At least so we can enjoy marriage jokes again; at most because liberty itself is at stake.
A leading United States historian and advocate of the family, Allan C. Carlson gave the following address in Sydney, August 13, at the national Marriage Day Dinner.
In my part of the United States, the upper Midwest, one finds many descendants of immigrants from Sweden. “Ole and Lena” are a mythical Swedish-American couple, probably residing somewhere in Minnesota, and notable for their remarkably dysfunctional marriage. One story goes like this:
Ole and Lena had grown old, and one day Ole became very sick. Eventually, he was confined to his upstairs bedroom, barely conscious, bedridden, and growing ever weaker. After several weeks of this, the doctor visits and tells Lena: ‘Vell, Ole’s just about a goner. I don’t tink he’ll survive the night.’
So Lena, being a practical woman, decides she had better start preparing for all the guests who would be coming to Ole’s funeral. She begins to bake, starting with loaves of limpa, a Swedish sweet rye bread. The pleasant smell of baking bread is soon wafting through the house.
Suddenly, upstairs, Ole’s nose twitches and his eyes bolt open. “Limpa!” he says. He jerks up into a sitting position, swings his legs around, and climbs out of bed. It’s like a miracle! Half walking, half stumbling, he crosses the room, enters the hallway, and starts working his way down the stairs. “Limpa!” he says again.
He reaches the ground floor, stumbles across the kitchen, and pulls himself into a chair by a table where a loaf of freshly sliced bread sits. He reaches over to take a slice.
“Stop that Ole!” shouts Lena, as she whaps his hand with her spatula. “That limpa bread is for after the funeral.”
We can still laugh at Ole and Lena, even here in Sydney, Australia, because they are now out of time, characters from an earlier era of Swedish immigration into America. Their “ideal type,” we might say, no longer exists.
More importantly, their dysfunctional marriage also belongs to another era. Several generations ago, when there were real “Oles and Lenas,” divorce would have been rare in their community. For better and worse, persons stayed in unhappy or troubled marriages, perhaps “for the sake of the children”; perhaps for religious reasons.
Successful jokes usually involve making fun of institutions that are strong and stable. The “marriage joke,” a staple of comedians during the 1950’s and 1960’s, seems to be fading in our time. Symbolically, Rodney Dangerfield, perhaps the last American master of the marriage joke, died last year.
So go forward with confidence as you work to rebuild in Australia a
culture of natural marriage. Human nature, innate human longings, human
biology, and human history are all on your side.
Australia is, in many ways, a blessed country. One recent blessing that you received was the 2004 agreement between your political leadership, left and right, to fix a solid definition of marriage within your nation’s Federal law, as involving “the union of a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.” As a result, it seems, Australia has avoided the most contentious aspects of the “same-sex marriage” debate, an issue very much at “high boil” across the United States (as testified to by events last week in California).
All the same, Australia has not been immune from other legal changes over the last several decades, which taken together have weakened marriage as an institution. These include:
• the elimination of legal distinctions between births in- and out-of-wedlock;
• abortion laws that ignore the claims of the husband/father;
• the acceptance of cohabitation as a legal status, providing some of the benefits of marriage without the corresponding duties;
• the elimination of “fault” in divorce proceedings, which has had the effect of rewarding infidelity while ― in practice ― ending the community’s interest in marriage preservation;
• and the broad levelling of gender roles specific to marriage and the rearing of children, which undercut in turn historic “family wage” regimes; while these systems were not perfect, they did commonly reinforce the best interests of children.
The family as a social-biological construct
And so, in the year 2010, we in the Western world are left with a “social-biological” construct, no longer an “institution” admired by all, one that is ― in truth ― battered and bruised, and in some respects but a shadow of its former legal and cultural self. It is important to remember that most of this change came before “same sex marriage” was an issue.
More oddly, for the first time in human history, natural marriage has to justify itself in democratic countries before the court of public opinion. What had been obvious to most prior human societies, over the centuries and around the globe, is now “an issue.” The main reason for this, I think, is the modern superstition that the past has nothing to teach us: the assumption that our ancestors were all moral barbarians, ethical troglodytes full of prejudice and mainly devoted to attacks on human dignity and human differences. This might be called the arrogance of Presentism. For the same reason, religions resting on inherited dogma stand as particularly suspect.
