CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Marginalizing Heterosexual Monogamous Marriage--The Cultural and Legal Assault on the Christian Ideal

by Jane Williams-Hogan (Bryn Athyn College)
A paper presented at The 2009 CESNUR Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 11-13, 2009

Marginalization refers to the social process of being relegated to the edge, the periphery, or the margin.  Sociologically it is usually applied to individuals or communities and is associated with a loss of power.  To speak of the marginalization of monogamous heterosexual marriage suggests a process that is  social, cultural, and legal. It involves the shift of an institution from a position of dominance in a society, culture, and nation to one that is no only less central but no longer protected and privileged.  Today less than 50% of Americans live in heterosexual marriages, and the divorce rate is over 50%; culturally, cohabitation rather than marriage is becoming the norm, and gay relationships are increasingly being taken for granted and are viewed as simply another natural variant of sexuality.  Legally, although the Federal Defense of Marriage Act was passed in 1996 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton and most states passed similar legislation, gay rights activists are using the equal protection guarantees provided by state constitutions to persuade state courts and legislatures to legalize gay marriage.   Since 2003 six states have endorsed gay marriage, three of them only recently, during the spring of 2009; and three states plus the District of Columbia have legally defined civil partnerships equivalent to marriage.  At the beginning of the new millennium the institution of monogamous heterosexual marriage was the only form of sexuality that was legally endorsed; today, only nine years later, twenty percent of the states legally recognize other forms of sexual relationships.  Thus, one can unequivocally state that the process of marginalization is taking place.[1]

While it is correct that heterosexual monogamous marriage was not seen as the ideal orientation toward sexuality in the early period of Christian history because of the value on celibacy as the best way to model Jesus Christ and achieve salvation. Over the centuries, however, the Christian Church came to endorse faithful heterosexual monogamous marriages as the only acceptable form of sexuality.  In the nineteenth century, a loving monogamous procreative marital relationship became enshrined as the highest human ideal.  This ideal flourished as traditional societies became more democratic and individualistic.  However, individualism as an ideal is at war with institutions that demand subordinations of the self.  The sudden blossoming of the institution of marriage based on mutual love, redefined traditional marriage without a corresponding redefinition of the what the two parties needed to bring to make it work.

The rules of negotiation were established by the families arranging the marriage and the primary considerations were economic; the family, generally the fathers,  specified the terms of the exchange that would bind together, not only the two individuals, but the two families.  Marriage today is an affair of the heart and no longer primarily an economic contract; however, more than love is required to make it work.  Understanding marriage requires an appreciation of “thinking institutionally,” an underdeveloped talent in an age of individualism.[2]  Learning how to think institutionally may be key to revitalizing the institution of marriage, but first it is necessary to understand what is the “ideal,” when it emerged, and how it has been transformed.

The Christian Ideal

  It would be useful to present the broad outline of that ideal at the outset; realizing, of course, that it evolved over time and that not all Christian confessions share exactly the same definition. That ideal views marriage as an institution ordained by God, for he said “for this cause a man shall leave his father and mother and bet united to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Marriage should be a publicly consecrated union that endures for a lifetime between one man and one woman who love each other and who have freely consented to marry each other. “They believe in God,  acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and join together in the worship, sacraments and fellowship of the Church” (Hoffman http://anglicanhistory.org).  Additionally, among Christians, virginity was expected before marriage, marriage granted exclusive sexual rights to the husband and wife, children were desired and those born to the couple were legitimate.  Mutual consent and love were late additions to the Christian ideal, and today they are integral to it.  Elizabeth Fox-Genovese calls this ideal The Dream that Refuses to Die, the title of her 2008 posthumously published book.

  In this book Fox-Genovese argues for the life giving, life sustaining, social necessity of faithful and enduring Christian heterosexual monogamous marriage even while she describes the social, political, cultural, and psychological forces that are threatening its survival.  Documenting this assault is critical to understanding what is at stake, not just for the future of marriage but for society.  That is the task of this paper; however, it would be useful to engage in a focused exploration of the past to find out how we got here. With past and present in hand, the it is possible to speculate about alternative futures.

