In all the societies of the world, anthropologists have noted certain "cultural absolutes." One of them is the institution of marriage. This exists in many, sometimes twisted, forms-but no culture does without some sort of legally regulated, morally sanctioned union between a man and a woman. And no culture in the history of the human race, including those few that have been relatively tolerant of homosexuality, has practiced same-sex marriage.
This may all change. Today, Western civilization is on the verge of unprecedented experiments: trying to reinvent marriage by extending it to couples of the same sex. Passing domestic partnership laws, which give certain marital rights to unmarried couples of either gender. Or, in the latest trend among heterosexual couples, living together permanently and having children without becoming married.
Already, the majority of couples (53 percent) who marry have lived together first. But an increasing number are not bothering to marry at all. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 11 million Americans live with someone outside marriage. Only 11 percent of these (1.2 million) are in "same-sex relationships," with the other 9.8 million being in heterosexual relationships. Although the majority of these cohabitors (55 percent) eventually marry, 20 percent of them have been together for five years or more.
And they are having children. Forty-one percent of what the Census Bureau calls "unmarried partner households" have children under 18 living in the home. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 41 percent of babies born to "single women" are actually born to cohabiting couples.
Although the number of couples living together permanently without any plans to marry remains relatively small, the number appears to be growing, and the practice is becoming socially acceptable. Many Hollywood stars have slowed their divorce rates by simply living together and having children without getting married. Perhaps the most influential American of all, Oprah Winfrey, has lived with her "fiancŽ" Stedman Graham for 11 years, with no plans to tie the knot.
Why is this a bad thing? Christians can still have their marriages, if they want. What business is it of the state anyway, whether people marry, or what constitutes a marriage? According to a Gallup survey for the National Marriage Project, 45 percent of 20-somethings do not think the government should license marriage at all. But actually regulating, enforcing, and protecting marriage is one of the few legitimate functions of the state.
This is because marriage is the foundation of civil society. It is not merely a religious rite. Unlike the distinctly Christian sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, marriage is for everyone, believers and non-believers alike. It is God's design, in His invention of sexuality in the created natural order and in His provision for human beings to function in the social order. He calls men and women together and gives them the astonishing ability-working His own creative and providing power through them-to have and care for new human beings.
Marriage is not just about love or sex or companionship. It is all about establishing a nuclear family. Marriage is not for everybody-being single can be an even higher calling (1 Corinthians 7)-and not all married couples are able to have children. Nevertheless, what marriage does is establish a new family.
And families are the bricks out of which every society, every culture, every government is built. This is true theologically-as when Luther in his catechism teaches that all earthly authorities have their basis in the commandment to honor one's father and mother-and it is true anthropologically and historically. Families form clans, clans form tribes, and eventually tribes come together in nations, at first under kings and then in self-governing republics. When the family falls apart, so does the nation and so does the culture.
Contrary to common opinion, marriage requires neither a "piece of paper" nor a ceremony. Christians are right to insist on a wedding to invoke God's blessings on their new family. But the Apostle Paul says that having sex with a prostitute makes a man "one flesh" with her (1 Corinthians 6:12-20). Many people who think they are single may be married in God's eyes, with all the responsibilities that entails.
Here is a modest proposal: Enforce the provisions, grounded in centuries of legal precedent and already on the books in 14 states, for "common law" marriages. Couples who live together for seven years would be declared married, and would be unable to separate without a divorce.
States might also add an amendment to their common law statutes: Any unmarried persons who have children together would have a common law marriage.
This admittedly unlikely reform would raise the ante in casual sex, and more importantly, there would be fewer "illegitimate" children. Besides, enforcing common law marriage would make an honest woman out of Oprah.