There’s an old comment about truth claims: in the 17th Century, any political leader seeking to support an opinion would quote Holy Scripture; in the 18th Century, he would quote Shakespeare; in the 19th Century, perhaps a philosopher such as Kant, Hegel, or Emerson; but in the 20th Century, he would quote a sociologist. I am not sure if this is progress. In any case, this preference for sociology still seems alive and well. Three years ago, when several same-sex couples sued Polk County, Iowa (the place where I was born and grew up), arguing that the state of Iowa’s marriage law discriminated against them, county officials asked me to serve as an expert witness in court. My task was to explain why it was rational for the State of Iowa to restrict legal marriage to opposite-sex couples, of proper age. As an historian, I would explain why most human societies have understood the virtues of natural marriage and have given to such marriage extra-ordinary support and attention. I filed an appropriate “Summary Report of my Relevant Opinions,” and went through a day-long deposition by opposing attorneys for the Lambda Legal Defence Association.
(As an aside, if you’ve never been deposed as a witness, I can report that it can be a gruelling process. For a writer, though, it’s actually a great thrill: Lambda’s team of lawyers had clearly and carefully read everything I had ever written. And while I knew they were looking solely for inconsistencies, contradictions, and errors, which they could use to attack my so-called “expertise,” such grand acts of reading are that of which authors dream!)
Back to the main story-line. When the trial judge issued his bench ruling on the case the next year, he dismissed my testimony as irrelevant: he said that history ― the record of human triumphs and tragedies, follies and successes ― history had nothing to teach the law about the issue of “same sex” marriage; only “number crunching” sociology would be allowed as evidence. Partly for this reason, the judge in question found in favour of the plaintiffs. The Iowa Supreme Court subsequently upheld the judge’s ruling, and my home state ― not so long ago a bastion of rural conservatism ― became the fifth American state to embrace same-sex marriage.
Actually, the judge was wrong here, in more than one sense. Appealing to social science, he concluded that the evidence favoured same-sex marriage. The opposite is actually true. So, in that judge’s somewhat tedious spirit, forswearing history and embracing social science, I want to address the question at hand: “Why Australia Needs a Renewed Culture of Natural Marriage.”
Renewing natural marriage: for the good of children
First, though, allow me to explain what I mean by “natural marriage.” Actually, I simply agree here with Evan Wolfson, the acknowledged leader of the same-sex marriage movement in America, that there is something “natural” about the intimate relationship of a man a woman. As Wolfson put it in his book, Why Marriage Matters:
At first glance, the “basic biology” argument seems to make some sense. After all, it doesn’t take more than a fourth-grade health class education to know that men’s and women’s bodies in some sense “complement” each other “and that when a man and a woman come “together as one flesh” it often leads to procreation. (Why Marriage Matters, 2004).
Yes, indeed, albeit ― in my case ― this is true on the ‘second’ and ‘third’ glance, as well.
So: First and foremost, Australia needs a culture of natural marriage for the good of the children. Thousands of recent research projects in the fields of sociology, psychology, anthropology, and medicine all testify to one truth: children predictably do best when they are born into a married-couple home and raised by their two natural parents. This might be the most unassailable truth in all social science. Why? According to a recent American Academy of Pediatrics Panel, “Marriage is beneficial in many ways” because people “behave differently when they are married. They have healthier lifestyles, eat better, and mother each others health.” Looking at the effects on children, the Panel stressed that this advantage is not found in step family households nor in households headed by unmarried cohabitating parents. (Pediatrics, 2003)
Another research team found that the advantages given to children by intact marriages extend beyond the individual child: the existence of such marriages also predicts the overall health of a school and a neighbourhood → that is, intact families are essential for creating “a social world [that] is ordered in ways that generally favour young persons.” (that from the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 2004)
This advantage of the natural parent, marriage-based home holds up when compared to sole-parent, step-parent, same-sex, cohabitating, or communal households. Sometimes the advantage is extraordinary. Regarding child sexual abuse, for example, data from Canada showed that preschool-age children living with their natural parents are forty times less likely to become abuse victims than are those children living in alternative arrangements. (Ethology and Sociobiology, 1985)
The children from such homes are ― on balance ― also much healthier, in both mind and body, than those growing up in any other setting. They earn higher marks in school; indeed, family structure is superior to all other competing theoretical explanations for differences in child achievement. (Journal of Early Adolescence, 2000; Social Problems, 2000)
Over two hundred years ago, the French statesman Louis de Bonald ― also sometimes called the first social scientist ― explained why the state had a vital interest in each new marriage. As he wrote in his 1801 book, On Divorce:
Political power only intervenes in the spouse’s contract of union because it represents the unborn child, which is the sole object of marriage, and because it accepts the commitment made by the spouses ... under its guarantee to bring that child into being [and to raise it well].