Marriage in Christian History

In order to understand its current predicament, it is useful to quickly review marriage within the framework of Christianity.  While it is true that early in the history of the Christianity the leaders of the faithful opted for celibacy over marriage as the ideal preparation for eternal life, the form of marriage for the masses endorsed by the church fathers was heterosexual monogamy.  Much later in 1215 marriage was not only supported by the church but became a sacrament to be ritualized in the church.  Thus, marriage was transformed from merely a family matter and became an act of faith and a means to grace.  As a result Catholic Christianity served to elevate marriage from a natural and worldly institution to a spiritual one. 

The Protestant Reformation challenged the universal Catholic Church and created Christian communities of faith each with their own view of marriage.   Law Professor John Witte, Jr. in his book From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition outlines the responses of three of these communities to the Catholic concept of marriage: Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican (1997). 

Martin Luther with his teaching on two kingdoms introduced a fundamental change.  Marriage is “an estate of the earthly kingdom,” and thus a matter for the prince not the Pope Declaring it so, obviously validated Luther’s own marriage to Katherine von Bora, but it tarnished the image of marriage as the relationship between Christ and his Church.  In addition, “‘to place marriage in the natural order of creation was to deny it a place in the spiritual order of redemption” (Cessario 1998, 48-52).  For Luther marriage was an external and secular thing to be regulated by jurists not priests. 

John Calvin initially held a view of marriage similar to Luther, but in time he develop the concept of marriage as a covenantal relationship between a husband and a wife.  Calvin elaborated a strict code of morals regarding marriage and thus introduced a spiritual dimension into it.  However, human beings were such that it was necessary to have civil authorities preserve it.  Witte states, “Marriage required the coercive power of the state to preserve its integrity.  But it also required the spiritual counsel of the church to demonstrate its necessity’” (Cessario 1998, 48-52). 

Unlike Luther and Calvin, Witte does not find a particular individual responsible for the development of the Anglican position toward marriage.  In fact, initially there was little change from the Catholic perspective.  But gradually it became necessary to acknowledge that the thirty-nine articles did not claim marriage was a sacrament. To preserve the integrity of marriage, the theologians developed the view that “‘the interlocking commonwealths of state, church, and family [were] something of an earthly form of heavenly government’” (Cessario 1998, 48-52). This view of marriage had a broad appeal and influenced liberal thinkers and reformers such as Milton and Locke. 

The views of the Enlightenment further shaped the conceptualization of marriage.  John Stuart Mill came to see marriage primarily as a contract denying it both sacred and moral nature.  Witte maintains that this “secularization” of marriage has provided the theoretical justification of  current developments in Anglo-American marriage law.  While Witte has a positive view of the Protestant contribution to Christianity, his many books and articles articulate a profound and on-going concern for the fate of marriage in the Postmodern West.  He ends this particular book with a quote from the “Letters” of Nietzsche: “‘The family will be slowly ground into a random collection of individuals, haphazardly bound together in the common pursuit of selfish ends’” (Cessario 1998, 48-52). 

Romano Cessario a Catholic Professor of Systematic Theology in a review of Witte’s book in First Things suggests that an answer to Nietzche  and one that might address the current state of marriage in the West would be to revive the sacramental view of marriage among Christians (Cessario 1998, 48-52).  Whether this is even possible requires turning from theology to sociological in order to appraise the cultural and legal state of marriage in the West, and to examine the underlying forces that shaped it. 

The Modern Era

From the sociological perspective, there have been three major periods of human development: traditional, modern, and post modern.  Modern social life marked a strong break from the past, post modernism, on the other hand, appears to be evolving out of modernity. Traditional society is characterized by structural hierarchy, status ascription, and an orientation toward the collective.  In the west, it was Christian, prescientific, agricultural, and rural.  Modern society is characterized by egalitarianism, achievement, and an orientation toward the self.  In the west, it was secular, scientific, industrial, and urban.  Post modernism moves beyond this opposition and critiques the implied objectivity on not only these categories but all categories.  It debunks the modern myths of liberation and truth.  It features: variety, contingency, ambivalence, and the permanent irreducible pluralism of cultures.  It highlights imagination, inventiveness, and dissensus. 

