The Importance of Marriage to a Free Society
- Mark Earley Prison Fellowship President
- 2005 16 Sep
According to the wedding experts, a new trend has emerged in marriage vows: Couples are no longer promising to stay together "'til death us do part." It's a reflection of the sad fact that young couples no longer have much faith that their marriages will survive.
And, of course, many of them don't. This is tragic for couples that split up.
But a Hoover Institution economist warns that, if these couples divorce after having children, their breakups may also imperil civil society.
Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse has written a new book titled Smart Sex: Finding Life- Long Love in a Hook-Up World. Morse reminds us that free societies require people with a conscience. The vast majority of people must obey the law voluntarily, not because they're afraid of the police. This means we have to cultivate people's willingness to collaborate peacefully with others and obey the law -- in other words, to help them develop a conscience.
But according to Morse, children of divorce, and children whose parents never get married, have greater difficulty forming attachments than children of married parents -- and thus have greater difficulty forming a conscience. As Morse puts it, we often think about conscience and cooperation in terms of arguments and justifications for moral rules and prohibitions. "But having a conscience at all depends on a whole host of prior conditions," she notes.
People have to have a desire to do the right thing. They must be willing to learn about right and wrong, and have the ability to follow through and do the right thing.
This moral groundwork is not rational, but relational, Morse writes. "We do not develop trust, trust-worthiness, or self-restraint in a social vacuum. . . . The groundwork for the conscience is laid in the first eighteen months of an infant's life through his relationship with his mother."
This is why marriage and the family matter. Unless a child's parents love him and each other, he has a much more difficult time developing the qualities of self-command that society needs for children to have, Morse writes. It's why every marriage "has the potential to create children who can strengthen a free society -- or significantly weaken it."
Morse is right. When inner restraints are missing, external restraints have to increase to fill the void -- and that's when governments become dangerous. This is why Morse considers children with a conscience "matrimony's gift to a free society."
Tragically, it's a gift too few couples are willing to give today. What we've seen recently in New Orleans and Mississippi -- the widespread looting, vandalism, and violence -- is a grim reminder of what happens when too many people have too little conscience. These lawbreakers, willing to terrorize their own neighbors, will be brought under control only at the point of a gun.
Is this the future of America? Gun-toting National Guardsmen on every corner, trying to keep order? Or will we do what is necessary to develop conscience in our children -- in part, by committing ourselves to life-long marriage?
If we are not, we will reap the sobering consequences because as William Penn put it some three centuries ago, if men are not governed by God, they will be ruled by tyrants.
Copyright © 2005 Prison Fellowship
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