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The Meaning of Marriage (Part 1 of 2)

3/21/2006 - 6:00 AM PST

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Interview With Princeton's Robert George

PRINCETON, New Jersey, MARCH 21, 2006 (Zenit) - Debates about the institution of marriage are often characterized as clashes between religious adherents and secularists, which imply the debate is one between faith and reason.

However, a new collection of essays from across the academic disciplines argues that marriage need not be defended solely through appeals to religious authority or tradition.

Robert P. George is co-editor with Jean Bethke Elshtain of "The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market and Morals". He is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University and serves on President George Bush's Council on Bioethics.

George shared with us some of the arguments presented in the book as to why marriage is an "intrinsic good."

Part 2 of this interview will appear Wednesday.

Q: What compelled you to compile this book of essays on the meaning of marriage? What is so special about this collection?

George: These essays are important because they demonstrate that marriage isn't a sectarian issue or even a narrowly religious one.

Quite the contrary, the essays demonstrate the public importance of marriage and our ability as rational people to grasp the meaning, value and significance of marriage even when we do not invoke or appeal to special revelation or religious tradition.

Last December, Jean Bethke Elshtain and I hosted a three-day conference, sponsored by the Witherspoon Institute, that brought together leading scholars from across the academic disciplines -- history, ethics, economics, law and public policy, philosophy, sociology, psychiatry, political science -- to discuss marriage.

Scholars presented papers on their academic discipline's contribution to our understanding of marriage, and each of the disciplines offered profound insights into the importance of marriage both for individuals and for the nation.

The papers did not invoke revelation, religious authority or sectarian reasoning. This was the best of what's been termed "public reason" at work.

And the conclusions from everyone at the conference were that: a) marriage matters; b) marriage is in crisis; and c) we could be facing the virtual abolition of marriage if we go down the road of same-sex "marriage."

Professor Elshtain of the University of Chicago and I decided to compile these essays into a book because the information and arguments we were fortunate enough to have heard at the conference need to be disseminated throughout our nation. Every American who cares about civil society, child well-being and the condition of marriage in our culture needs to know about the scholarly findings reported in this collection.

Right now there is a public debate going on about marriage, but all too often it has devolved into shouting matches about same-sex "marriage" alone.

Our project tried to avoid this pitfall, and to examine the entire range of social problems at stake in the discussion of marriage: fatherlessness, cohabitation, divorce, out of wedlock childbearing, etc.

While I cannot mention every chapter in the book, there are three essays written from a social science perspective that I will mention.

Don Browning of the University of Chicago and Elizabeth Marquardt -- author of "World's Apart" -- have a fascinating essay, "What About the Children? Liberal Cautions on Same-Sex Marriage."

Maggie Gallagher, the president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, has an insightful essay entitled, "(How) Does Marriage Protect Child Well-Being?"

W. Bradford Wilcox, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, concludes the book with a reflection on marriage's impact on the least well off in society, in his essay, "Suffer the Little Children: Marriage, the Poor and the Commonweal."

Other essays include an argument on how the acceptance of same-sex "marriage" would erase the grounds of principle for rejecting polygamy and polyamory, that is, multiple partner sexual unions; an illuminating discussion of how "no-fault divorce" -- unilateral divorce -- has weakened marriage as an institution, and how the lessons learned from our mistake in embracing "no-fault" divorce might make us cautious as we contemplate even more radical changes; and arguments about the importance of marriage for the legal, political and economic welfare of our society.

When a generation ago people began to discuss "no-fault" divorce, few even considered whether allowing Adam to more easily divorce Eve would have anything other than positive effects on marriage and society as a whole.

In hindsight we can see how the introduction of "no-fault" divorce altered -- for the worse ...

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