October 26, 2005
Reflections on a Conservative View of Marriage
Leon Kass wrote a fairly provocative essay that Focus on the Family's
Boundless webzine is using in a three part series. The third part
isn't out yet, but the first two can be found here and here. I've been a
fairly faithful reader of Boundless ever since I discovered Focus'
website in returning to the States in 2000, and I generally consider it
several cuts above what is normally available from Focus' main site (a post
regarding my rather uneasy thoughts regarding the main site in general will
have to wait for another time.). I found the article highly provocative,
which is why I want to muse about it publically.
I guess my first reaction is to wince. Kass repeatedly says things in
such a way that is practically guaranteed to lose him an audience in a more
liberal crowd. They'll be so up in arms about some of his remarks that
they'll be utterly deaf to anything of value he may say. A few examples of
... most young women strike me as sad, lonely, and confused; hoping
for something more, they are not enjoying their hard-won sexual
liberation as much as liberation theory says they should ...
... mature women by the tens of thousands live the entire decade of
their twenties --- their most fertile years --- neither in the homes of their
fathers nor in the homes of their husbands; unprotected, lonely, and out
of sync with their inborn nature ...
... The supreme virtue of the virtuous woman was modesty, a form of
sexual self-control, manifested not only in chastity but in decorous
dress and manner, speech and deed, and in reticence in the display of her
well- banked affections ...
... Her menstrual cycle, since puberty a regular reminder of her
natural maternal destiny, is now anovulatory and directed instead by her
will and her medications, serving goals only of pleasure and convenience,
enjoyable without apparent risk to personal health and safety. Woman on
the pill is thus not only freed from the practical risk of pregnancy; she
has, wittingly or not, begun to redefine the meaning of her own
I am not saying that he is wrong ... if I disagree with his points, it's
usually a simple matter of degree and fine-tuning. What makes me wince is
the shrieks of fury my imagination kindly supplies as the likely reactions
of most liberal people reading those lines.
I guess the first thing that strikes me is a rather common thread among
such traditionalist writings --- the myth of the good old days, which
basically states that the moral status of our culture was much superior in
times past than in times present. In fairness, cultural liberals have an
equal and opposite myth of the bad old days when women and blacks were
nothing but property, homosexuals were in the closet, and racist white men
ruled the world. Of course, in saying "myth" I'm using the more literary
sense of the word for the moment. I wonder what I would have thought had I
lived in those days. The reality of past injustice cannot be denied.
Neither can the simple fact that today a far greater percentage of parents
fear for the very lives of their children attending school than did 50 or
100 years ago, or that divorce rates are much higher, or that sexual
infidelity no longer carries the strong social disapproval it once did.
The overall thesis of the essay is that the institution of marriage has
a much more difficult time of maintaining itself today than it did in times
past. I agree. If nothing else, the incredible increase of geographic
mobility has contributed to this, as young couples are far more likely to
move several times and to rarely form the kind of social bonds that help
keep a traditional society in place. All social bonds are under
increasing stress, not least because it has become so easy for a person to
walk away and start over. This has both good effects and bad ... as do all
varieties of increased freedom.
Kass lists a wide number of reasons he believes the institution of
marriage is declining:
Here is a (partial) list of the recent changes that hamper courtship
and marriage: the sexual revolution, made possible especially by
effective female contraception; the ideology of feminism and the changing
educational and occupational status of women; the destigmatization of
bastardy, divorce, infidelity, and abortion; the general erosion of shame
and awe regarding sexual matters, exemplified most vividly in the
ubiquitous and voyeuristic presentation of sexual activity in movies and
on television; widespread morally neutral sex education in schools; the
explosive increase in the numbers of young people whose parents have been
divorced (and in those born out of wedlock, who have never known their
father); great increases in geographic mobility, with a resulting
loosening of ties to place and extended family of origin; and, harder to
describe precisely, a popular culture that celebrates youth and
independence not as a transient stage en route to adulthood but as "the
time of our lives," imitable at all ages, and an ethos that lacks
transcendent aspirations and asks of us no devotion to family, God, or
country, encouraging us simply to soak up the pleasures of the
If you can get past the rather combative, somewhat prejudicial language
Kass uses, his first claim is a simple one --- that the sexual revolution
has weakened traditional marriage. Accepting the claim doesn't necessarily
mean one accepts the idea that the sexual revolution was a bad thing, but
rather that it has had at least one negative side effect. Essentially, the
sexual revolution was a loosening of our culture's mores regarding sex.