The dawn of the modern era brought with it a series of social revolutions that touched all of the major human institutions:  politics, economics, education, religion, and family.  While some changes occurred more rapidly than others, underlying these changes in the structure of social interactions was a new awareness or appreciation of the reality of freedom.  Toward the end of the eighteenth century, a vision of freedom altered people’s perception of the taken-for-granted patterns of everyday life.  While this paper will focus on the institution of marriage, it is useful to touch on the changes in the other major social institutions because they share the animating principle of freedom or liberty; and because change in one institution tends to reverberate in the others. So I will briefly examine each of the principle institutions in turn:


Political discontent arose concerning the rule of kings, giving rise the the American and French democratic revolutions.  In 1776 the American Declaration of Independence stated:

that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

In 1789, the National Assembly of France issued The Declaration of the Right of Man. The first principle asserted that:

Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.

Concepts such as equality, consent of the governed, freedom, rights, and the general good were not just ideals that were proclaimed but political institutions were constructed around them by societies to make them real and to give them life. During the last two centuries, we have seen world-wide experimentation with democratic political forms, and we have witnessed the emergence of a variety of totalitarian states in the wake of democracy’s failure.


The dramatic transformations in economics occurred in two sectors: agriculture and manufacture.  Inventiveness in agricultural production underway by the middle of the eighteenth century in England was nothing short of revolutionary.  It altered old patterns of land use through enclosure; introduced high yield root crops along with four-field crop rotation; increasingly mechanized the production process; and engaged in selective breeding of stock.  These activities resulted in a unprecedented increase in agricultural productivity and output.  As the population increased from 5.7 million in 1750 to 16.7 million in 1850, tripling the population, English farmers were equal to the task of adequately feeding the increased number of mouths.  Agricultural output in 1750 was 34.03 million bushels, and in 1850 it was 88.48 million.  This increase was the result of putting more acreage into production (15 million quarters in 1750 to 25 million in 1820) as well as achieving a greater yield per acre.  For example wheat averaged 19 bushels per acre in 1720, 21-22 bushels per acre in the middle of the eighteenth century, and finally peaking at 30 bushels per acre in 1840.  Although more difficult to calculate, the weight of livestock also increased dramatically, particularly the size of calves and lambs, as well as the numbers produced (Turner et. al 2001, 215).  J. H. Plumb in his classic England in the Eighteenth Century identifies the average weight of calves in 1710 at 50 lb.  and in 1795 at 150 lb. (1950, 82).  Put together this evidence of farm production becomes “compelling evidence of a real, and sustained, break with the past” (Turner et. al 2001, 213).  The yield per capita remained almost constant over this hundred year period at 5.9 bushels in 1750 to 5.29 bushels in 1850. According to Michael Turner and his associates, this remarkable feat firmly identifies the period of the agricultural revolution between 1800-1850 (Turner et. al. 2001, 230).

The exceptional population growth that was sustained by this agricultural revolution became concentrated increasingly in cities providing a workforce for what has come to be known as the great transformative event of the industrial revolution.  The mechanization of the textile industry in England marked the start of industrialization.  It altered the place of manufacture, the process of manufacturing, the role of the worker in the productive process, and the means of transporting goods to the market. 

The industrial revolution transform the world of manufacturing and the social world of work.  Manufacture moved from cottage to the factory.  Hand looms became power looms, and the out put was prodigious.  In 1791-1795 England imported 27 million lb. of cotton, one hundred years later 1896-1900 the number of pounds of cotton imported rose to 1,799 million, an increase of sixty-seven times.  The production of pig iron in 1720 was 25,000 tons, by 1800 it rose to 200,000 tons (an increase of eight times), and by 1880 England was producing 7,749,000 tons of pig iron (an increase of thirty-nine times) ( Rosenberg & Birdzell 1986). 


