Altered Matrimony by Stephen Baskerville


Altered Matrimony

Stephen Baskerville on State Impositions
& Church Acquiescence

The marriage-tie, the marriage-bond . . . is the fundamental link in Christian society. Break it, and you will have to go back to the overwhelming dominance of the State. —D. H. Lawrence

It is clear to everyone now that Christians are losing the battle for marriage and with it the entire sexual revolution. Not only will same-sex marriage become the law of the land throughout the West, but measures mandating "equality," prohibiting "discrimination," and controlling religious expression will be further expanded and tightened, and institutions like the military will become not only secularized but increasingly sexualized and feminized. In The American Conservative, Rod Dreher openly questions whether Western Christianity itself can survive the revolution in sex. In the Daily Telegraph, the former archbishop of Canterbury issues similar warnings. No one has answered them.

Conservative polemicists on marriage are reduced to platitudes: "one man and one woman," "a public institution," and similar bromides that substitute soundbites for logical thought that leads to constructive responses. So despairing have Christians become that some now advocate abandoning reasoned argument in favor of appeals to "emotion."

As a social institution, our faith has become an empty shell, and it is entirely because of the new demands over sex.

Materially, some have plausibly traced the origins to the advent of birth control. But politically, there can be no doubt that the watershed moment was the abject failure of the churches to resist government-imposed ("no-fault") divorce. That was where we lost (more accurately, abdicated) the fight for marriage, and with it the battle for the souls of the next generation. In the showdown that never took place over sexual morality and the supervision of private family life, that was the moment the two jurisdictions were forced into a direct confrontation and the state simply and decisively told the church who is boss.

From the moment that the church failed to inform the state that it could not simply countermand God's covenant governing the family, the church has been little more than an ornament in marriage and therefore in the lives of most people.

The Guardian of Private Life

The standard conservative soundbite is that marriage is a "public institution," meaning that it confers public benefits and we therefore all have a stake in its integrity. But it is not quite so easy. Indeed, this cliché has done more harm than good, for it has rationalized the state's hegemony over marriage (including the power to define and re-define it) and with it, its hegemony over the church and the rest of society.

It is more accurate to say that marriage mediates the interface between public and private and is therefore the guardian of private life against a potentially totalizing state. The state cannot be denied all involvement in marriage (as libertarians advocate), because marriage must be recognized by the state, but precisely because—and this paradox is critical—it creates a sphere of privacy and parental authority from which the state must then withdraw or be excluded. Because no government can be counted upon to exercise this restraint voluntarily, all citizens must constantly demand that it do so. Marriage—protected by both a sacred covenant and a legally enforceable contract—gives us the legal authority and the moral high ground from which to do so.

Stephen Baskerville is Associate Professor of Government at Patrick Henry College and the author of Taken into Custody: The War Against Fathers, Marriage, and the Family (Cumberland House, 2007).

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more on marriage from the online archives

21.1—January/February 2008

One Flesh of Purest Gold

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28.1—January/February 2015

Altered Matrimony

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29.1—Jan/Feb 2016

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