Is the Institution of Marriage Really Crumbling?

Is the Institution of Marriage Really Crumbling? July 8, 2011

I recently wrote a piece entitled “Three Red Herrings in the Gay Marriage Debate.”  A colleague of mine named Star, the managing editor of Patheos’ Pagan Portal, responded in “Life, Liberty, and the Institution of Marriage?”  I am a fan of Star’s.  She’s a true believer.  She’s not a pagan because she finds it fashionable, or because she thinks the pagan gods “represent virtues worth emulating” (but do not really exist).  She not only believes that the gods of various ancient pagan traditions really exist; she believes they are active in her life, and deserve her worship.  She would even say that she has a close (personal) relationship with gods like Hephaestus and Baba Yaga.

Star is about the most winsome representative of contemporary American paganism I can imagine, and a friend, and I won’t tolerate ad hominem arguments against her.  She is also an amiable soul and slow to anger, so the frustrated tone of her post says something.  There are a good number of Americans who find “the institution of marriage” truly repressive.  That’s worth listening to.  Here’s a part of her post:

Just what the hell is the Institution of Marriage, anyway?

I mean, seriously? What is it?

I’ve heard that phrase for years and I still have no idea what it means, considering marriage is a constantly evolving concept. It sounds pretty darn important, especially since Tim says it’s the foundation of all society. I recall from my Christian upbringing that marriage, defined as 1 man+1 woman+chillen’, is considered the smallest and most basic form of government by some conservative Christians. It is upon such marriages all other forms of government stand. These marriages, ruled by the father and served by the mother and children, were considered the atoms that make up our body politic. As above, so below.

Rather terrifying, huh? This is what conservative Christians mean when they talk about defending the institution of marriage. They believe the government should protect their definition of marriage because they perceive that definition as an extension of the government and vice versa.

There are a couple things here worth considering.  The basic question, “What is the institution of marriage?”, is entirely fair.  There’s a fair amount in Star’s recitation of history that is not historical, but we’re not going to solve that problem right now.  The basic points — and they’re worth taking seriously — are these: (1) the concept of marriage is constantly evolving, and (2) marriage, especially when narrowly construed, has been a tool of oppression against women, minorities, and the like.  In other words, there may be no such thing as an “institution” of marriage, since definitions of marriage are fluid — but the attempt to turn marriage into an institution is confining, arrogant (Who are we to say that our marriage is really marriage and your marriage is not?), and creates the conditions for abuse and hardship.

Star tells us what she does affirm:

I can’t support the Institution of Marriage with it’s crumbling and cracked foundations. I do support the Evolution of Marriage as a vibrant, honest way to build community and honor the oaths humans make to each other: male to female, male to male, female to female, for all time, as long as love lasts, in polygyny, in polyandry, in polyamory, in young adulthood, in old age, between every race, exclusive, open and in glorious diversity.

Christians and non-Christians who believe in the institution of marriage need to pay attention.  Some of my liberal friends call it hyperbole when Christians say that the next thing after same-sex marriage will be polygamy and even incest.  And Christians are sometimes very clumsy in the way they frame this.  They do not mean to liken or equate same-sex relationships with polygamy or incest; they’re arguing that the legal justification proffered for same-sex marriage would also serve to justify, or at least lead in the direction of, polygamous and incestuous marriages.  As I’ve said before, slippery-slope arguments often sound silly or alarmist, but I think a good case can be made to support one in this instance.

Same-sex marriage proponents don’t want to talk about these things, because they’re (justly) concerned it will scare Americans away from allowing any change in our marriage laws.  But there are, waiting in the wings after the same-sex marriage movement, people who will challenge the laws limiting marriage to only two individuals.  Pagans (and others) are already arguing that their religion affirms multiple-marriage (as many forms of paganism do), and it’s an infringement of their religious rights that they are permitted to marry only one person.  Others stand against “discrimination on the basis of ancestry” (i.e., they favor the permission of relatives to marry.)  If marriage can be redefined internationally as “The uniting of consenting individuals in a witnessed ceremony,” then “laws against polygamy and consanguineous intimacy” will be “repealed, overruled, or superseded,” and people of any orientation, any number, or any birth relation, can marry.