The revolutions in politics and economics encouraged a shift toward universal education albeit somewhat unevenly. England, for example, long contested the utility of universal public education in its class bound society.  However, the fact that a democratic society requires a well educated population to participate in the political life of the society was recognized as vital by the founding fathers of the United States. This is evident in both the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The Land Ordinance mandated that the 16th parcel of every square mile divided into 36 equal 640 acre parcels should be dedicated to the support of public education.  In addition, article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance stated that since: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”  While this ideal did not immediately lead to free public education, in 1837 when Horace Mann (1796-1859) became Secretary of Education in Massachusetts he advocated that the common schools of the state ought to be free.  He reformed education in the state, and his ideas soon spread to other states in the Union.  In the Common School Journal he founded he identified six problems that he wished to address:

(1)the public should no longer remain ignorant and free, (2) that such education should be paid for, controlled, and sustained by an interested public; (3) that this education will be best provided in schools that embrace children of all diversities; (4) that this education must be non-sectarian; (5) that this education must be taught by the spirit, methods, and discipline of a free society; and (6) that education should be provided by well-trained, professional teachers (Mann, 1838).

He achieved these goals.  He was also successful in lengthening the school day and requiring students to stay in school until the age of sixteen.  Since Mann’s efforts and, those of countless others, the movement toward universal education has spread throughout the world.  However, there is remains much to be done.  Universal literacy, so integral to the spread of eduction education, remains elusive goal with one in five adults in the world still illiterate at the turn of the twenty-first century.  Sadly, the heaviest burden of illiteracy is till borne by women who make up two thirds of the world’s adult illiterates. 


The impact of freedom on the institution of religion has been complex. Many social scientists have viewed religion as the one human institution that had no real future in the modern world.  It was believed that in the process of secularization, the need for religion would vanish, and they fully expected it to disappear. Certainly there has been an increase in atheism and agnosticism, particularly in the West. That religion has not disappear has been a surprised to some, and recently there has been a move to conceptualize the counter process of “de-secularization.”  While there has been a genuine spread of religious toleration in the West, among some (often agnostics and atheists) who hold the most tolerant views towards the more exotic religions of the world, there appears to be little tolerance for the Judo-Christian tradition. In addition, it would appear that despite the Western emphasis on secularization religious enmity and conflict are still prevalent world-wide. Despite all this, a case can be made that there is a “fit” between modernity and certain forms of religion, because religion is a specifically human institution (this, however, is not the place to do it).


While it is certainly true that there is an intimate connection between the institutions of the family and marriage, one could argue that at least some species of animals mate and live in groups that could be called families, but only human beings marry.  This make marriage, like religion, a specifically human creation.

There is no question that the family and the institution of marriage has changed dramatically over the past two hundred years.  While there remains some vestiges of traditional family practices in the West, particularly among those who have only recently immigrated, freedom, equality, and individualism have deeply affected the norms regulating marriage and the family. 

Two hundred and fifty years ago throughout most of Europe and North America (as well as the rest of the world) marriages were primarily economic transactions arranged by families, dowries were common, and the virginity of the bride was important. Parents exercised considerable influence over who their children married, although women could veto their families choice of a mate. Suitors had to secure the consent of their future father-in-laws, and they had to show evidence of economic achievement. As a rule young men had to be self-sufficient before marriage. In colonial New England , marriages were considered to be civil contracts and were initially performed by magistrates.  At the beginning of the eighteenth century the clergy were authorized to officiate at weddings. 

During this period, there were, of course couples who were married by unauthorized individuals, and some couples even married themselves.  This occurred more often in the Southern colonies where the clergy was authorized to perform marriages, but there were fewer clergy.  In general, the norms surrounding marriage were less rigid than in the North.  Although men were to initiate courtship, flirtation on the part of women was an acceptable way of showing a man she was interested in him. Thus, It is possible that in the South some form of love or affection between the prospective mates was a factor in their marriage.  Love no doubt sometimes occurred in New England prior to marriage.  This is evident from divorce petitions in which loss of affection or heart break is mentioned.  However, conjugal love was the bond that was stressed, and was the bond that held them together.  “‘Conjugal love, the enduring and stable form of love in marriage was “a duty imposed by God on all married couples, and a solemn obligation that resulted directly from the marriage contract’” (Queen 1985, 200). 