Actually, I think it has had both a good and bad effect. Its good effect is
that it is now much more "culturally possible" for people to talk about
sex, to admit to sexual problems and struggles, to learn about how to give
sexual satisfaction to a spouse ... and, perhaps, to take it lightly in the
sense CS Lewis spoke of in saying that the thing most necessary regarding
sex was a gale of laughter. Those are good things. The ideas that sex, and
the sexual drive are not shameful, but natural and God-glorifying are very
good ideas that our culture (our Christian subculture in particular) has
too often downplayed or ignored.
However, the sexual revolution also greatly weakened our cultural taboos
against pre-marital and extra-marital sex. If we are less ashamed to speak
of sex, we are also less ashamed to commit adultery, shack up before
marriage, and bear children out of wedlock. Sex in all forms has
lost a great deal of the shame that was attached to it. I suppose even this
has a flip side to it --- holding fast to "chastity until marriage;
fidelity until death" is a much more courageous stand today than it was in
the past. In the past, a person might arguably be held back from committing
adultery because of fear of social shame. Now it takes much more character.
Perhaps not only is character is "what you do when no-one is looking" but
what you do when no-one cares. Perhaps the most saddening thing is exactly
how far our standards slip when we aren't afraid of social disapproval.
So while I agree that the weakening of the cultural taboo against
adultery and pre-marital sex has weakened marriage, I don't think that the
sexual revolution was an unqualified disaster for marriages ... I'm not
even sure that the balance is necessarily on the negative side.
"the ideology of feminism and the changing educational and occupational
status of women" ... golly, I can hear the firing squad now. It is
certainly true that it is less necessary for women to marry today
than it used to be. A woman is now quite capable of leading a reasonably
comfortable life without a husband. I suppose this has always been
possible, but it has recently become much more convenient and socially
acceptable. But surely the balance lies in the positive direction in this
case --- surely it is better for women to have a choice about how they
spend their lives than for them to be almost forced into marriage. Perhaps
a good marriage, but forced nonetheless.
Don't you dare think I'm going to let feminists get off without at least
a savage kick or two from my direction, though :). It seems to me that at
least one result of feminist ideology is that being "just a wife and
mother" is too often thought of as just that: just a
wife and mother. As if a woman was somehow insulted or stupid or foolish or
"less-than-desirable" for devoting her life to her husband and children. I
wish that more focus has been made in the other direction; that being just
a bread-winner would be seen as being just a
breadwinner. It is not enough to provide your family with money, it is much
more vital to provide them with a loving husband and father. Too much focus
has been on trying to get women to declare their independence from husbands
and children and not enough on trying to get men to commit to love their
wives and children.
As a glancing remark, the massive increase in divorce is simple cold
logic: divorce breeds divorce. Kass notes this but I don't think he said it
I was quite interested in the last point Kass gave in his list. He
referred to "a popular culture that celebrates youth and independence not
as a transient stage en route to adulthood but as 'the time of our lives,'
imitable at all ages, and an ethos that lacks transcendent aspirations and
asks of us no devotion to family, God, or country, encouraging us simply to
soak up the pleasures of the present." This interests me, and I agree with
him. There is not near enough reverence in our culture for age and
experience to suit me. The culture seems set on idolizing the adventure of
youth instead of the wisdom of old age. If "the wisdom of old age" is a
myth, so is "the adventure of youth." I happen to think there's more truth
in the myth of the wisdom of old age myself. I completely agree with Kass
that the overwhelming focus of our culture is to nurture eternal
adolescents instead of grandparents. I've seen a rather large number of
videos and read a fair number of books about adults "rediscovering the joy
of youth," but precious few (though there have been some) on youths growing
into the wisdom of old age.
Not to say that there isn't something precious and wonderful and
true in stories of adults rediscovering childlike joy. Jesus did
say, after all, that only those who receive the kingdom as little children
will be able to enter. But there isn't enough about growing up and
becoming wise and developing a truly strong character.
Personally, I think it's because our culture has become uncertain of
what a mature man or woman is. I think our culture isn't really sure what a
good man or woman is like. What a wise man or woman is like. People without
ideals often envy youth, which offers a passion and power that they miss.
But that's a completely different post and discussion.
I'll close now. For all of you who have come back to read my blog again,
thank you. I'm sorry it's been so very long. Thanks so very much for coming
Posted by Leatherwood at 10:30 PM
This post has been classified as "Musings