Nothing of significance has changed since: natural marriage is for the good of the children, which every healthy government need acknowledge.
For the good of adults
The second reason Australia needs a renewed culture of natural marriage is because it is good for adults.
• Natural marriage gives life. Researchers from Princeton University report that married men and women live longer ― on average ― than unmarried peers (be they never-married, divorced, or widowed). (Demography, 1990) Indeed, marital status is the most consistent predictor of longevity among women. As the title of an article on women’s health, appearing in Social Biology, has put it: “Perils of Single Life and the Benefits of Marriage” .
• Natural marriage gives health. A French study found that married mothers with children at home enjoyed significant improvement in their health. (Social Science and Medicine, 2000) Even in Sweden, where lone mothers receive generous welfare benefits, they experience important health disadvantages when compared to married mothers (Social Science and Medicine, 2000). Indeed, single or lone mothers are three times more likely to have experienced “a major depressive disorder.” (Journal of Marriage and Family, 1997)
• Natural marriage creates greater wealth. This wealth-generating effect of wedlock crosses racial and gender lines. As one study put it, “the power of marriage to deliver affluence for women is particularly strong.” Married individuals, compared to the unmarried, gain nearly three times as much wealth over their lifetimes. (Journal of Marriage and Family, 2003) Natural marriage accomplishes this because “it provides institutionalized protection, which generates economies of scale, task specialization, ... access to work-related fringe benefits, ... broader social networks and higher savings rates.” (Journal of Marriage and Family, 2002)
• And natural marriage brings happiness. Research shows that the optimal state of mental health, labelled “flourishing,” is more prevalent among the married than the unmarried, be the latter widowed, separated, divorced, or never-married. “Deep depression” is rarest among the married. (Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 2002) A survey of seventeen nations found married adults reporting significantly higher levels of personal happiness than their unmarried peers. Contrary to feminist claims that wedlock benefits only men, the study showed that “marriage protects females just as much from unhappiness as it protects males.” (Journal of Marriage and the Family, 1998)
For the good of the commonwealth
The third reason that Australia needs a renewed culture of marriage is because it is good for the commonwealth, or the state.
The children of natural marriage are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol or to enter the juvenile justice system. This means in turn that they are much less likely to become expenses for the state, be it through rehabilitation programs or as prisoners.
To the contrary, the children issuing from natural marriage are more likely to do well in school, earn university degrees, be gainfully employed, and ―in consequence ― become taxpayers (rather than wards of the state).
Young mothers who are married are much less likely to require means-tested welfare benefits than their never-married or divorced counterparts. As with their children, they are a net plus, a fiscal boost, for all levels of government.
As noted earlier, married adults are ― on average ― much wealthier than the unmarried and enjoy significantly higher lifetime earnings. They, too, represent a gain ― rather than a net loss ― for governments at all levels, by providing a reliable tax revenue stream.
Well, I think you get the point. The children and the adults found in homes built on natural marriage are far more likely to be or become responsible citizens, wealth creators, and taxpayers; those found in other arrangements are ― to varying degrees ― more likely to be or become dependents on government, and a net drain on the public treasury. For this reason alone, the state has a compelling interest in raising to the maximum the number of children born into and growing up within natural parent, married couple homes.
However, there is another ― and more profound ― reason for seeking to renew a culture of natural marriage. Briefly put, marriage ― as conventionally understood ― is a bulwark of liberty. Here ― despite the bigotry of Iowa judges against the past ― I revert to history. The telling reality is that every modern totalitarian movement ― every enemy of a free society ― has moved early and aggressively to disrupt or destroy the institution of natural marriage.
This began in the French Revolution, where the Jacobins first swept away the legal preference shown to births within marriage and then sought to weaken the marital bond through easy, unilateral divorce.
