Is marriage merely a private institution, only between two people and therefore nobody else’s business? Or is marriage actually a very public institution in which it serves a much larger public purpose?

Far too many people unfortunately believe the former. But this is a terribly short-sighted view of what marriage actually is and does. Marriage exists because every human culture needs it to exist. It indeed serves a very public role, civilization’s most vital role. In fact, you cannot – and no society ever has – have civilization without marriage.

Professor Edward Westermarck, in his massive three volume The History of Human Marriage, explains “As for the origin of the institution of marriage, I consider it probable that it has developed out of primeval habit.” He is simply recognizing that marriage appears to have always existed among all people groups throughout the world, throughout time. Human civilization has never been without it.

There is an anthropological reason for this.

It has to do with the fundamental fact that male and female are distinctly unique and profoundly consequential.

Westermarck explains a few pages later,

That the function of husband and father in the family are not merely of the sexual and procreative kind, but involve the duty of protecting [and providing for] the wife and children is testified in an array of facts relating to peoples in all quarters of the world in all stages of civilization. [emphasis added]

This indicates that marriage is actually more of a public institution than private because it, and it alone, responds and attends to the fundamental nature of man and woman and their vast negative potential as solitary beings, as well as their profound positive potential as a couple. Marriage is the irreplaceable foundation and factory of civilization.

Disagree? Show us any enduring civilization that doesn’t have marriage. There are none. Yes, the couple-hood of male and female, bonded by marriage, is what creates and sustains human civilization.

This is the fundamental truth behind an important new resource put out by the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. The scholars there have just published their second edition of Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles making the case for why natural marriage must be appreciated by all citizens as an essential public institution. An excerpt from this important publication over at Public Discourse explains the urgency of recovering a pro-marriage culture which celebrates husband and wife,

Family fragmentation and fatherlessness are increasing enormously, usually coupled with the collapse of fertility to levels that, if continued, spell demographic and social decline. Suddenly, developed nations are finding themselves unable to accomplish the great, simple task of every human society: bringing young men and women together to marry and raise the next generation together.

The solution?

The Witherspoon scholars contend, “The great task for America in our generation is to energize a return to and renewal of traditional marriage.” They add,

We need to transmit a stronger, healthier, and more supportive marriage culture to the next generation, so that each year more children are raised by their own mother and father united by a loving marriage, so that they can grow up to have thriving marriages themselves.

Specifically, they advocate eight actions our nation must take to recover and strengthen the ideal of life-long marriage between men and women. These policy proposals are:

  1. Maintain the legal distinction between married and cohabiting couples.
  2. Investigate divorce-law reforms.
  3. End marriage financial penalties for low-income Americans.
  4. Protect and expand pro-child and pro-family provisions in our tax code.
  5. Protect the interests of children against a powerful fertility industry.
  6. Protect the freedom to live out and express belief in the uniqueness of traditional marriage without fear of government coercion and institutional hostility.
  7. Protect the freedom to conduct scholarly inquiry and promote dissemination of accurate research findings on marriage and related topics.

And finally…

  1. Restore the public understanding of marriage as uniquely the union of one man with one woman as husband and wife.

This is a very important set of proposals that Focus on the Family strongly endorses and has long advocated for.


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