In any case, prior to the nineteenth century a woman’s family traded her dowry (if she had one) and her virginity for her husband’s name and her future economic security.

The revolution that took place within families and in the institution of marriage took place within the framework of increasingly democratic and industrializing societies.  The age of marriage slightly increased, parents lived longer and more children survived childhood.  Whatever wealth that had accumulated was now needed to support the parents in their old age, and with more children patrimonies and dowries became difficult to sustain, and were eventually abandoned. At the same time, these familial grants were less needed due to greater availability of economic opportunities. With the decrease in parental economic support came less familial control over the long-term process of socialization.  This shift gave children increasing autonomy, especially over the process of mate selection. 

The disappearance of the formal economic controls regarding courtship gave way to informal controls that spelled out the proper rules for courtship and the qualities of a good mate.  Eventually these norms were codified in marriage manuals (Queen 1985, 223).  Religious faith was essential, and common worship was believed to be the foundation of marriage.  For men upright character and industriousness were desirable traits coupled with an appreciation of home life and a rejection of the vices of swearing, smoking, and drinking.  The ideal wife was one who was practical, industrious, frugal, loyal, trustworthy and mild-mannered (Queen 1985, 224).  If love could be had along with the essential ideal characteristics, it was welcomed into the relationship and into the home, but it was not considered the key element of a successful marriage. 

Within this framework marriage was beginning to take on greater importance in comparison to the family of origin, particularly since it was less embedded in the family of origin and it was the vital link to the family of procreation.  The nineteenth century is noted for centering virtue around the home and domesticity.  Queen in The Family in various Cultures, even suggests that “Americans made a religion of domesticity, casting a glowing aura around the ideals of mother, child, and home” (Queen 1985, 219).  The home was idealized in song and story, sermon and hymns, paintings and poems.  In fact, William Alcott wrote that “‘there is no sight more attractive than that of a well ordered family; one in which every child, . . . , submits cheerfully to those rules and regulations which parental authority has seen fit to impose.  It is . . . an image of heaven’” (Queen 1985, 219).

This picture emphasizes the social and the institutional aspects of family life over the individual and personal.  It would appear that since the end of the nineteenth century, marriage has been emptied (stripped) of the social and institutional in favor of the individual and the personal; thus marginalizing heterosexual monogamous marriage, and opening it to cultural and legal assaults. 

As the institution of marriage was drawn farther away from the norms of traditional marriage and the family, it shed norms almost altogether and it became a legal form without clear social expectation.  It would seem that marriage today is an institution defined by right, but without a clear set of duties or responsibilities

Assault on Marriage

The threat to marriage comes from two sources: (1) first from changes in social and cultural patterns related to sexuality, sexual relationships, and public attitudes toward those changes and what they mean; and (2) second, from family law scholars and practitioners who want to redefine the law to fit the new patterns in intimate relationships that have developed over the past fifty years.  Today there are conflicting ideas in society about whether marriage matters, and if it does who then is entitled to marry? and if it does not matter, how should intimate human relationship be regulated  or whether they should be regulated by the state at all. 

Changes in Patterns

David Popenoe in his 2008 National Marriage Project entitled “Cohabitation, Marriage and Child Wellbeing” provide statistics and an analytical narrative that highlight the changing patterns in a cross national perspective.  He discovered that “the yearly number of marriages per 1000 unmarried women age 15 and older has dropped by nearly half since 1970, from 76 to 41 in 2005” (Popenoe 2008, 3).  The practice Cohabitation has risen dramatically, “as of 2002 over 50 percent of women ages 19 to 44 have cohabited for a portion of their lives, compared to 33 percent in 1987 and virtually none a hundred years ago” (Popenoe 2008, 3).  In the United States, for example, before 1970 the practice of cohabitation occurred only on the margins of society.  It was considered deviant and was illegal in many places.  Over the past thirty years cohabitation has increased over 1000 percent and is widely accepted with over 10 percent of all couples cohabiting (Popenoe 2008, 1).  This change in attitude is reflected in surveys of high school seniors.  When teenagers were asked about their attitudes toward cohabitation before marriage twenty-five years ago the number of senior who “agreed” or “mostly agreed” with the statement that “‘it is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along’” has climbed from 45 percent to 64 percent for boys and from 35 percent to 57 percent for girls” (Popenoe 2008, 3).  In 2001 43 percent a representative sample of young adults between the ages of 20 and 29, agreed that “‘you would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along’” (Popenoe 2008, 3). 

