Over the past few days the Institute has launched in earnest its New Conversation on Marriage. We’ve issued the Call, which both Mark Oppenheimer at the Times and Kathleen Parker at the Washington Post have so nicely highlighted at their respective papers. I’ll say first off, that I think a new conversation on marriage is not only good and needed, but also highlights the practical need to focus on several serious policy issues which haven’t yet been a part of the public conversation in a significant way.
I appreciate David B., Barbara D. Whitehead, and Jonathan Rauch’s view that we can have fruitful policy discussions about the decline of marriage as a positive normative cultural institution, what is causing its decline, whether or not that decline is cause for grave concern, and if so, how to reverse it. I see the new questions they are raising (which aren’t really new…but what can you do?) as important and challenging, and hope that now is the time to begin answering them. I am excited to see so many people I personally respect signing on to the effort.
But the result, and perhaps in some cases the intent, is to reduce or deflate opposition to the reinvention of marriage through the inclusion of same-sex couples, by the seductive call to do something more important and more effective. It’s not just a call to defend marriage, it’s a call to give up working for marriage as traditionally understood. More fundamentally, some of us believe that the effort to strengthen marriage while redefining it is ultimately pointless—that, to put it another way, gay marriage is itself one of the problems the Call ought to engage.
I think this view is a tad cynical and assumes something that the Call doesn’t actually say – that by refocusing the conversation on marriage to address some of its biggest problems with a broad coalition, that all participants are giving up on working for marriage as traditionally understood. I think it is possible to participate in the conversation (and the coalition having it), and attempt to answer the questions being posed, while holding firm on a traditional view of what marriage is. I think the root of many of the problems this new conversation is attempting to address stem from the need for a clear understanding of what marriage is (as Dreher points out, a positive good), and traditional religious thinking about sex, the family, and marriage makes up an important body of thought that needs to be considered in the crafting of any public policy on marriage. This coalition will fail if it doesn’t engage with traditional views at some level.
I especially bristled at the suggestion that any effort to strengthen marriage while redefining it is ultimately pointless. I really wrestle with how to address the reality that what catholic marriage is and what civil marriage has become are very different things. I affirm a catholic definition of marriage as true and good (I’ve done so many times on this blog, and have been challenged and engaged by many who disagree with me), but I also recognize that the social construct our society has decided to call marriage (and for the sake of this conversation I will refer to as civil marriage), while an imperfect approximation of what I understand marriage to be, still demands my attention as a concerned citizen – because it is, frankly, falling apart. In the ideal I would recommend that social marriage be indistinguishable from catholic marriage, and be underpinned by my conception of ‘the good’. In reality I live is a wonderfully diverse liberal society where many of my neighbors and fellow citizens don’t agree with me on that conception, and will actively oppose my recommendations. I accept that for what it is. One of the fundamental flaws of a truly liberal society is that we cannot appeal to higher moral authorities to settle disagreements and are dependent on democratic compromise to create laws and order society. When different groups within a liberal society disagree fundamentally, and democratic compromise is impossible, our ability to order society begins to fail. As a religious person and member of a liberal society I see a couple options when we reach that point.
1. Withdraw from liberal society, as the monastics and ascetics did from their pre-liberal societies, and attempt to create a closed community which better approximates the ideals I believe in and shuns the outside world that doesn’t. (Not a particularly practical option)
2. Dominate liberal society, and establish my views as the dominant, accepted norms. (Not demographically feasible anymore, nor particularly appealing generally)
3. Accept that other views are dominant within our liberal society, and become the belligerent minority inwardly focused on my perceived victim-hood. (I fear that conservative American Christians are heading this route, and that it isolates us and destroys our credibility and ability to be effective witnesses of the Gospel).
4. Embrace a view that liberal society requires dialogue and interaction, and that when one finds one’s self in the minority, adopting the view of loyal opposition and working within society to advocate for one’s beliefs and one’s view of the good is the best option and the only way to do good.
I believe that if one takes the last view, then one can work in a broad coalition to strengthen civil marriage, even while recognizing that the resulting product doesn’t necessarily live up to one’s ideal. This work is not, as Mills suggests, pointless. It is an opportunity to work towards the ideal in an imperfect and fallen world, to craft policy that will be practically helpful to millions of families, and to do so in a way that makes it clear that conservative people of faith are actively participating in our society and invested in the well-being and happiness of our neighbors. It is an opportunity to show that we are serious when we say we want to be loving and welcoming, even as we wrestle over the definitions of what love, happiness, and affirmation look like. In a society where what marriage is remains an open question – this is how we positively engage and give our answer. We won’t convince everyone of our sincerity or good will, but we might undermine the blossoming narrative that all conservative traditional Christians are arrogantly judgmental people who could care less about the experiences of others.
I also see this new conversation as an opportunity for religious conservatives to re-orient and re-evaluate how our communities think and discuss the issues surrounding marriage internally. There is a need for a additional new conversation on marriage – in confirmation classes, Sunday school rooms, small groups, bible studies, and the pulpit – about what the Church actually teaches on marriage, sexuality, vocation, and living a fulfilled life. Have we really wrestled with how our failures to embrace diversity within our congregations have deeply wounded others? Do we realize that our cultural emphasis on marriage shortchanges equally important relationships like friendship? Have we actually thought about what being loving looks like when we reach out to the single mother or partnered couple next door, or co-habitating cousin? If we haven’t, are we in any position to propose public policy on civil marriage? We claim to have good new, is that obvious to others in the way Paul says it should be?
There are many young voices (and some not so young) within the church trying to have that new conversation – I see them as allies and hope that their voices are making a difference and that they continue to boldly challenge the Church to better live out its teachings. In the meanwhile I am excited and hopeful to see how the new conversation at the Institute goes – and I invite other conservatives to join in because our voices are a valuable part of any future coalition.