On Ignoring the "Canary in the Mine." Why The Demise of Marriage Matters

New York State’s redefinition of marriage is the latest domino to fall in the trend sweeping the nation of legally recognizing so-called “gay marriage.” Many people, especially younger people, are prone to shrug and wonder what the big deal is about all this. Many, too, of all ages, have bought into the notion that this is all about fairness, and being unbigoted.

Perhaps part of the reason for this is that we in the Church, and other defenders of traditional marriage, have allowed this to become a discussion about gay “marriage” only, rather than about the overall and devastating effects of the sexual revolution, and the sexual liberationist movement in general.

Gay “marriage” is only the latest battleground. It was preceded by the no-fault divorce wave that swept the country, beginning in 1969. The battleground is also about the explosion in divorce rates. It is about rampant promiscuity and shacking-up (or more politely “co-habitation”).  And gay “marriage” is now the latest coffin nail, as secular culture buries traditional marriage.

Sadly too, in many of the other “nails” mentioned in the previous paragraph, even Christians have long engaged in these practices and the Church has been too silent in the last forty years and lacked the prophetic voice we are only lately (too late?) rediscovering.

To those who are dismissive or minimizing of concerns related to the State defining marriage out of existence, we must re-articulate, in a credible way, that traditional marriage does matter, and that its demise is not only lamentable, but devastating  for the future of Western culture as we have known it.

Consider the following quote from Robert P. George, a Professor at Princeton University and interview in National Review. He is answering the question, “Why should people care” :

Well, people should care because the whole edifice of sexual-liberationist ideology is built on damaging and dehumanizing falsehoods. It has already done enormous harm — harm that falls on everybody, but disproportionately on those in the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of our society. If you doubt that, have a look at Myron Magnet’s great book The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass, or some of the writings of Kay Hymowitz and other serious people who have examined the social consequences for the poor of the embrace of sexual liberalism by celebrities and other cultural elites. Marriage is a profound human and social good; its weakening and loss is a tragedy from which affluent people can be distracted (and protected) by their affluence for only so long. The institution of marriage has already been deeply wounded by divorce at nearly plague levels, widespread non-marital sexual cohabitation, and other damaging factors. To redefine it out of existence in law is to make it much more difficult to restore a sound understanding of marriage on which a healthy marriage culture can be rebuilt for the good of all. It is to sacrifice the needs of the poor, who are hurt the most when a sound public understanding of marriage and sexual morality collapses. It is to give up on the truth that children need both a father and mother, and benefit from the security of their love for each other. [1]

I have personally experienced what he is describing about the poor being the first to be hit with the effects. Having lived, as I did,  in the one of the poorest sections of Washington DC, the breakdown of marriage and its effects were very clear. In that neighborhood, 80% of the homes were headed by single mothers. It was not unusual for women in their late 20s to be grandmothers already. The effects on the children of having no father, of children having children, and living in dysfunctional situations plagued, with many layers of promiscuity and confusion was very clear. 60% of the children in that neighborhood never graduated high school. Of those that did, 40% of them, were functionally illiterate. Over 70% of the young men had police records by age 15 and the teenage pregnancy rates hovered near 65% for girls by their 15th birthday. STDs are quite high and the District of Columbia has the highest AIDs rate in the nation.

Some want to blame all this merely on poverty. But prior to 1965, when poverty rates were worse in the Black community, more than 80% of children lived with two parents, graduation rates were much higher, teen pregnancy rates were quite a bit lower along with STD rates. The sexual revolution is a huge factor in the devastation of the poor, and it is rightly said, from a statistical point of view, that single motherhood has the highest correlation to poverty of any other factor.

And the fact is, this breakdown is reaching the suburbs where gang violence, youth crime rates, promiscuity, STD rates, teen pregancy, abortion rates, and many other deleterious effects have been on the rise for decades. And sure enough, all of this is happening at a time when the numbers of suburban children who no longer with both both parents is approaching 50%.

We who live and work in the “inner city” like to say, “We’re the canary in the mine.” This image goes back to coal mining days when the miners brought a canary down in a cage. If gas levels rose, the canary died first, signaling trouble, and sounding an alert that it was time to get out. So for years as the wider US population either shook its finger at the inner city, or pitied those living there, the fact is they were ignoring the canary in the mine. The gas has now reached the suburbs, and the effects are spreading. And the main ingredient of the gas is the breakdown of marriage and the traditional family.

We ought to care that traditional marriage is in crisis. It is clear that children thrive best under the care of a mother and a father, and that removing this fixture from our culture is devastating to children and to our culture. The canary is not lying. If we do not fix marriage and family, we are doomed.

As professor George states above, legislators defining marriage out of existence is going to make any restoration of it quite difficult. Some may argue that the phrase “defining marriage out of existence”  is too strong, and that judges and legislators are merely widening its scope. But at some point, if anything is marriage, nothing is marriage.