A major reason for decline in the marriage rates is the increase in cohabitation.  Yet a wide range of research suggests that marriage and cohabitation are not the same.  Marriage continues to provide benefits to people.  People who are married are “happier, healthier, wealthier,and they live longer” than those who are not (Popenoe 2008, 4).  When cohabiters, who were initially not strongly committed to each other prior to living together, decide to marry, their marriages have a higher chance of breaking up (Popenoe 2008, 4). 

Cohabitation has an impact on children as well.  Currently about 40 percent of cohabiting couples have children, and the percentage is rising because fewer cohabiting couples are deciding to marry.  The relationship of these couples is unstable and a higher percentage of them dissolve than married couples, putting children though the stress of family break up.  A recent study in the US (2007) has found that children born into cohabitation have five times the risk of separation than do children born into marriage (Popenoe 2008, 4).  In addition, the risk of child abuse and family violence increases with cohabitation as does the probability of having significantly lower incomes (Popenoe 2008, 4).  While in the UK a 2003 study found that “nearly one in two cohabiting parents splits up before their child’s fifth birthday compared to one in twelve married parents; the study reported that “three quarters of family break down affecting young children now involves unmarried parents” ( Popenoe 2008, 14).

With regard to divorce the relationship between cohabitation and divorce is both negative and positive.  It is negative because if the do marry, more of those relationship end in divorce. There are many reasons for this, particularly the idea of selectivity.  That is couples who choose to cohabit may have attitudes about long term relationships that make them divorce prone.  It is positive because the with the rise of cohabitation the divorce rate has leveled of or declined.  This may be due to the fact that those who choose to marry are a more select group who really understand the nature of marriage and desire it.  Needless to say, the divorce rate does not measure the break-up of cohabiting couples. 

Certainly there are other new patterns that could be explored such as birth rates, fertility rates, the marriage gap related to level of education, the gay marriage movement, and polyamory or relationships involving multiple partners. Time, however, does not permit.  It is important to note, however what this suggests: namely that  culturally Western society appears to be at a juncture where our democratic ethos is unable to make meaningful distinctions concerning personal adult relationships.  Unable or unwilling to make distinctions David Cere writes that “the law would embrace virtually all interdependent relationships.  Indications of martial, conjugal relationship--such as sexual intimacy, cohabitation, the dyadic restriction (only two people can get married), [gender restrictions] and even restrictions based on consanguinity--would be removed from the law” (Cere 2005, 28). 

Impact of Law

Family law has a tremendous impact precisely because it legislates about matters that affect “‘so many people in their everyday lives’” (Cere 2005, 9).  Family law is often contentious because it exposes the fact that there are competing visions concerning marriage, visions that have different stakeholders.  Legislating for one model of marriage or another, can not only offend, but is seen to disenfranchise one group or another.  It is important to see, as David Cere point out that:

Laws do more than distribute rights, responsibilities, and punishments.  Laws help to shape the public meanings of important institutions, including marriage and the family.  The best interdisciplinary studies of institutions conclude that social institutions are shaped and constituted by the shared public meanings.  According to Nobel Prize winner Douglass North, institutions perform three unique tasks.  They establish public norms or rules of the game that frame a particular domain of human life.  They broadcast these shared meanings to society. Finally they shape social conduct and relationships through these authoritative norms.  The courts today have become major sites for reconstructing the public meanings of family, marriage, permanence, and parenthood (2005, 10-11).

