The death of marriage

by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Wednesday, November 23, 2011, at 5:24 pm

If interviews my college students conducted in New York this semester are any indication, marriage in America is dead. I don't mean "in trouble" or "struggling," I mean dead. Many of the New York 20-somethings questioned have no confidence in matrimony and have reduced it to merely a contracted long-term dating relationship. When my students, in asking about cultural views, came to the topic of marriage, these New Yorkers in their 20s responded with some of the most heart-wrenching descriptions of the institution, which to me signals trouble for the future of American family life.

Here are just a few of the sample responses:

  • 24-year-old male from Manhattan: "Don't even get me started! Well, marriage is a piece of paper. It's a certificate. I mean legally, that's what marriage is. Marriage was not originally supposed to be about love, the way it is understood now. I think it was largely about families given tax benefits and now it's become completely distorted. What does it mean to be married? It doesn't mean anything anymore. It doesn't mean [expletive]. It used to be about commitment but people get divorced all the time now."
  • 27-year-old male from Queens: "Traditionally it has been a man and a woman who are in love, and, under God, are brought together, to live the rest of their lives together and have a family. This is ideal. For me, well, you might call me a hopeless romantic, but it's when you find someone you love and you get to know everything about them and they know everything about you, and you grow old together. It's possible, I think. It could be a man and an elephant, although I don't think the elephant could have the same feelings. It's just two people, not just a man and a woman, could be a man and a man, could be three men. Ideal is monogamy, I think it's possible, but it doesn't really happen."
  • 21-year-old female from Midtown Manhattan: "I actually kinda don't really believe in marriage. People can be happy just being with another person they love for the rest of their lives without being married. I think marriage is something that society kinda says that when you get to a certain age you're just like "Oh, I have to get married; that's the right thing to do," and I think a lot of people kinda look down on you when you're not married. So, I think it's just a societal thing."

These three by far are not the most extreme examples, but they do best represent the overall beliefs shared by most in the 50 to 60 surveys we conducted.

What Christians should find troubling is (1) their definition of marriage seems to have little or nothing to do with procreation, and (2) marriage to them is nothing more than a relational contract between people with strong feelings for each other. If young Americans only believe feelings and a contract to be the essence of marriage, then it will be increasingly difficult to convince them that something like same-sex marriage or polygamy should not be legal.

Truthfully, supporters of traditional marriage between one man and one woman will likely lose the public debate about alternative forms of marriage until they can successfully tie marital sex to procreation as normative and stop divorcing themselves. But in the end, if moral norms do not define the practice of marriage in America, then we can't be surprised when young adults say that marriage "doesn't mean anything anymore." Honestly, can we blame them?

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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