February 24, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, February 24, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Dismissing marriage as passé fails to recognize its central importance in healthy societies
By no accident, marriage is back in the headlines. In recent weeks, the Washington Post has run a series of articles on marriage and, in recent days, Sarah Wright, who is CEO of Social Work in Progress and also board chairman of the group Unmarried Equality wrote an essay in which she argued that it’s time to, in her words,
“Stop glorifying marriage.”Show Full Transcript
“In a recent opinion piece wondering why media mogul Rupert Murdoch and actress Jerry Hall would bother to get married, the writer noted that ‘marriage is passé.’”
Now we’re going to see in today’s edition of The Briefing how these kinds of projections are meant to get attention. If the current rate of marriage decline were to continue as we fast-forward into the future, she argues that marriage would disappear by 2042. That’s actually not likely to happen. But what is almost sure to happen is of greater importance, and that is not so much the elimination and disappearance of marriage, but the marginalization and subversion of marriage. Wright’s article is really interesting because her complaint is not just against so-called cultural conservatives, but even against many on the cultural Left. She argues that the Left is still giving too much lip service to marriage. She writes,
“A cover story in the Christian Science Monitor Weekly last year announced that “singles outnumber married adults.”
She points out that this came out,
“…right before the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.”
That’s the decision legalizing same-sex marriage. She describes the decision as,
“…possibly the most important ruling on marriage in decades.”
That’s an understatement, but it sets her up for her very next sentence.
“Yet the views Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed in that decision underwhelmed me.”
Now remember that Justice Anthony Kennedy was not only the crucial fifth vote for same-sex marriage on the Court, he also wrote the majority opinion. But as Sarah Wright says, even his opinion legalizing same-sex marriage and ardently arguing for it underwhelmed her. Why? Wright suggests that Justice Elena Kagan, who has never been married, must have been rolling her eyes when Anthony Kennedy wrote in his support of same-sex marriage,
“Marriage is a keystone of the nation’s social order.”
She went on to write,
“For that matter, I could picture the widowed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the divorced Justice Sonia Sotomayor scratching their heads and wondering what world Kennedy lives in.”
Wright goes on to write,
“There is life without marriage, thank you very much, and marriage itself isn’t always such a good deal.”
“In an era when the average American now spends the majority of his or her life unmarried, it is time to stop glorifying and privileging marriage to the total exclusion of all other patterns of family formation, caregiving relationship, living arrangement and property ownership.”
“Despite its ubiquity, marriage is exactly ‘one size does not fit all.’ Yet at the same time, the high price of being single in the United States is a well-known fact of life. What’s a thinking person to do?”
Well, that’s always a good question to ask and, in this case, thinking Christians, biblically-minded Christians, have to recognize that far more is here than meets the eye. Here you have a social liberal, undoubtedly, the CEO of Social Work in Progress and the head of an organization called Unmarried Equality–what she appears to be calling for, at least at face value, is some kind of moral and social equity for singles as compared to married couples in America. But as her argument becomes more clear and as its consequences become more apparent, what she’s really calling for is the dismissal of marriage as a cultural norm. She concludes her article by writing,
“Abolishing marriage as a legal category would not eliminate the institution, which has enduring appeal for many people. What it could bring is a real understanding that unmarried families exist and that unmarried adults deserve full representation in society — not just a little extra love around Valentine’s Day.”
Now here we see how a revolution in morality continues far beyond what even many who began it and originally advocated might have expected or even hoped for. This is a pattern that goes back to the very beginnings of the sexual revolution in western nations, but it has been particularly apparent ever since the 1950s and 60s. The arguments that were used by feminists became the arguments that were used by LGBT advocates, which have now become the arguments that are being used by advocates for polygamy or, in the case of Sarah Wright, for the normalization of non-marriage amongst adults in the larger society. At this point, we need to look at the pattern even more closely. When the advocates of same-sex marriage made their case for same-sex marriage in the Obergefell case before the Supreme Court, they argued not that there was anything wrong with marriage or that marriage in any way needed to be decentered from society, but rather that it was unfair and unconstitutional to prevent same-sex couples from enjoying the legal status and recognition of marriage. At the very center of their argument was a claim that marriage should be broadened to include same-sex couples, but that marriage was an essential good in society, thus, that very statement that drew Wright’s attention from justice Kennedy when he said,
“Marriage is a keystone of the nation’s social order.”
