Two things have happened to contemporary marriage which all but compel traditionalist rhetoric in a non-traditionalist culture. First, one of marriage’s core purposes has been suppressed in public discourse. Marriage developed in major part to regulate sex between men and women—to regulate it not solely within marriage but before marriage. The idea that marriage as an institution should regulate whether the unmarried have sex used to be obvious. It’s not that everyone actually abstained, as the bawdy songs show! But the cultural expectation was that premarital chastity could be demanded, defended, held up as social necessity and religious virtue, and its opposite punished (as in the sadder bawdy songs) or wryly rejected (as in the funnier ones).
Ten minutes’ conversation with people in their teens or twenties, anywhere from Main Street to Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, will make clear that the exact opposite of this perspective is now as obvious as the older one used to be. Premarital sex is not only practiced but assumed, and often valorized. (You should live together before marriage; don’t be stupid!)
We can debate whether this deregulation has been good for the elite, for the underclass, for men, for women, for children, etc., but I’m not here to ask who lost the sexual revolution. I’m pointing out that when a core purpose of a tradition is still acknowledged in public debate, people don’t defend the tradition for tradition’s sake. They defend it because it serves the core purpose. This approach to tradition is inadequate, for reasons I tried to draw out in my first post, but it’s an obvious rhetorical approach in a pluralist society.
Secondly, the competing authorities that used to combine to make marriage compelling have now been discredited or pitted against one another. Church and state once agreed here, even when they fought elsewhere. Yet the very idea of something simultaneously sacred and legal is now suspect—almost unintelligible, which is one reason so many people I talk to think that the optimal solution to the gay-marriage debate would be for the government to “get out of marriage,” but they think that just isn’t practical.
When a tradition is justified by its support from a beloved authority, people don’t defend the tradition for tradition’s sake. They defend it because it comes from and flows back toward the authority.
The honor and beauty that accumulated around marriage over millennia of liturgy, folk culture, and pain and grace still attract us; yet the necessities, the suffering that marriage sometimes could transform into sacrifice, are often no longer intelligible. So we fall back on a language which is all assumption and allusion. The only word we have left for marriage is “traditional.”Share