Unless we can provide a clear sense of what we mean by the institution of marriage and why we believe it’s worth defending, we are going to lose this argument.  We need to do better.  We need to hear why people are so frustrated with what we have made of marriage; we need to hear why we’re viewed as hypocrites for preventing others to marry when we’re failing in our own marriages; and we need to explain clearly and persuasively why marriage should still be considered one man and one woman.  I will post an article on Monday entitled “Why We Marry.”  Then I will address, “Is the Institution of Marriage Worth Defending?”

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  • Just as a side note, women giving birth past the age of 40 or via IVF have a higher rate of birth defects than if first cousins procreate. I don’t think close relatives should marry or procreate, but it kind of puts that argument in perspective.

    What I would be interested in hearing is an argument for “traditional marriage” based in faith and values. How is “traditional marriage” more honest than other types of union? More kind? More just? Instead of why you think other types of civil union are bad, what makes “traditional marriage” preferable?

    Looking forward to your next installment!

    • kenneth

      The truth is, Star, they have been utterly unable to offer a single GOOD reason why government should be enforcing their sectarian religious notion of “traditional” marriage on the rest of us. They have nothing at all that is rooted in sound, secular public policy consideration. They have their own religious preference which they attempt to spin into mankind’s historical universal consensus via “Natural Law” which was the same method, to the letter, used to justify slavery, aboriginal genocide and segregation. All they’ve got apart from that is the dramatics of “next people will marry their horse or their sister.” All the bluff have been played and called and we’ve seen what they’re holding: all junk.

      • Actually, Kenneth, the bluff is all yours. There are many resources that argue strictly along secular lines for the value of traditional marriage, of which you must be ignorant of them all. At this website:, you can find a brochure on the 77 non-religious to support traditional marriage.

    • it’s legal number one, it is a blessings from the creator, it is a uniting of two people to one, it has values for the children especially as they are growing up and going to school it is excepted before this country was born and the good folks when signing papers for this country to get started wanted it to be a country under God not man, God put forth the marriage institution and i pray it never gets changed My problem with gays and others like the three of a kind marriage is,Why if they want to get married should they pick on Christians and their churches? What ever happened to common laws or the justice of the peace? Why start trouble for Christians who believe the way they do and have been for centuries? Why would any good person want to fight with the church of Christ? Only his opponent would do this.Even an atheist would stay out of the church business and rules. Rules and laws are to follow and it does not matter who you are or think you are if it is a law and does not break any commandment or laws of the lands then why try to change something good and turn it into a circus? Perhaps they who are against the Christian churches or people should open their own churches and get married then all would be happy but not all would be legal. Well it is not legal any ways even California if they have not yet are going to over turn it.Peace!

      • Dara M. Bergmann

        Wow, how did you wrap that around into a “fight with the church of Christ”? Marriage is not just a Christian institution, it is also a governmental one. I am not allowed to get married to the one I love. If I am seriously injured and in the hospital, my partner can be denied the right to see me. We cannot file our taxes together. We have no legal standing together in “the Land of the Free”, my beloved country.No one is attacking churches because they (some of them) don’t allow Gay marriages, yet Gays and Lesbians are attacked everyday based only on the fact that they love someone of the same sex.Perhaps we should consider Christ’s premier teaching and embrace Love in its many forms.

