Restoring Marriage Requires Knowing What It Is

Ryan T. Anderson /

The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent,” despite the impression its title might give, was released earlier this week not by the Obama Administration but by the Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. It is a timely, compelling, and important report, but it falls short in a basic way: It never once even attempts to define marriage.

You cannot advance a marriage agenda without knowing what marriage is and why it matters for public policy, as my co-authors and I argue in our new book, What Is Marriage?

I published a review of the report earlier this week:

The report rightly notes that “marriage is not merely a private arrangement; it is also a complex social institution.” But the report never says what this complex institution is, or why it ought to be governed by the standard marital norms of monogamy, sexual exclusivity, and a pledge of permanence—norms that many leading defenders of redefining marriage explicitly reject. Yet without these norms—and the intelligible basis that grounds them—marriage can’t do the work that the authors want it to do.

That is important work indeed, as the report explains. It helpfully documents the retreat from marriage afflicting today’s middle class and how fixing this “is the social challenge for our times.” While in the 1980s “only 13 percent of the children of moderately educated mothers were born outside of marriage,” today that figure has “risen to a whopping 44 percent.” Indeed, the majority of births to women under thirty “now occur outside of marriage.”

The report rightly recognizes the societal cost of the breakdown of marriage, arguing that as families fail to form and as children are born out of wedlock, the state has to fill in the void—the annual cost to taxpayers is around $112 billion. However, the various policy proposals in the report are undermined by the redefinition of marriage:

The report’s fourth recommendation, “End Anonymous Fatherhood,” notes that “the anonymous man who provided his sperm walks away with no obligation.” Although a relatively small percentage of parents “use sperm donation or similar technologies to get pregnant, the cultural power of the idea that it’s acceptable deliberately to create a fatherless child and for biological fathers to walk away from their children is real.”

The authors propose that the United States ban anonymity in sperm donation “and reinforce the consistent message that fathers matter.” But how does marriage policy reinforce that message if it redefines marriage to say that mothers and fathers—one of each—are optional for marriage? How does redefining marriage to include lesbian relationships not further incentivize the type of anonymous sperm donation and resulting fatherless children that the authors protest?

Marriage redefined and separated from the bearing and rearing of children not only lacks the sexual complementarity of spouses, but other characteristics of marriage—monogamy, exclusivity, and permanence—also become optional insofar as marriage becomes nothing more than any interpersonal relationship that consenting adults, be they two or ten in number, want it to be: sexual or platonic, sexually exclusive or open, temporary or permanent.

Some who see this logic, thinking that marriage has no form and serves no social purpose, conclude that the government should get out of the marriage business altogether.

Of course, children stand to lose the most from redefining marriage, as children born and raised outside marriage are six times more likely to experience poverty, and welfare spending will continue to skyrocket as the basic unit of civil society—the family—is weakened.

This highlights the central questions in this debate: what marriage is and why the state recognizes it. It’s not that the state shouldn’t achieve its basic purpose while obscuring what marriage is. Rather, it can’t. Only when policy gets the nature of marriage right do we reap the civil society benefits of recognizing marriage.

The future of our country, then, relies upon the future of marriage. The future of marriage depends upon citizens’ understanding of what it is and why it matters—and demanding that government policies support, not undermine, true marriage. Unfortunately, “The President’s Marriage Agenda” overlooks these questions. How successful can a “new conversation on marriage” be when its leaders can’t even say what marriage is?

To understand the arguments in depth, read my essay in its entirety at Public Discourse, or my new book What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, co-authored with Sherif Girgis and Robert P. George.