This juggernaut will not stop. The polygamists are next (just google polygamy and see that the steam is building). After them come the incest crowd and other odd combinations.  And there will be little legal basis to resist them. And in a secular culture that has lost any basis to morally reason, or determine right from wrong, who among the secularists will be able to say “nay?” Yes, in the end, if anything is marriage, nothing is marriage. Marriage, as a culturally recognizable institution seems doomed, it is being legally defined out of existence.

Tomorrow on the blog I want to revisit a notion I raised more than a year ago, when I wondered if we need to find a new word for what we mean by Christian Marriage. For it would seem that the word is losing any meaning with each year that goes by in the secular world. More on that tomorrow.

For now, we have every reason to be very alarmed at the demise of marriage in modern times. Those who want dismiss or minimize the effects of the loss of traditional marriage ought to think again. Try visiting my prior inner city neighborhood, look at the devastation. Heck, try visiting my old high school in the suburbs where the drafting lab, where I learned mechanical drawing, is now a nursery for all the single high school “moms” to park their kids while they try to finish high school.  What was once unthinkable is now the “new normal.”  And as traditional marriage and family continue to take a beating we are foolish to think that we are headed anywhere but into serious trouble and ultimate ruin.

The First Blow to Marriage: No-Fault Divorce

This Year marks the 40th Anniversary of No-Fault Divorce. With the signature of Governor Ronald Regan on Sept 5, 1969, the State of California became the first State to enact “No-Fault Divorce.” Other states quickly followed and within 15 years it was nationwide. In effect this law simplified divorce and streamlined it by allowing only one party to petition for divorce. By this act Marriage became the easiest contract in civil law to break.

Prior to 1969 the States processed divorce requests but the process was long and difficult.  Shouldn’t it be? The breakup of marriages has potentially powerful implications for families and for society. It is especially children who suffer from unstable family situations. The State and the wider society has good reason to insist that couples remain faithful to vows they have made (to use Church language) and to “contractual obligations” binding on them (to use the language of civil law).  With the introduction of “No-fault Divorce” the notion of obligations and duties toward Children and the wider society was set aside. Marriage became a whimsical arrangement subject to easy and rather sudden end – no questions asked. “Irreconcilable differences” is all that needs to be said.

Late in life, Reagan admitted his son, Michael that, signing the bill was one of the worst mistakes he ever made in public office.

How have we done since 1969? Well no one would say marriage is a healthier institution as a result. Divorce has skyrocketed. Now more than half the children of this country no longer enjoy a stable nuclear family but instead are sent back and forth between the households of divorced parents. Often they have to endure the confusion and turmoil of their parents’ second marriages, half brothers and sisters, moms and step moms, dads and stepdads and every other sort of relationship you can imagine. What sort of a toll has this taken on children in terms of things like drug use, suicide rates, premarital sex, SAT scores, etc.? Well, you know the answer. And how do we fare as a society, as a nation, as Church when our most basic pillar is on shaky ground? Here again, you know the answer, we have not fared well.

There was a time in this land when divorce was rare. When it occurred people were shocked and whispered about it. Really it was not so long ago. I who am only 48 remember those times from my early childhood. It is not as though every marriage was happy before 1965. Indeed, there were many “unhappy marriages.” But people had a different outlook which emphasized the importance of staying true to commitments that had been made and to sticking them “for the sake of the kids.”  These attitudes were enshrined in law which made divorce difficult. Marriage was for the Children and children had needs for stability and for parents who stuck to their commitments. Today, the attitude is that marriage is for the adults and the needs of children are somewhat secondary.

Do you also see how this had led to the current trend to “redefine” marriage. If Marriage is essentially only about the relationship of the adults involved and children are only an optional accessory, who is to say that marriage should be stable or even heterosexual? Or so the thinking goes. But if, as the Church continues to teach, the procreation and rearing of children is an essential end of marriage then it makes sense that God would establish marriage as between one man and one woman till death do them part. As God puts it, “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh.” (Gen 2:24) God goes on further to command them to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28).

So here we are today, marriage, family, and children are all on the ropes. Our own strength as a civilization depends on us getting this right again. The first major and serious blow took place 40 years ago this month. God invites us to return.

To those who are divorced, I mean you no disrespect. Many are divorced today due to complicated reasons. Not all wanted the divorce they had. Others made decisions early in life that they now regret. Still others had unique situations too complicated to speculate about here. But I’ll bet most who are divorced would be the first to describe its pains and ramifications in the family. Easy divorce has not made life easy. “Amicable solutions”  are seldom pain-free and they are seldom solutions at all. Rather they unleash a whole new set of problems. Somewhere in the midst of all this God is calling to us and he invites us all to rediscover his plan for marriage and the family.