  • Larry

    Tim, if you attempt to premise your argument on a reasoned definition of “The Institution of Marriage” apart from biblical authority and perspectives … you’ve already lost. Your reasoning will necessarily follow a construct largely dependent on your perspective … who will validate that? Who will assign greater merit to your perspective (and the constructs which attend it)than to another. This is the basis for (and the appeal of) moral relativism … “right for you but not for me”. We’ve been beaten over the head with that stick for decades now. I believe it is the Church’s role to announce God’s Word and labor to communicate it soundly and effectively. But attempts to provide a reasoned construct absent references to God’s command, while laudable are doomed to failure. Our efforts are better spent investing ourselves in building the Kingdom … a spiritual awakening and renewal within our churches provide the possibility of rebuilding a moral consensus in our nation. Absent that we will continue to witness steady moral decay and the chaos that attends it. It was a grave tactical error when we permitted ourselves to accept the argument that moral relativism brought … its encroachments have steady and certain sense that time. Sometimes the best reason is the simplest … its wrong because its sin … and God has labeled as sin those things which ultimately promote loss and bring ruin. Attempts to justify those claims often demand the sort of circular reasoning we so abhor … so I don’t any longer. “It is written” either enjoys currency in our culture or it doesn’t. John Adams, it appears, enjoyed real insight when he wrote “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other”. A more contemporary thinker, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, offered this wisdom regarding his own nations collapse into tyranny and darkness … “More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened”

    “Since then I have spent well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened”.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Larry, I’m not sure what leads you to suspect that I will “attempt to premise [my] argument on a reasoned definition of “The Institution of Marriage” apart from biblical authority and perspectives.” I won’t.

      • Larry

        Just taking my cue from Star, Tim. It seems to me that she is implying that an attempt to bring definition to the term within a biblical context is tantamount to a suffocating theocracy … rigid, unwelcoming, confining and anachronistic. I’m not suggesting that you will attempt to, but that such an attempt is likely to fail. I know that a biblical argument can be mounted (should be mounted) … offered in a humility which respects the dignity of others yet with a quiet authority. The temptation, however, seems to lie in the seductive allure that reasoned argument alone will win the day. Martin Luther King, Jr. broke the back of Jim Crow with a prophets call to a biblical worldview which announced, unambiguously and unapologetically that prejudice was unrighteous … that it was evil. He appealed to reason, he appealed to Constitutional law … but the canvas upon which he painted, the backdrop of all his arguments was decidedly biblical.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          Ah, got it. Thanks, Larry.

  • You talk about polygamy as if it were a bad thing. I wonder if you could adduce some evidence that this is so. I would be willing to listen to a risk/benefit argument against polyamory if one could be made. I am not as open to arguments based solely on arbitrary religious morality. And, of course, I could adduce evidence to the effect that “Biblical marriage” includes polygamous relationships(e.g. the OT patriarchs, King David, and King Solomon).

    With regard to the marriage of close relatives, there might be a risk/benefit argument that is worth discussing. We see, for example, the bringing out of certain negative recessive characteristics, such as hemophilia. OTOH, we could also see the bringing out of positive characteristics. Are the net risks to society sufficient to mandate a blanket prohibition? This should be the issue, and, again, not simply arbitrary religious morality.

    • Here’s some evidence that polygamy is an unpretty picture – a new book: Secrets & Wives – The Hidden World of Mormon Polygamy (Soft Skull).

      More information here:

      This is a small population with a disproportionate number of underage girls with men much much older men, forced marriages, child abuse, child labor, poor education and the widespread concealment of crimes against children. Polygamy is an autocratic culture in the Mormon tradition. It’s easy to watch Sister Wives and believe that’s polygamy – it isn’t. Those who have looked under polygamy’s rock know just how much unhappiness, ignorance and fear lurks there.

      As for your arguments about consanguinity, the recessive genes argument is a strong one, but not the clincher. The truth is that there is very little scientific evidence to attest to the effects of generational incest because the families that practice it are secretive and not always truthful. There is anecdotal evidence that in the Order, for instance – aka the Kingston Group – in Utah, intergenerational incest has led to numerous deformities and still births, which have been on occasion, simply buried without a word to the authorities. The chances of the mother admitting as much to a scientific researcher, however, is mighty slim.

