the force of law are generally presumed to be just. Their purpose, after all, is to ensure a justly ordered society. Consequently, the public takes its cue from the law, which can’t help but shape our sensibilities. In this way, law has a unique role to play in helping to restore natural marriage and the traditional nuclear family to their rightful prominence in American life.
Perhaps the best example of the power of law to influence culture is the so-called “no-fault divorce” revolution of the 1970s. Prior to that time, a divorce could only be obtained by demonstrating an egregious fault of one of the parties in a marriage, such as adultery, abuse, or abandonment. If the judge found that the defendant had not committed the alleged act or that both spouses had contributed to their marital discord, the action for divorce was defeated and the couple remained legally married.
This relatively high hurdle for obtaining a divorce was largely understood to reflect the permanent nature of marriage. Yes, people still got divorced and not every family looked like “Leave It to Beaver,” but marriage law both communicated a truth about marriage –that it shouldn’t be dissolved absent grave reasons – and provided a support for living it out.
But since no-fault divorce became the law of every state in 1985, it’s about as easy to break the marriage contract as it is to cancel cell phone service. So we shouldn’t be especially surprised that marriages are terminated today almost as casually as cell service.
There are those who respond to all of this by insisting that government should just “get out of the marriage business.” Such sentiment is certainly understandable, but it ultimately misses the point: marriage is intrinsically a public institution.
As free-market economist Jennifer Roback Morse articulates so well, “marriage is society’s primary institutional arrangement that defines parenthood…if no children were ever involved, adult sexual relationships simply wouldn’t be any of the state’s business.”
Even if privatizing marriage were desirable, it’s simply not possible. As Morse points out, if government ceases to define marriage on the front end, “the state will end up being involved in defining what counts as a valid marriage or parenting contract on the back end, as it resolves disputes.”
To illustrate, she points to what has happened with no-fault divorce: “No-fault divorce was supposed to increase personal freedom. But the result of this legal change has been state involvement in the minutiae of family life, as it resolves disputes over custody, visitation, and child support.”
So, it’s just not possible to eliminate government involvement in marriage, especially considering how prevalent marriage law has become in every other area of public policy today. But if misguided laws have contributed to the decline of marriage and the family, there’s reason to believe well-conceived laws could help reverse the damage.
One possibility is state-recognized Covenant Marriage. Covenant Marriage is a legally distinct form of marriage, in which couples voluntarily agree to participate in pre-marital counseling and accept longer waiting periods or more limited grounds for divorce. Since Louisiana adopted its Covenant Marriage law in 1997, three states have followed suite (Arkansas, Arizona, and Kansas) and 20 others have introduced similar bills. Ohio, unfortunately, has not considered Covenant Marriage, but there are many reasons it should.
For one, it would give many couples who are already married or planning to get married the option to receive a state-sponsored marriage license that more accurately reflects their understanding of the nature of the commitment – indeed, the covenant –they have entered into.
These state-recognized covenant marriages would also serve as a reminder for society that marriage isn’t just any contract. It’s something very different, something sacred. Unlike any other contract, it’s impossible to specify all the terms and conditions of marriage. Sure, we’re to love and honor the other person as long as we both shall live. But what does that look like exactly? It’s virtually impossible to specify everything that such unconditional love requires (as anyone who’s ever read that famous verse from 1 Corinthians 13 well knows). It’s even more difficult to say what that love will require 10, or 20, or 50 years from now.
The legally unique status and requirements of Covenant Marriage account for this reality. They recognize that while sometimes things do go wrong, in most cases – admittedly not all, but in most cases – the problems are not truly irreconcilable. But resolving them may require that each spouse commits to doing everything necessary for the preservation of the marriage, a commitment which usually takes root long before they say “I do.”
In this spirit, why not offer every marrying couple a choice: a standard marriage license, which leaves open the possibility of no-fault divorce, or a Covenant Marriage license, which legally commits them to going the extra mile to try and work it out? Given the many benefits to the couple, any children they may have, and society if they did, offering the choice of state-recognized Covenant Marriage is something all Ohioans should be willing to support.
Brendan Shea is a financial analyst and founder and president of Madison County Right to Life. He lives with his young family in London, Ohio and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.