Why should the state define marriage?

| Andrew Jaspers | December 7, 2011

Having grown up in an intact, traditional family, I didn’t know what a gift I had received until I got to know a college student who I helped lead through RCIA, who I will call Stephanie. Stephanie was a single mother in her mid-20s, and was estran­ged from the father of her child. Her days were filled with worry and anger over that father, and fear for the welfare of her child when in his custody. My experience with her taught me why the state is right to encourage traditional marriage.

Opponents of the state’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman typically assert that the state is wrong to privilege any particular form of marriage.  And if marriage was created by the state, this might raise the charge of arbitrariness.  But marriage is either an organic institution prior to the state or it is merely a legal entity.

People of opposite sexes in every society have tended to be attracted to one another, couple, co-create children and raise them. Marriage has been the normative institution for both sexual activity and the rearing of children. Additionally, we can observe that the family has always had a sovereignty that has resisted outside coercion, especially from the government. It prefers to determine itself and settle its problems without the assistance of the “courts and cops,” and generally does so quite well.

The self-regulating culture of the intact, married family can be contrasted with fractured families or those that arose out of noncommittal sexual acts.

These often bring with them great costs to those immediately concerned and to society.

The most benign, separated family ideally arrives at mutually acceptable terms of child visitation, support and property division. However, the ordinary case is of two parties asserting competing positions on all of these questions.

Thus, courts are needed to arbitrate the terms. And the noncompliance with these terms often requires the state to involve itself in wage garnishing to settle child support, and police enforcement of visitation rights, possibly restraining orders, and investigations of child abuse allegations.  The sovereignty of the family is almost completely eliminated with the state’s determination and invasion of the most intimate details of people’s lives.

These acts by the court and the police require massive state expenditures that married and childless couples are forced to subsidize.
And these interventions are in a sense necessary in a free and virtuous society, insofar as they coerce people to live up to their genuine responsibilities.

The effects on children of such situations are well-documented: lower performance and more behavioral problems that require far more educational and disciplinary resources.

The state does not legally penalize non-married couples who raise children. But is it not reasonable that the state legally privilege the form of marriage that is most socially beneficial?  Ordinary families create a system of interdependence that the state has an interest in promoting. It also gives poor women like Stephanie a goal to aspire to.

Andrew Jaspers is a third-year seminarian at St. Paul Seminary and a recent philosophy instructor at Creighton University.

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Category: Commentary, Spotlight

  • Jimenneking

    Wow, what a terribly skewed article that leaves facts and statistics behind in favor of drawing an unrealistic connection between single parent family units and the churches homophobia.

  • Mdaranger8

    Having mistakenly surrendered jurisdiction of marriage to civil authorities decades ago, the Church now seeks to regain control by asserting that Catholic doctrine and teaching are the basis for all marriage everywhere and wishes to see that doctrine and teaching become a part of the constitutional framework of the State of Minnesota. Shame!

    During the campaign to elect John Kennedy president, we Catholics endured a storm of religious slurs and slanders claiming that the Catholic Church and the Pope would demand obedience from Catholics in general and a Kennedy presidency in particular in matters secular. We defeated those slurs rand slanders, electing Kennedy and leading the way for other Catholic to serve in the political sphere.

    Now, fifty years later, a Church ignorant of it’s own history injects itself into the affairs of state, making the slurs and slanders the official policy of the Church.

    Shame, shame, and shame again.

  • Tamara

    nicely presented, Andy!

  • Me

    How exactly would marriage have solved the problem of your friend Stephanie? Wouldn’t she also have been in fear if they lived under the same roof? So then she could go through the pain and expense of divorce? Observing how a friend going through divorce right now is suffering, both emotionally and financially, I’m not sure how that is better.

    While you are more than free to make an argument that you believe in, I don’t believe you have written a strong one. You’re missing a lot of connections that make it difficult for the reader to understand your point. Are you saying that because the state is involved in divorces, they should then decide that marriage is between a man and a woman? How does that follow? There are few if any gay divorces right now, so how can you say that a heterosexual marriage is “the most socially beneficial”, right after proclaiming what a terrible effect heterosexual divorces have on children? I guess you’re making the assumption that only families that start out of wedlock or “fractured families” (whatever those are) are the ones that go through the messy divorces. With 3.4 divorces for every 6.8 marriages in 2009 (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr58/nvsr58_25.pdf), I doubt that is the case.

    And why should marriage be a goal to aspire to? Why does everyone need to get married? Can someone be perfectly happy by themselves and still live in God? What about those who are not attracted to the opposite sex? Do they not have a goal to aspire to? If you say a life of abstinence for God, then you are severly shortchanging people with just as much love and devotion in them as the next straight person? And if being straight and being alone isn’t okay, then you’re a hypocrite to say that being gay and being alone is preferable.

  • Johan Baumeister

    “Opponents of the state’s definition of marriage as between a man and a
    woman typically assert that the state is wrong to privilege any
    particular form of marriage.”

    This is inaccurate and generally representative of the flaw in your argument.  You should seek to understand your opponents before you mis-characterize them so badly.  The actual position of marriage equality advocates is typically that it is wrong for the state to exclude loving and committed same-sex couples from the legal benefits and responsibilities conferred on opposite-sex couples.

    That’s quite a different position than the one you claim.  Marriage equality advocates recognize that civil marriage licensure is a good thing because of the stability it grants to society and to the family in question.  They just don’t think families should be harmed by state-sanctioned discrimination on the basis that they are headed by two men or two women rather than a man and a woman.

  • Johan Baumeister

    The other flaw with your
    article, and it’s also a big one, is that you are conflating the ills
    suffered by poverty-stricken single mothers with same-sex marriage. Essentially, you argue that it’s ok for the state to prevent two loving and committed women from getting a marriage license because it’s difficult to be a single mother.  This is like saying the state should mandate white wedding dresses because red pants look just awful.  Red pants won’t go away simply because they cannot be worn at a wedding, and the rate of single-parent families won’t decrease simply because gays still cannot marry.  (By the same token, same-sex couples won’t go away simply because the state discriminates against them.  They just will be unmarried, and less protected, than other taxpaying couples.)

    Furthermore, I
    don’t even think most marriage equality advocates would disagree that
    two parents grant a better outcome for the child than one alone. In
    fact, that’s what every single study of same-sex parenting has shown. Two parents, regardless of gender, do better than one parent.  So
    instead of callously and inaccurately using “Stephanie’s” experience to
    further an unrelated political agenda, why aren’t you instead
    advocating for reforms that *would* help her, like better enforcement of
    our child-support laws when fathers abandon their children.  Or perhaps legalization of same-sex marriage so that those families are also better protected and not viewed by the state as “single parent families” anymore.