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Matt Cavedon is working for the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty this summer. Attending Acton University 2009 was his first assignment, where for four days nearly 400 participants from almost 50 countries came to Grand Rapids, Mich., to learn about natural law, economics, religious morality and other essential elements of a free and virtuous society. This is the final column in a three-part series of columns related to Acton U.
Why is marriage falling to pieces in America? A seemingly unrelated question sheds some insight: Why does the state protect private property rights?
Property is the way that people create wealth, and it demands time, resources and effort from its owners in order to bear fruit. Only when people know that they will be able to reap the rewards of their work will they invest themselves fully in their property. The state honors this commitment between an owner and his property because it is good for everyone when people get the most out of their property that they can and work as hard as they can to make things that other people want.
This is elementary economics, but the way that the state protects property in order to make sure that people get the most out of it is analogous to why the state has traditionally protected marriage and establishes legal structures to hold married people loyal to one another.
Only when there is a guarantee that people will be able to reap the rewards of a shared life will they give themselves entirely to each other and to their children in love. Property demands work and ingenuity; marriage demands fidelity and commitment. These are all serious investments, and it is in the best interests of the state to see that the rewards of each are fully enjoyed by society, either in the form of desirable products or in the form of family stability and good environments for children.
Marriage is once again becoming a hot-button political issue in light of the decisions of courts and legislatures in Iowa, California, New Hampshire and Connecticut to legally recognize same-sex marriages. Activists on the Left argue that it is time to expand legal rights to same-sex couples in the name of fairness and equality, while voices on the Right say that society needs to defend traditional marriage and deny the state the ability to change a natural institution.
Both arguments have merits and can be debated elsewhere, but is there more to say about fairness, tradition and marriage in the political sphere? It is hardly ground-breaking for me to say that marriage is in bad shape in America. Half of all marriages end in divorce. Only one-third of these divorces come out of high-risk situations, such as domestic violence or substance abuse. More and more people are opting to remain uncommitted even years into their relationships, meaning children have no guarantee that the union between their parents will be permanent. Single-parenthood is increasingly common and, while single parents are certainly competent, giving a child the attention she needs while working full-time to pay for her needs is extremely difficult. President Obama himself acknowledged this on the campaign trail when he and Michelle promised to help parents find ways to balance their work and family lives.
Marriage is not just another agreement of convenience that people make in their lives. Its very nature is to foster lifelong, total love, self-giving, and commitment between two people. It is also meant to let children love their parents fully and permanently. A sense of security is meant to pervade marriage, which is ultimately a united relationship that cannot simply be broken down into its members at any given time. To see marriages falling apart so much — and even being avoided by many Americans — ought to give concern to anyone interested in commitment, stability, and the fullness of love in private life. Is the decline of marriage an inevitable consequence of a changing culture, or are there institutional reasons for why marriage isn’t what it used to be?
Starting during the cultural revolution of 1968, state governments began to fundamentally change the institution of marriage by adopting no-fault divorce. By letting people freely break apart marriages and families for any reason whatsoever, the state redefined what marriage is. Instead of demanding permanent commitment and patient adaptability on the part of both partners, marriage became a status symbol in the eyes of the law. This mindset treats marriage like a contract between two individuals for a subjective set of purposes, instead of as a transforming union that forms the bedrock of the family and that is the way that people give themselves to each other and their children.
Marriage needs help in America, and repealing no-fault divorce laws should be at the top of the list. Marriage is not for everyone, like perhaps the eight-time wife Liz Taylor, and certainly the question of same-sex marriage shall continue to fuel debate for years to come. Cutting down on divorce rates, providing more stable family structures for children, and strengthening the expectations of commitment in marriage by mandating that people give valid reasons for dissolving their marriages, though, might just make the marriage debate worth having in the first place.
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