JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–Tennessee voters in November will have the choice of whether to ratify an amendment to the state constitution that reads as follows: “The historical institution and legal contract solemnizing the relationship of one man and one woman shall be the only legally recognized marital contract in this state.” I support this amendment as one part of an overall approach to strengthening marriage.
Here’s the way I look at it.
Western culture and law, deeply shaped by biblical teachings, has for centuries invested marriage with a rich set of expectations and understandings that include but go far beyond heterosexuality. Every single one of these expectations has now either collapsed or is on the way to collapse. Each part of the collapse has damaged both marriage and children.
At the core of the western understanding of marriage has been the belief that it is a God-given institution. The Bible’s account of the giving of Eve to Adam, among other passages, laid the foundation for believing that the God who designed and created men and women designed and created marriage as the bridge between them.
It was believed that God intended marriage to accomplish certain very specific goals, and church and state cooperated to make sure these were protected.
For example, marriage was to be the one and only place in which sexual intercourse occurred. All forms of nonmarital sex were rejected and often sanctioned severely. This is one key reason why cohabitation between unmarried adults of the opposite sex often was forbidden by law. Numerous other social norms were established intended to prevent occasions for sex outside of marriage. This does not mean that nonmarital sex never occurred, just that society was clear about its expectations for sexual behavior.
Marriage likewise was to be the context in which conception and childrearing were socially blessed. Children were to be brought into the world in the protective cocoon of the marital relationship.
Marriage was to be monogamous — it involved just one man and one woman. The perceived importance of this belief in western culture has been illustrated by the rejection of polygamy both here and in missionary settings.
Marriage likewise was to be sexually exclusive. The biblical command against adultery was taken with utmost seriousness. Even after the state gave up on punishing adultery the churches continued to proclaim the sexual exclusivity of marriage.
Marriage also had internal behavioral expectations. It was to be characterized by mutual love and selfless service to one another. The moral challenges and expectations of marriage were directly addressed in both society and the church.
Marriage was for life. Deeply shaped by New Testament teachings against divorce, western culture made it impossible or nearly impossible to obtain a divorce. Even as laws against divorce began to loosen, opinion leaders almost universally decried divorce as an assault on the institution of marriage.
And, yes, marriage was for heterosexuals. This particular dimension of marriage received far less attention because it was almost never challenged. But until recently the concept of anything other than heterosexual marriage was inconceivable.
Do you see what has happened? Every dimension of the historic meaning of marriage in western culture has been in decline for some time. This decline began to occur long before the “gay rights” movement got to it. It has been going on for at least a century.
Let’s go back through the list: Many believe there is no God or that God has nothing to do with human coupling. Sex outside of marriage is routine. Cohabitation rates are skyrocketing. One-third of all children are born out of wedlock. Adultery rates are distressingly high. Serious tensions and even abuse characterize many marriages, and overall relationships between men and women are fraying. Divorce claims just about half of all marriages, leaving a devastating impact on children. Many divorced couples end up locked in hatred which sometimes erupts in violence. And now homosexuality has gained widespread social acceptance, with activists hoping to gain access to the status of marriage — ironically, at a time when confidence in marriage as an institution is fading badly.
I oppose “gay marriage” (and polygamy, and polyandry, and every other alternative). Thus I support the proposed Tennessee marriage amendment, which is known as Constitutional Amendment 1. But I also oppose every one of the other trends that has proven so destructive to marriage as a social institution. I hope that Christians and other concerned people will successfully resist “gay marriage” in Tennessee and elsewhere. But that is just the first step. We need a national strategy to address all the other behavior that is undermining marriage — and a renewed vision of what marriage can be, as God designed it.
David P. Gushee is the Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.