As the legal scholar Beverly McLachlin has written,

“‘There is no part of modern life to which law does not extend. . . . The rule of law shapes our experience of meaning everywhere and at all times.  It is not alone in shaping meaning, but it is rarely absent’” (Cere, 2005, 11). 

The law can marginalize or mainstream by the rulings that it makes.  Thus, the stakes are very high, “state policies can profoundly affect the form and functioning of the family”” (Cere 2005, 11).  Because the law is shaped case by case, it often works incrementally, however, small changes over time can eventually lead to completely new definitions. 

Law matters in modern democratic societies, it emerges out of society and it binds it together.  Law however, is coercive and is often resorted to when common understandings have broken down.  It adjudicates between aggrieved parties.  As long as their is a shared ethos that animates the law, it functions well and serves the society, but when a society looses its common vision about the fundamental realities that give it life, any and all judgments are seen as divisive. While a love of freedom brought democratic societies into being, ultimately those societies prefer equality to freedom.  As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America:

 The taste which men have for freedom and that which they have for equality, are , in fact two different things; and I am not afraid to add, that amongst democratic nations, they are two unequal things. . .

I think that democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom: left to themselves, they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality, their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible: they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism; but they will not endure aristocracy.

This is true at all times, and especially in our own day. All men and all powers seeking to cope with this irresistible passion will be overthrown and destroyed by it. in our age, freedom cannot be established without it, and despotism itself cannot reign without its support (Williams-Hogan 1980, 8-9).

What light does this quote from de Tocqueville shed on the issues outlined so far as postmodern societies wrestle not just with equality, not just with the law, but with the fundamentals of human nature?  Different images of marriage are based on competing conceptions of human nature.    Questions concerning the nature of human nature are not a legal questions, nor are they scientific questions. Should I marry or should I not?  Should I cohabit or should I not? Should I divorce or  should I not?  Should I engage in a same sex relationship or should I not?  Should I engage in polyamory or should I not? How does one answer these questions, regarding “What shall I do, and how shall I live?”--Tolstoi’s question brought to life in Weber’s 1918 essay “Science as a Vocation” (Weber 1946, 143).  They are philosophical and religious questions.  Different understandings of human nature will generate different understandings of human sexuality and its place in human life.  Do I subordinate myself to some authority beyond myself in seeking answers to these question or do I follow my own inclination? 

The trajectory of last two hundred years of Western history would for the most part have us follow our own inclination.  Is that the right choice, either for you or for society?  While it is clear to Weber that science cannot answer that question for you, he does suggest that it offers a way to achieve clarity, and that perhaps is its greatest gift, when confronted with questions of values.   As Weber says,  “at least we can help him, to give himself an account of the ultimate meaning of his own conduct. This appears to me as not so trifling a thing, even for one's own personal life.”  To do this, “is to stand in the service of 'moral' forces; he fulfills the duty of bringing about self-clarification and a sense of responsibility”  (Weber 1946, 152).

Hugh Heclo also make a contribution to this discussion.  In his book On Thinking Institutionally, he say says that institutional thinking has to do with values, and that “institutional thinking is about value diffusion as well as infusion.  Institutions diffuse value by connecting a person to something that goes beyond the self-life. . . . It is not enough that an insitutional purpose speaks to you.  It is the work of moral agency to try to live out what that larger purpose is saying” (Heclo 2008, 102).  Heclo contrasts this position to the view of postmodern thinkers in an age of skeptical self-awareness.  Their advice is “that through acts of will, the a person should create his or her life as a work of art” (Heclo 2008, 103). 

