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The Government and Marriage

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Does the state have a compelling interest in matrimony?

The family is the basic building block of society.

Marriage is the foundation of the family.

I’m sorry to open with clichés, but we must agree on these facts if we’re going to have a discussion of the government’s role (if any) in marriage. If we don’t need families in order to have a civil society, or if marriage is unnecessary to the cohesion of families, then any living arrangement is a valid one, and the state should prefer none of them over the others.

But if my trite premises are true, then whatever strengthens marriage strengthens society, and whatever weakens marriage weakens society. And if marriage is weakened, women and children will be worse off. So anyone who cares about either society as a whole, or the more vulnerable individuals in that society, must try to build real, solid, godly marriages.

Some of us have seen this principle play out in practice. Before the rash of “No Fault” divorce laws in the 1970s, more kids grew up under the same roof as both of their parents. That raised everything from their material quality of life, to their confidence level, to their grades. Of course it made them better friends, neighbors and citizens. (Remember our “givens.”) Today we have disposable marriages, fractured families and a disintegrating society, due at least in part to government nonchalance about wedding vows.

This article was prompted by the same Libertarian Party debate that sparked my most recent entry. Watch the video below, you’ll see the candidates opining that the government shouldn’t have anything to do with marriage. One of the biggest applause lines in this debate was Dr. Marc Feldman’s rant against “…licenses and certificates and permits for things that are none of the government’s business!” But this is based on a misunderstanding of what marriage is, what government is, and even what a marriage license is.

A marriage license is not like a fishing license. You may not fish without a fishing license, but you may “play house” all you want without a marriage license. As far as I know, no one is stopping the unlicensed from doing anything that married people may do. Rather than restricting an activity, the certificate of a lawful marriage entitles you to certain benefits. One of those benefits is Spousal Privilege: your husband or wife can’t be forced to testify against you in court. Why not? I guess it’s because we need marriages in general more than we need a specific testimony in a certain trial.

But was everyone wrong about that; is marriage “none of the government’s business?” We’ve agreed that society is built with families, and families are based on marriage. So the only question that remains is, “Does government have a role in maintaining civil society?” This is the easiest proposition of all – unless you’re a libertarian. That’s exactly what government is supposed to do: allow a free, orderly and godly society on a planet of fallen and selfish people. “First of all, then,” Paul writes, “I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” (1 Timothy 2:1,2 NAS95)

One of the main purposes of government, according to the God of the Bible, is so that the righteous may “…lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” In other words, government is to create a social order in which wicked people live in fear, and good people live in peace.

Peter tells us that rulers are sent by God “…for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.” (1 Peter 2:14b) We know about the punishment part; what is this “praise of those who do right?” It must mean that there is a role for government in encouraging righteous people and righteous behavior. Commentator Matthew Poole wrote, “…praise is a kind of reward, and is here to be taken by a synecdoche for all sorts of rewards given to those that do well, and are obedient to the laws….” A synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part stands for the whole, or vice versa. I had to look it up.

The state has a biblical mandate to promote those things that increase the public peace, tranquility and well-being. If decent society depends on solid families, and families rest on the foundation of marriage, then the government must defend and honor marriage.

If our society is to survive, the state must protect marriage from attack, and especially from the most insidious attack: counterfeiting.



 

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