In Marriage: A History, Stephanie Coontz argues (following Nancy Cott) that what we are seeing now is the disestablishment of marriage, on the analogy of the disestablishment of the old state churches. Traditional marriage is not disappearing. Rather, it is losing its long-time monopoly of legitimate forms of close relations. Henceforth, this theory argues, marriage will have to compete with all other forms of close relations in a free market.
I think that disestablishment is good for religion. Lyman Beecher, who had been a minister in the state-supported Congregational Church in Connecticut, fought its disestablishment in 1818. Later, after he experienced the freedom from state control, and the renewed spiritual vigor of the independent church, he changed his mind. In his autobiography, he called disestablishment “the best thing that ever happened to the state of Connecticut. It cut the churches loose from dependence on state support. It threw them wholly on their own resources and on God.” Monopolies get lazy; competition helps them remain vigorous, or go to the wall. The United States has a vibrant religious life, and Europe does not, because we have a genuinely competitive market in religion.
So would a free market in marriage be a good thing? Would traditional marriage – one man, one woman, for life, raising their own children – be stronger if it had to compete with polygamy, gay marriage, polyamory, serial monogamy, casual sex, ritual fellatio in men’s societies as among the Sambia, lesbians with cloned children, temple prostitution, berdache unions, incest, etc., etc., etc? Coontz is right that marriage, for long centuries, was whatever the couple and their families told the world it was. It was only later that the church and the state regularized marriage, creating a public ritual with real spiritual and legal consequences.
No, I don’t think so. Church and State made marriage a public institution in the first place to protect women and children, who were routinely abused and exploited under the cover of the “private” family. Women need less protection now than they once did, but children are as vulnerable as ever, and always will be. And mothers of young children are still vulnerable, and that, I think, is not likely to ever change, either.
When churches were disestablished, it meant that the playing field was leveled between the one monopolistic state church and the many competing sects. It was part of the ideal of the church that society only needed one, but dissident individuals kept creating those pesky sects. Eventually, both church and sect were forced to accommodate and become denominations within the larger currency of religion – to the benefit of both.
The analogy with marriage would be if there were only one family in society. This is not way off the mark. In monarchical societies, the Royal Family is a thing apart, with privileges, responsibilities, property rights, and prerogatives different in kind from all other families. Yet even in the most absolute monarchies, the royal family did not argue that it should be the only family in society. The Bourbons did not exclude the existence of other families, not even among peasants. In totalitarian societies, the Maximum Leader did not have the one and only family. In Plato’s authoritarian fantasy in The Republic the guardian class gives up separate families, but other classes keep theirs. Utopian communities attempt to live as one family, but the only enduring examples had to be celibate communities.
Disestablishing the institution of marriage is not like disestablishing the institutional church. Everyone can create an “established” marriage; there can only be one “established” church. In the United States we disestablished the One Church, but support and accommodate many different kinds of religious institutions. This is because even the most deistical of our Founding Fathers thought that religious institutions were a public good and made better citizens. Marriage as an institution is also a public good. It not only makes better citizens, it is by far the most effective way to make competent human beings.
What we are threatened with today is not the disestablishment of marriage, but the complete privatization of all close relations. The religious analogy would not be disestablishment of the church, but a complete privatization of religious belief, including driving all religious institutions from the public square. Some people want to drive religion from public life altogether, but most Americans have resisted these secularizers, and for good reason. Now, some people want to drive marriage from public life altogether. They should also be resisted, and for much the same reasons.