Postmodernists assume that the person that creates his or her life as a work of art already has all the skills of an artist.  Where did those skill come from?  From the cradle they emerged in pre-egalitarian, authoritative, and if you will hierarchical institutions.  Human beings do not make themselves, they do not make their body, they not give themselves control over that body, and they do not give themselves language or any of the other attributes so necessary in adult life without the help and constant attention of others.  If adults, too busy with their own self interest do not take the time or the interest to share their own received knowledge and know-how, with the infant/child the work of art generated through his or her acts of the will is not intelligible either to the creator or to the observer.  Thus, while the postmodern position is attractive for some upon reaching adulthood, it remains a possibility for the few only if most others have lived a more conventional dream bounded by and subordinated to the demands of institutional regulation.  As Robert Mac Iver wrote: “

The same necessities that create the family creat regulation.  The imperative of sex has for human beings no pre-established harmony with longer-range imperatives, with the upbringing of the young and the maintenance of enhancement through the generations of the mode of life that the group, on whatever level, has acquired.  The long dependence of the human young necessitates the establishment of some kind of control over sexual relations.  There must be rules, and against so powerful an appetite, against the recklessness and caprice of desire, these rules must be guarded by powerful sanctions.  They must have back of them the authority of the community, bulwarked by such myths as prevailing culture can devise against so formidable a danger (MacIver 1965, 18).

Postmodern culture has attacked the myths that might prevent the danger, and postmodern people assume that the external supports for making their own individual lives a works of art will continue without out end.  The ethos of Individuality rests of a framework of functioning institutions.  Obviously there is a tipping point, that is when either a greater number or a significant number are committed to individuality over institutions. If and when this happens, the cause of the collapse will be generated by the system itself.  Clearly the right of unlimited self-express requires that others perform duties, since right and responsibilities are always link, and guarantee each other.  A society of unlimited and undefined rights is a contradiction in terms. Our way of life emerged, at least in part from the fall of the Ancient Regime.

         What caused the fall of the Ancient Regime was the regime itself. That is a careful examination of those in positions of authority from the time of the reformation until the French revolution would reveal the systematic abrogation of power on the part of those is super ordinate positions in the hierarchy, particularly on the part of those in the church and on the throne. Thus, the system of authority was destroyed by the members of the structure itself. The crisis of authority was a crisis for the ancient regime. They were primarily instrumental in bringing down the structure themselves. Obviously, it can and perhaps is happening again.  What is at stake now, however, is not just a political structure, but the on-going constitution of society itself.

Where to go from here : Propositions to Explore

To Think about the institution of marriage--Heterosexual Monogamous Marriage:

•  To be human is to be social.

•  Human beings are born either male or female.

•  Individuals do not/cannot make themselves.

•  Individuals are born helpless and dependent,  without the care of others they will die.

•  They require others to nurture them and  socialize them (to provide love and structure)  from their birth through their infancy, so they  may grow and become adults.

•  Social institutions provide the patterns of rules necessary  for human beings to develop.

•  Human beings must be a member of a group, to become an individual.

•  Only a man and a women together make another human being.

•  Marriage is the institution that makes, preserves, and sustains  humanness (humanness is male and female together).

•  Marriage is one of the oldest human institutions.

•  Marriage as an institution safeguards the creation  of new human beings. 

•  Marriage as a institution articulates the rules/norms  essential to the preservation of the institution.

•  All institutions govern those who participate in them.

•  Those who participate in institutions are subject to rules  regulating that institution.

•  To participate in an institution requires the subordination of  the individual/s to the ends/uses of the institution. 

•  Marriage as an institution requires the subordination of the  interests of the individual to those of the institution of marriage.

•  Marriage looks to the creation of humanness or that which is beyond the self.

•  The self is enhanced as it reaches beyond its own limitations.

•  The self is enriched as it reaches toward enhancing the life of the other. 

•  Reaching toward the other encourages the subordination of self.

•  When partners mutually subordination self to the other, as they look toward the humanness that is only possible in marriage, they createnew affections & intellectual off-spring as well as children, all of which enhance their life and are themselves new life. 


[1] A very interesting aside is the fact that while heterosexual monogamy is being marginalized in first world Western countries, the data in Africa suggests that in developing nations heterosexual monogamy is becoming the legal norm, particularly in the cites and among the educated and various forms of polygeny are undergoing marginalization.

[2] Hugh Heclo has recently written an insightful book titled On Thinking Institutionally.  It was published in 2008 in Bolder, CO and London by Paradigm Press. 



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