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The ‘pluribus’ and the ‘unum’

We still don’t know the full effects of the breakdown in marriage

The ‘pluribus’ and the ‘unum’

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

A couple I know is celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. They’re the first baby boomers—my generation—whom I know personally to reach that milestone. Others of us have only a few years to go before observing their own golden anniversaries, and that’s something to celebrate. But our generation also marks where those bonds began to break down.

After rising throughout the 1970s and ’80s, divorce rates have leveled off or declined, and that’s good news. But it’s partly because of the bad news: Fewer young people are getting married in the first place. An indication of even worse news: We’ve lost sight of what marriage is. We’ve heard the warnings for decades now, and with the widespread—and surprisingly sudden—acceptance of same-sex marriage, we’re told that horse has left the barn. But if and when the horse wanders back, we should be ready to explain to it where it went wrong.

All of Western history might be seen as a struggle between the individual and his society (clan, tribe, or nation). For most of that time, society won, hands down. In any social group, civilized or not, “the many” defined “the one”—even in Athens, the birthplace of democracy, individuals were defined by citizenship, and citizenship depended on birth. The measure of any individual act, good or bad, was how it affected the city.

What built America was not ‘rugged individualism,’ as some right-wingers would have it, but voluntary community.

Individual needs and desires have a way of intruding, though, and “the one vs. the many” is more often than not seen as a problem. How to balance the needs of the one against the needs of all? When our efforts to solve the problem overbalance in favor of the many, it often leads to the soul-crushing, initiative-sapping “collective.” But overbalancing in favor of the one leads to chaos and brokenness, with “every man doing what is right in his own eyes” and accountable to no one. Both ways, if allowed to continue unchecked, end in slavery.

Freedom is possible only when the one and the many balance each other. This reflects our Creator: one divine being in perpetual relationship among three persons. Ravi Zacharias likes to say that the nature of the Trinity solves the “one vs. many” problem, and in the Bible we see a vision of how it’s supposed to work in the church: a communal body with each member individually connected to Christ.

But how does it work in civil society? The American experiment in self-rule might give us a clue. What built America was not “rugged individualism,” as some right-wingers would have it, but voluntary community, and the point where individuals regularly intersected with community was, and is, marriage.

You could call it the great compromise between the one and the many: two individuals come together to create community, and their bond is biological, societal, economic, emotional, and spiritual. While providing individual satisfaction, marriage also forms a triangular base of father, mother, and children: a stable shape capable of supporting other shapes. Even when the two partners are less than satisfied, society benefits in ways we don’t fully appreciate.

Justifications for same-sex marriage appeal to this very benefit: Shouldn’t we allow homosexual couples to enjoy community with each other as they’re accepted in a broader society? It’s obviously a convincing argument, but with two major flaws. First, without the means of producing children, the biological bond is null and void. Second, it confirms marriage as an individual preference, undoing the long-term benefits of a marriage culture. Instead of 1+1=2, the fundamental equation becomes 1+1=1+1. Or, instead of stable triangles, we’re trying to build a civilization on straight lines, parallelograms, and trapezoids.

After a rush to the altar following the Obergefell decision two years ago, the rate of increase in same-sex marriage has dropped. It’s as we suspected: The fight was more about affirming homosexuality than affirming marriage. But heterosexuals have been making the great compromise all about “the one” for the last 50 years. Same-sex marriage didn’t fray that rope; it was already on its last threads. The consequences for “the many” are yet to be seen.


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  • RC
    Posted: Wed, 07/19/2017 03:15 pm

    I am a numbers guy so here is the way I see the math:

    With Christ really in our life, He provides the “+” that makes marriage add up.  1+1=2

    Without Christ you get “<>” which can look like this.  1<>1=0