We should note the bitter irony in Justice Kennedy’s statements about marriage even as he was himself subverting it. But what we need to note now is that the arguments for the legalization of same-sex marriage, the arguments previously used by feminists in terms of their legal revolution, these arguments are now set loose in the larger society. We see a pattern like sparks from one fire igniting another, and the conflagration that will follow won’t be limited to the next fire. There will be yet another fire line out in front. From a historical perspective it is striking that there has not been a single civilization in the history of the world that has survived without recognizing and privileging and institutionalizing and honoring and respecting and protecting marriage as the union of a man and a woman. There is no society that has been able even to perpetuate itself that has not found its way into the sanctity of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
As we have said so often before, once you begin to redefine marriage so that it can mean something other than the union of a man and a woman, it can mean virtually anything. And in this case you have someone taking argument, even to the extent in public at the Washington Post, of arguing for singleness being recognized socially, morally, politically, and legally on an equal par with marriage. That will mean civilizational disaster, but it may be the inevitable logical consequence of the revolution that has now been set loose.
Psychological, romantic, and moral views of marriage all fall short of the biblical view
Next, also on marriage, yesterday’s edition of the New York Times included a very interesting opinion piece by columnist David Brooks entitled,
“Three Views of Marriage.”
He writes about this,
“Two years ago the Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel had an article in The Times describing how marriage is polarizing: The best marriages today are better than the best marriages of generations ago; the worst marriages now are worse; over all, the average marriage is weaker than the average marriage in days of yore.”
Now, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure how any psychologist, or anyone else for that matter, would exactly measure that, but nonetheless it’s an interesting observation. But it actually becomes the preface for where David Brooks is headed in his article. He says the way we talk about marriage is itself very revealing; he says potentially even polarizing.
“If you read the popular literature, there are three different but not mutually exclusive lenses through which to think about marriage.”
He writes about what he describes as the psychological lens, the romantic lens, and the moral lens. First in terms of the psychological lens, Brooks is clearly onto something here, because of the triumph of the therapeutic and the rise of the psychotherapeutic culture as so central as reflected in what we see as the popular advice books or the self-help category in the local bookstore. It is much of the fare on television, especially daytime television and, as David Brooks recognizes, most of these popular advice books operate out of this psychological lens.
“These books start with the premise that getting married is a daunting prospect.”
These books offer popular advice, psychotherapeutic advice, on how to find just the right partner to maximize marriage’s potentialities. Again, Brooks is really onto something here. My guess is that a vast number of Americans actually have a conception of marriage that is basically psychological or from a psychological lens, especially pop psychology. What David Brooks does not recognize, but should, is the very important issue that at the center of the pop psychology viewpoint, the whole psychotherapeutic revolution isn’t the most meaningful category. The most meaningful unit is the individual. It’s all about what I can get out of marriage and what marriage might do for me.
The second lens he talks about is the romantic lens, and here we need to note something. First, we need to note how relatively recent the romantic impulse in marriage has been–that is where marriage has been primarily defined in terms of romance. To put the matter just in historical terms, most couples throughout human history have not decided to get married. In most cases, that decision was largely made by others.
That raises the second issue of this romantic lens. Which actually should be expected to come first? Marriage or romance? The modern idea of marriage suggests that romance should come first and, only if romance is completely fulfilling, should marriage follow. But the biblical vision of marriage is one in which romance not only may come before marriage, but should be expected to come after. That is, it is simply a covenant fact that a man and a woman are married; romance should flow from that. David Brooks is absolutely right when he says that if you listen to song or watch movies, this romantic lens through which we understand marriage is clearly dominant, actually almost exclusively so. And the other thing we need to note as David Brooks notes in the article is that this raises romantic expectations about marriage to that which can be fulfilled only by Hollywood or by a similar kind of artistic vision.
The third lens through which he looks at marriage is the moral lens, and here he is on to something of greatest importance. Brooks writes,
“In this lens a marriage doesn’t exist just to exist or even just for procreation. It exists to serve some higher purpose, whether it is seeking God’s kingdom for the religious or in service to some joint cause or humanity-enhancing project for the secular.”