      Consider another argument against incest – it normalizes a sexual relationship between otherwise non-sexual relatives, like uncle/niece, brother/sister. And by doing so, it endangers the niece/sisters in these relationships at an early age, since the uncle/brothers can legitimately look at them as future sexual prospects.

      And by the way, any attempt to speak sense on an issue that refers to the Bible is laughable. By that token we’d reinstate slavery and infanticide. Let’s look at facts, not fantasies. These are children we’re talking about.

      • Makarios

        Re. polyamoy: What about non-exploitative, genuinely consensual relationships amongst adults? After all, we know that all sorts of abuses can occur in “one-man-one-woman” families, but that does not mean that this type of marriage should be forbidden. Abuse does not preclude use.

        And your arguments re. incest are based on so many unwarranted assumptions that I’m not even going to bother addressing it.

  • Kubrick’s Rube

    I agree there’s a slippery slope, but I don’t see it the way it’s generally depicted. I think we’re well down the slope already, but that same-sex marriage does not move us down another step; it merely moves us laterally, acknowledging the functional definition of marriage shared by most Americans, extending the level of slope we currently occupy.

    This extention- without itself constituting a slide- may well make the slope more slippery. But I much prefer a slope to a pedestal, and think we should consider each case on its own merits.

    Polygamous and close incestuous marriages were outlawed in this country long before anyone tried to normalize same-sex relations or grant same-sex couples protection under the law. If there are good reasons for these long-standing limitations- limitations that have survived divorce, contraception, interracial marriage and so far same-sex marriage while pre-dating them all- then those (or newer) reasons should still prevail.

    So far I’ve found the cases against legally recognized polygamous and close incestuous marriages either compelling or, when not as strong, no better articulated by your side than mine. But that’s the key- there have to be reasons beyond a call to tradition- especially in these two cases where limiting marriage to two unrelated people has been a slow, steady break with tradition.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      It’s an interesting take, KR. To my mind, whether or not those same justifications for prohibiting polygamous or incestuous marriages will still stand depends in part on the legal philosophy surrounding marriage that is emerging in these conversations over SSM. If the legal philosophy is that there can be no value judgments in the law, and the law cannot discriminate between commitments amongst consenting adults, then we may well be in trouble. Of course one can mount an argument that the state has a compelling interest in keeping marriages to two partners alone, or in preventing cousins marrying, but it’s not too hard to imagine the counter-arguments there (as Star points out, there is greater risk of genetic abnormality when a woman over 40 conceives than there is when cousins conceive) or the possibility that the religious-rights argument would take precedence.

      It’s probable that the only thing preventing a push for the legalization of polygamous marriage in particular is that there is not the same well funded and well connected lobby as there has been for same-sex marriage.

      • Makarios

        “If the legal philosophy is that there can be no value judgments in the law. . . .” No, that is not the operating philosophy. The philosophy is that the value judgments which the law reflects (in a pluralistic, democratic society) must not be based solely upon arbitrary religious morality. There must be some secular, non-sectarian cost/benefit justification for a legal prohibition.

        “. . .and the law cannot discriminate between commitments amongst consenting adults. . .”

        Again, if there is a good, non-religious reason that the law should so discriminate, I would be willing to listen to it. I’m looking forward to hearing one.

        “. . .then we may well be in trouble.”

        No–we will (not “may”) be in trouble if we base our laws upon religious morality dictated by “what the church teaches” or “what the Bible says” in the absence of (or in the face of) any convincing independent evidence and argument. Seriously, dude, the United States is not a Christian theocracy, and its laws should not be written as if it were one.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          Makarios, I’ve seen the legal philosophy developed in both ways. Either that the law should be purely pragmatic and not reflect moral judgments at all (it’s sometimes called legal libertarianism, and John Stuart Mill is taken to represent it) — and the view that you stated, which is that moral values are permitted but not if those values are “based upon arbitrary religious morality” (although not in these terms, as this seems to be a pet phrase of yours) The problem with the latter is the impossibility of separating moral values that are religiously based from those that are not. And the notion that moral values that are areligious are permitted in the voting booth and the legislature, but moral values that are religious are not permitted, does not make sense of our founding documents. (It may still be a worthy approach, but it’s certainly not what was intended by the establishment clause; in fact I think it pretty clearly contradicts the free exercise clause.)

