Some people are asking, “Why not privatize marriage? Push the state out of this battle in the culture wars. Why should the state have to give its approval to the definition of marriage? Why not let denominations define marriage the way they deem correct?”
It won’t work.
It might if marriages really were permanent, and people never got divorced. But there are certain disputes that have to be resolved when marriages end.
Baylor University philosophy and church-state studies professor Francis Beckwith writes: “What to do with children, property, state residency, freedom of movement, etc., when marital relationships [that] break down are public issues. They are not private ones. Consequently,” he says, “in such a privatization of marriage scenario, the state would actually become more intrusive into ecclesial matters than it is at present.”
The public nature of marriage exists, in part, because in our society, and historically, marriage is the institutional arrangement that defines parenthood. Economist Jennifer Roback Morse is founder and president of the Ruth Institute, an organization devoted to encouraging lifelong married love. She writes that, “if no children were ever involved, adult sexual relationships simply wouldn’t be any of the state’s business.” However, she points out that the advent of no-fault divorce has involved the state “in the minutiae of family life,” resolving “disputes over custody, visitation and child support.”
Of leaving marriage to the churches, Dr. Morse writes, “At this point in history, churches are not the ultimate legal authority for anything.” In fact, the state is busy marginalizing the churches and their influence. And even if the state were to somehow allow churches authority over the issues surrounding the children of divorce, it would still be called upon to settle disputes between people not of the same religion, or where one or the other—or both—claims no religion at all.
Given these realities, getting the state out of the marriage business is asking the impossible. And, as Dr. Morse points out, “Assigning the state an impossible task amounts to giving it a blank check.”
With marriage meaning different things to different people or groups, the state will only find itself more enmeshed in defining who counts as a parent. “Up to now,” she writes, “that job has been largely left to Mother Nature, with the state simply recording the natural reality of parenthood.’” No-fault divorce, co-habitation and same-sex marriage have increased the state’s role in marriage.
The church must do a better job of teaching a theology of marriage. But it must not withdraw from the culture wars, especially the one over marriage.
Penna Dexter is a conservative activist and frequent panelist on the “Point of View” syndicated radio program. Her weekly commentaries air on the Bott and Moody radio networks.
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