The Communists, who seized power in Russia through the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, immediately targeted marriage and the family for extinction. As the Communist advocate Alexandra Kollontai explained at the time: “the old type of family has had its day.... [T]he task of bringing up the children ... is passing more and more into the hands of the collective.” This occurred, she said, so that the child might “grow up a conscious communist who recognizes the need for solidarity, comradeship, mutual help and loyalty to the collective.” Divorce could also now “be obtained at the [simple] request of either partner in a marriage”; all distinctions between cohabitation and marriage were abolished.
The National Socialists of Germany also worked to destroy the autonomous natural family. As historian Claudia Koonz explains in her fine book, Mothers in the Fatherland:
Far from honouring the family, .... Nazi policy aimed at eroding family ties among victims and its own “Aryan” followers. In both cases, the goal was the same: to break down individual identity and to render people susceptible to whatever plans Hitler announced: eugenic breeding schemes for the chosen “Aryans” and genocide for the selected.
In Communist China during the late 1950’s, authorities forced 90 percent of rural Chinese households into huge communes. Relative to food, they also outlawed family gardens, family kitchens, and the family meal. The family woks were melted down; the law forbade home cooking; all must eat in communal halls. The result was a wave of gluttony, followed by mass famine: 30 million deaths through starvation and an estimated 33 million lost or postponed births: “the greatest politically inspired disaster in human history,” according to the journal Economic Development and Cultural Change (1997).
Even in the land of Sweden, during the so-called “Red” phase of Social Democratic rule in the 1970’s, the primary ideological target was natural marriage. Policy there aimed in particular at eliminating the mother-at-home and the provider-role long held by husbands and fathers. To achieve full equality, the socialists held that all citizens ― adult men and women as well as children ― must be made equally dependent on the welfare state. Feminist Historian Yvonne Hirdman explains the result:
New ideas of gender replaced old-fashioned ideas about the couple. We witness [here] the birth of the androgynous [or ‘sexless’] individual (and I speak about the explicit ideal) and the death of the provider and his housewife. (The Importance of Gender in the Swedish Labor Movement, Or: A Swedish Dilemma, 2002)
Why this common hostility by totalitarian and authoritarian regimes to natural marriage? The great English journalist G.K. Chesterton explains the reason in his provocative 1920 pamphlet, The Superstition of Divorce: He writes:
The ideal for which [marriage] stands in the state is liberty. It stands for liberty for the very simple reason... [that] it is the only...institution that is at once necessary and voluntary. It is the only check on the state that is bound to renew itself as eternally as the state, and more naturally than the state.... This is the only way in which truth can ever find refuge from public persecution, and the good man survive the bad government.
Or, as Chesterton put it in his 1910 book, What’s Wrong with the World:
It may be said that this institution of the home is the one anarchist institution. That is to say, it is older than law, and stands outside the State....The State has no tool delicate enough to deracinate the rooted habits and tangled affections of the family; the two sexes, whether happy or unhappy, are glued together too tightly for us to get the blade of a legal penknife in between them. The man and the woman are one flesh ― yes, even when they are not one spirit. Man is a quadruped.
Chesterton, as usual for him, was an optimist about the future of marriage. In the end, he held, the totalitarians ― the social engineers ― would always retreat before the inherent strength of the four-legged creature formed by natural marriage. And so it has been in the past: in the end, the French Revolutionaries failed; so did the Communists in Russia: so did the German National Socialists; and so did the Maoists in China. In their time, each seemed to be unstoppable; each appeared to represent the inevitable future. Yet in every case, they collapsed or retreated, because they violated human nature.
Those who seek to deconstruct marriage today are, it is true, more clever than their predecessors. Using what might be called “the Swedish model,” their propaganda machine is much more effective. Their promises are more seductive. And they sometimes seem unstoppable. However, I am confident that they too will fail, and for the same reason: they misunderstand the nature of the human being.
So go forward with confidence as you work to rebuild in Australia a culture of natural marriage. Human nature, innate human longings, human biology, and human history are all on your side.
Allan C. Carlson Ph D is President of The Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society Founder and General Secretariat of the World Congress of Families. Dr Carlson has written extensively on the history of the family. His address is reproduced here with permission.