COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (BP)--If you've paid any attention to the public discussion on the nature of marriage in the past few years, you've no doubt heard the call from some for the government to get out of the marriage business altogether and just leave it to religious folks.
This has caused many to ask two key questions:
1) Is marriage primarily a Christian institution?
2) Does the state have any real interest in marriage?
These are questions that all Christians should know how to answer and why. They address the very nature of what marriage is and does.
Is marriage primarily a Christian institution?
In a word, no.
Marriage is vitally important to Christians, given that our Bibles begin with a wedding in Genesis and end with a very different type of wedding in Revelation. And the primary narrative of God's redemptive history through the Old Testament and into the New is Him seeking His faithless bride with full abandon. But marriage is a common-grace that God gives to all peoples. It transcends religion, law, culture, socio-political boundaries.
If marriage were primarily a Christian institution, you would find it only existing in times and places where Christianity has had influence. But this is not the case. Anthropologists tell it exists in some form everywhere we find people throughout history. And they are unable to establish any real starting point for it in human experience. From their measures, it just seems to have always been, as one leading scholar explains, "from primeval habit" -- almost as if it started with the first two humans! Like water is to the human body, marriage is to human culture. God created both water and marriage, and He made it so that they are essential to human thriving.
To say that marriage is primarily a religious institution is to miss appreciating what marriage has been in the long history of human experience. It is a human institution given to all peoples at all times by God's design. At the same time, Christians have a great deal to say about what marriage is, what it represents in the divine sense, how we can make it work and how it should be cared for by couples, families and communities because of the important place it holds in our faith.
If marriage is not fundamentally a religious institution, does the state have a particular interest in certifying marriages?
It does because marriage serves an essential social function. Aristotle in his Politics explained that marriage creates the first essential and most fundamental human society. And from marriage stems the family. And from the nuclear nature of man, woman and children stems the extended family, from there, the village with many extended families together. From the village arises the town and from towns, the state.
No society anywhere has discovered a way to keep a cohesive, productive, safe, economically viable community without marriage. Marriage is a community's most basic bonding agent, calling man and woman to commit to one another and their larger kin group. It calls them to work together to establish a common life and livelihood. It calls and compels them to monitor and govern each other's behavior: sexually, economically, emotionally and publicly. And this is done by linking men and women into lifelong, exclusive and duty-bound domestic and sexual unions. No other social union does this.
The commitment that marriage requires changes who we are as people and our sense of duty to others. Cohabitation and friendships are not as likely to create this type of personal change.
So what interest does the state have? Consider the money a government spends on all types of social welfare support. The overwhelming majority stems from a marriage failing to form or falling apart after it's formed. Sociologists tell us that people who are married are unlikely to live in persistent poverty. Cohabitors and single parents are much more likely to live in poverty. And poverty drives so many other serious social problems. Married adults are less likely to be in trouble with the law for violent or drug-related crimes compared with either single or cohabiting peers. Domestic violence for both adults and children is significantly reduced in homes where wedding rings are present. Children who grow up with married parents are dramatically more likely to be physically and psychologically healthy, do well in all measures of educational attainment, graduate from college, and become gainfully employed. These are the kind of citizens of whom every state needs more.
Married adults and their children are less of a drain on a state's social services and welfare rolls, sometimes by half to three-quarters. Married men and women earn and save more money than their single or cohabiting peers. They are therefore able to pay more taxes into state coffers and produce more goods for the community.
If you are the governor of a state or the president of a nation -- and you know the social research -- you will have a deeply pragmatic interest in marriage. It helps boost nearly all of the good things your state needs to thrive. And it costs you nothing. The government has an interest in both marriage and babies not because it is sentimental about blushing brides and beautiful new bouncing babies.
Marriage and married parenthood provides the productivity and stability every community needs. And babies raised by stable, married moms and dads become the tax-payers, inventors, health-care providers, educators, industry leaders, problem-solvers and community leaders that every society needs. This is exactly why all cultures, regardless of their politics, religion, economy or beliefs find they cannot do without marriage.
Marriage is, among many things, society's most fundamental intrinsic and pragmatic social good.
Glenn T. Stanton is the director for family formation studies at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colo., and is the author of the new book, "Secure Daughters Confident Sons: How Parents Guide Their Children into Authentic Masculinity and Femininity" (Multnomah, 2011). This column first appeared at the Boundless.org blog. Copyright © 2011, Focus on the Family. Used by permission.