Now I’ll simply insert there that I have not yet seen a secular vision that can fulfill anything like the moral lens that David Brooks is writing about. But he goes on to say,
“The everyday tasks of marriage are opportunities to cultivate a more selfless love. Everyday there’s a chance to inspire and encourage your partner to become his or her best self. In this lens, marriage isn’t about two individuals trying to satisfy their own needs; it’s a partnership of mutual self-giving for the purpose of moral growth and to make their corner of the world a little better.”
Brooks concludes his article by writing this,
“The three lenses are operating at different levels: personality, emotions, the level of the virtues and the vices. The first two lenses are very common in our culture — in bookstores, songs and in movies. But the moral lens, with its view of marriage as a binding moral project, is less common. Maybe that’s one of the reasons the quality of the average marriage is in decline.”
Well as I said at the beginning, David Brooks is really onto something here. Those three lenses through which, in modern society, we see marriage are all very visible to us; and there is no doubt that every single living adult in America today, and most young people as well, probably at times view marriage through each of these three lenses. But he’s also right that it is the eclipse of the moral lens that most endangers marriage in our present moment. And furthermore, we have to go back to the fact that biblically and theologically speaking, the moral lens as described here is the beginning and the end of marriage in terms of God’s vision for humanity. But before leaving this article, as insightful as it is, we also need to note something else. I read those sentences exactly as David Brooks wrote them. Let me repeat a couple of them. He said,
“The everyday tasks of marriage are opportunities to cultivate a more selfless love.”
Listen carefully now. He writes,
“Every day there’s a chance to inspire and encourage your partner to become his or her best self. In this lens, marriage isn’t about two individuals trying to satisfy their own needs; it’s a partnership of mutual self-giving for the purpose of moral growth and to make their corner of the world a little better.”
Note the words they’re missing there. That is, spouse; more emphatically, husband-and-wife. That’s because David Brooks, who wants here very clearly to argue for a moral lens through which to understand marriage, he became at some point several years ago an advocate of same-sex marriage. Thus, when he’s writing about marriage in this article and the lenses through which we see marriage, he writes with concern about the state of marriage in America. What is subtle and implicit in this article rather than explicit is that David Brooks has himself joined the moral revolution, and that’s where we need to see this not through a psychological or romantic or even a merely moral lens. We have to look at marriage through a theological lens, through a biblical lens as Christians, and then we come to understand this: as we observe and seek to understand the culture around us, when you have already had to redefine marriage in terms of two partners, Partner A and Partner B, you’ve not only joined the moral revolution, you have become in your own way a moral revolutionary.
Biden's words from 1992 come back to bite, reminding us that our words are never forgotten
Next, looking at the larger lessons of the political world and the political conversation around us, the headlines throughout much of the media yesterday had to do with the Vice President of the United States and with comments he had made not recently but back in 1992. Writing for the New York Times, David Herszenhorn and Julie Hirschfeld Davis wrote,
“Senate Republicans on Monday seized on a 1992 speech by Joseph R. Biden Jr., then a senator, in which he argued against any Supreme Court appointment during a presidential campaign, grabbing an early advantage in what is likely to be a protracted battle to replace Justice Antonin Scalia.”
The reporters continued,
“The vice president’s remarks are unlikely to deter the White House from submitting a nominee in the coming weeks, and Republicans may still face public pressure to allow the confirmation process to go forward, especially if Mr. Obama’s pick is respected and has been confirmed by the Senate to other posts.”
say the reporters, in the most significant portion of the article,
“Republicans appeared to take the upper hand in a fight that stands to dominate Capitol Hill for months. The outcome could tilt the ideological balance of the court and reshape American life for generations.”
Now let me just pause here to say, this is an example of good journalism. Here you have two reporters who are not only giving us a report on a matter of current relevance and controversy, they are also helping to situate the importance of the question, the importance of the news story within the larger trajectory of American culture. Now what exactly did the current vice president say back when he was a senator and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1992? Biden said,
“It is my view that if a Supreme Court justice resigns tomorrow or within the next several weeks, or resigns at the end of the summer, President Bush,”
–that’s President 41, George H.W. Bush–
“President Bush should consider following the practice of a majority of his predecessors and not — and not — name a nominee until after the November election is completed.”