          In any case, it takes enough time to write these pieces, without having excurses in advance. Let’s wait until the series is written out. Thanks,

      • Kubrick’s Rube

        Thanks Tim.

        Unless you doubt the sincerity of same-sex marriage advocates, surely “well funded and well connected” are merely sub-factors, springing from the more pertinent fact that SSM has stronger support (both in numbers and intensity), which is directly connected to- given the experientially involuntary nature of homosexuality you’ve been addressing these past weeks- a clearer and more immediate contention of inequality under the law.

        And “there can be no value judgments in the law” does not accurately reflect SSM supporters’ legal philosophy. However, I predict that if it ever gets that far, the state will effectively argue that it has a compelling interest in keeping marriages to two partners alone without even making value judgments- the administrative burden and the unworkability of interpreting and enforcing the necessarily more complex legal contracts for the myriad combinations of polygamous family units (which would undermine- as gender-neutral contracts do not- the simplicity and general applicability of current marriage benefits and therefore undermine the state’s non-social interest in endorsing marriage in the first place) will likely prove sufficient.

        That’s my prediction, and despite some sympathy for Star’s position, I don’t see how legally recognized polygamy logically or necessarily follows from same-sex marriage without throwing out (most of) the actual legal arguments supporters of SSM make.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          Well, look, being well-funded and well-connected is a necessary but not sufficient condition for what the same-sex marriage movement has accomplished. That’s the point. And if a multi-marriage contingent had the same vast amount of influence politically and financially, I have no doubt that they could fashion their arguments and press their case in the courts, with some success. To the extent that there is a de-privileging of the traditional marriage model in the same-sex marriage movement, and to the extent that religious or religion-based moral values are seen as unfit bases for legal or legislative reasoning, then, yes, it prepares the way for things like multiple marriage. Practical considerations are interesting and to some extent important, but less important when seen in the light of ‘human rights’ (and I imagine it could be argued well enough that polygamy is a part of their religious freedom).

  • kenneth

    You are not failing to articulate the “Institution of Marriage.” People are seeing it for what it really is: an artificial construct which is an attempt to redefine recent evangelical/Catholic norms as ancient and unchanging historical fact. It is an attempt to put a secular mask on what is quite obviously an attempt to legislate sectarian religious codes on the rest of us.

  • Jason Drew (Dancingcrow)

    Who wants a marriage institution?

    Unfortunately, if a couple want the benefits in law that a legal marriage can give then they have to butter up to the legal governing institutions who can provide the legal benefits, but you have to give the institutions cash upfront 1st and legally tie yourself to their laws on the subject. For me, marriage is about everyone but the bloody government; I’d rather not have to involve them.

    The government and the institutions who request the upfront cash then also dictate many aspects of the ceremony like exactly what the priest is or is not allowed to say for example; then, you are legally bound not only to your chosen partner but also to the governing institution, and – to the government!

    Still, there are many levers that institutions use to try to control even our intimate private lives with.

  • Jason Drew (Dancingcrow)

    A nice, considerate and thought provoking piece from Timothy Dalrymple though. Thanks: )

  • David

    In addition to “what we mean by the institution of marriage and why we believe it’s worth defending” I think Christians also need to make clear “why we believe that defense includes a legal definition”. If a Christian believes marriage is a covenant ordained by God why not restrict the state to defining civil unions? Perhaps one reason lies in a function of law to encourage social norms.

    • Timothy Dalrymple