Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Marriage and Divorce

What is government's role in marriage?  Recent court rulings have raised the question.

Issues of fair and equal treatment under the law brought the same-sex marriage question to the forefront.  'Under the law' is particularly narrow, but it spilled out into questions of definition and discrimination.

Marriage didn't arise from our law; its history precedes existing governments.  It has been understood among peoples around the world in a variety of ways. Governments have enacted laws after the fact to handle issues of property rights, inheritance, and taxation. Too, it's been necessary to deal with polygamy, to protect children from forced or coerced marriage, to recognize interracial marriage, and to defend married women from abuse.  Marriages have been performed by both civil and religious authorities, as well as by tribal and community groups. In earlier years, marriage was a private matter without official ceremony.  The church has made laws and rules also.

From our recent history, the occasion of marriage has been recognized by the individuals and their community in a particular fashion and often tied to deep personal conviction.  In our Judeo-Christian tradition, it's a covenant between husband and wife, and more.  The secular government's needed role was to recognize the change in status of the two individuals and little else.  The government's intruding with a new legal definition of marriage has perhaps been the critical difficulty for many.

Today, we're faced with a legal redefinition of what marriage is, a new meaning for a word we've commonly used all our lives.   The term 'marriage' has had a precise use in our culture, shaped by faith and conviction, but now without the consent of the church or the people, the word has been redefined.

It would perhaps be equally onerous if government were to enact law defining a 'Christian' or a 'Muslim' as a checklist of qualifying conditions.

Governments face the extraordinarily difficult task of negotiating from within cultural change.  No easy answers and not a job I envy.

One wonders if it isn't time to divorce government's role from the institution of marriage entirely.  Doing so raises a number of problems, of course, but the question is now in the public forum.

The word and its definition are not the issue, IMHO.

Marriage has become less common.  The U.S. and EU have seen a decline in marriage rate in recent generations.  Married households in the U.S. fell by a third since 1960.  Do we know why?

Reasons offered from the social and political arena include:
  • Gay marriage
  • Government subsidies
  • Women increasing in the workforce
  • The demasculation of men
  • The divorce rate
  • The media and their sensual focus
  • The economy, particularly affluence
None provides a clear path of cause and effect.
It's an opportunity for thoughtful inquiry, perhaps.  What has changed?  Is it changing now, or is the change well behind us?

Statistics from the Pew Research Center: "About four-in-ten Americans think that marriage is on the rocks. No, not their marriage. The institution of marriage ... No matter what one thinks about the institution’s future, there’s no getting around its stark contraction during the past half century. Some 72% of all adults in the United States were married in 1960. By 2008, just 52% were ... most Americans now embrace the ideal of gender equality between spouses. ... some 62% say that marriages are better when husbands and wives both have jobs and both share responsibility for the household and kids."
Source: Pew Research Center. The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families.  Pewsocialtrends.org. 11/18/2010.

Note: such survey numbers reflect opinions expressed anonymously rather than actual behavior or conscious decision, but the results do suggest that cultural values have changed whether by thoughtful decision or unconscious acquiescence.