Mr. Biden made those comments on June 24, 1992. Writing in the same newspaper, columnist Carl Hulse writes,
“When you are as voluble as Joseph R. Biden Jr. is, you are bound to say more than a few words that come back to haunt you. And some choice ones returned with a vengeance on Monday as the fight over the open Supreme Court seat began in the Senate.”
He explains that just as the Democrats were setting the stage for the argument that the Senate was morally and constitutionally bound to hold hearings and to consider any nominee the President might set forth, the reality is that there are plenty of Democrats to quote on why there is no such responsibility and why the President should not make a nomination or why the Senate should not consider any nominee the President might submit. Words along these lines have come back to haunt New York Senator Chuck Schumer and the Senate Democratic leader, Senator Harry Reid from Nevada. But to put the matter simply, it is another matter entirely when the statement is being made from the man who is now Vice President of the United States, the Vice President to the very President who has stated he will make a nomination to the Court, the very President, we should note, who as senator led a filibuster against a nominee to the High Court made by President George W. Bush, that is Bush 43.
Now Vice President Biden is a particularly loquacious politician. He has spoken a very great deal and he has often gotten himself in trouble with his words. But as the New York Times says, in this case his words have truly come back with a vengeance. And furthermore, the politicization of the confirmation process for federal judges, especially for Supreme Court justices, can be traced back to what Democrats did to Robert Bork, a nominee to the High Court by President Ronald Reagan and largely under the leadership, well, here we go again, of then Senator Joseph Biden, now Vice President of the United States.
Christians looking at this controversy will have several thoughts. First of all, it underlines all over again even more emphatically, the importance of the Supreme Court in American public life and the importance of the trajectory of that court for the future of American Society.
As reporters Herszenhorn and Davis had pointed out, the outcome could tilt the ideological balance of the court and reshape American life for generations. It’s hard to imagine a political issue that would be more decisive and long-lasting in its consequences than this. But the other thing we have to note from a biblical viewpoint is our human propensity to what is simply called hypocrisy–to say one thing in one context and then to turn around as if we never said it and say something that is its opposite in another context when it’s more convenient to us. In this sense we should note that hypocrisy, politically speaking, is a bipartisan activity. Even though in this case, the Democrats are deservedly bearing most of the hypocritical burden, the reality is that there are Republicans making the argument now for why the Senate should not consider a nominee who in their own way made the opposite argument when there was a Republican in the White House. But the biblical worldview also warns us against too simplistically defining hypocrisy. Sometimes we are, even as sinful individuals, so complex in our own thinking that we don’t even know exactly why we thought something or said something at a time when we feel very differently or think differently at another time.
The reality is we remain in a sinful state, an enigma sometimes even to ourselves. It’s actually believable that there were Democrats who believed what they were saying back when President Bush was president and now believe something different. It is also possible that Joseph Biden believed exactly what he said when President Reagan was president and believe something very different now. Especially in the contested terrain of politics, things can change rather quickly, and politicians often have to rethink what they previously thought. But this has to be done in public and that’s what’s truly revealing here, because the last insight from the Christian worldview is this: our words are never forgotten.
As a matter of fact, the Bible tells us that on the Day of Judgment God will remember and will remind us of every idle word. In the case of Vice President Biden, he spent so many years in the Senate and as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee that there are thousands, indeed some estimate millions, of words accessible in the public record that he spoke at one point or another. And furthermore, in the press he has also made many, many statements that are very much on the record. Back when he made that statement in 1992, it was before the digital revolution, and Senators and others could safely assume that much of what they said was going to be buried in millions of pages of paper. Now in the digital world, our words are very accessible, and that means in this world there is full accountability for what we say in a way that wasn’t true even for previous generations. Christians understand why this is so. It also underlines why we must say what we mean and mean what we say, and if we mean something differently and say something differently, at some other point we had better be ready to explain why and to do so in public. Just saying that was then and this is now is not a sufficient moral explanation.