The report that Mark Sanford didn’t want to include a vow of fidelity in their wedding vows is the least surprising, and the saddest, news I have heard in a while.

According to his wife, the discredited governor of South Carolina whose liaisons with  an Argentinian woman last summer were a national scandal was worried about his ability to keep such a commitment.  His premonition, unfortunately, came to pass in an unseemly and destructive way.

It is tempting in such situations to become cynical about marriage, and its prospects.  Sandra-Tsing Loh took that route after her own failed marriage, while Caitlin Flanagan weakly tried to avoid it.

I offered my own take on marriage and divorce in the latest issue of The City.  This was my final paragraph (though you should read the whole thing):

This is why Mark Sanford and the Gosselins matter. As Caitlin Flanagan points out, they reinforce our common cynical disposition toward marriage. But in doing so, they also reinforce that marriage still matters. This is the territory of subversive truth: it is precisely the threat of infidelity and betrayal that provides so much drama in modern marriage. The covenant could really be broken, a man’s word could come to nothing. And when it does among our society’s most visible members, we collectively identify with their moral weaknesses and justify our own failures and shortcomings. But only within a world steeped in marriage is that sort of cynicism possible—a world that doesn’t care would have ignored Jon and Kate altogether.

When I wrote the article, I had no idea the next scandal that would capture our attention would be Tiger’s.  But that had its own unique dynamic, in that Tiger was a manufactured man from beginning to end, which only heightened our fascination with his undoing.

But we’ve reached a point where the obvious needs saying, and repeating:  a lack of interest in vowing to remain faithful isn’t a “moment of self-doubt” or cold-feet.  It signifies a lack of courage and a gross misunderstanding of marriage itself.  The whole thing hangs on the very vow that Sanford wanted to cut out.

The stream of public figures ending their marriages is never ending, and neither is the threat of cynicism about marriage. Defending the glory and romance of marriage is a battle that requires vigilant repetition.  I hope to play a tiny part in that fight.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Matt, you got my sudden attention when you referenced both Flanagan and Loh. Does the devotion to the institution of marriage and family, and that act of valuing your spouse above you own enjoyment, necessarily mean sexual fidelity? Obviously, the Christian tradition of marriage requires monogamy, but what about couples that don’t require that piece of each other? Dan Savage has written quite a bit about this issue.
    *I feel like I should write an addendum that it in no ways reflects my marriage*


  2. This reminds me of a recent discussion on “voluntary martyrdom” and people who chose martyrdom out of ego rather than faith and “cracked”. In the Orthodox wedding service the first hymn is taken from the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste and marriage is portrayed as a voluntary giving of your life to another. It is the only martrydom we can choose and also pick the instrument of our voluntary death.


  3. Definitely cowardice on Sanford’s part. Although I would not equate marriage with martyrdom, it really is staggering commitment to make.

    If marriage hangs on a vow of fidelity, how exactly does this exclude homosexual couples? Homosexual individuals can establish the same covenant with each other.

    I ask the question fully aware that your exclusionary definition of marriage is assumed in any discussion of the subject.


  4. Bigarme and Prufrock,

    I’m going to combine my answers. I say that the vow is what the whole thing hangs upon, which I will stand by. But I don’t think it’s all that constitutes marriage. There’s a deeper dynamic that the vow is meant to preserve and sustain, and without which leads to a diminished sense of flourishing in and through marriage. So, marriage needs both sexes and monogamy, but the vow is inextricable from it as well.

    I hope I’m not creating distinctions without differences here, or just creating ad hoc positions to save what I wrote. Feel free to push back.




  5. Here’s my “tiny part” : — come visit!


  6. Prufrock, Am I correct to assume you are not married? :)
    “Martyrdom” has gotten a bad pop-psych rap. From a spiritual perspective it is the sacrificing of your ego, narcissism, self-will, personal passions etc. for the sake of the love of another. This is why marriage is the icon of Christ and the Church and the very life of the Trinity. In an Orthodox marriage ceremony there are no vows. The marriage service is the Church’s blessing of the union of two people who have committed to one another already in love. The Western tradition focuses on “vows”, ie., “contract” and the Eastern tradition focuses on the blessing of the union ie., godly love is assumed to have the intention of self denial (voluntary martyrdom) for the sake of the beloved. A homosexual union is not blessed by the Church even though it may have aspects of love between two human beings (or in the West’s case, vows of fidelity etc.). The blessing of the Church can only be given to that which God has ordained as an iconic image of Christ and Trinity within Scripture. (Which also comes down to an anthropology of gender in the image, etc.)


  7. Now that you mention it, I have been married…6 years and 5 months. So I understand what you’re saying about making certain sacrifices.

    Regarding the Church’s blessing of a union, that is irrelevant to the issue of civil marriage for homosexuals. Maybe not for you. But it is irrelevant to the issue.

    Matt: I know we have covered why you believe that both sexes are necessary for the institution of marriage but the preservation and sustenance that a secure–and monogamous, I agree on that point–relationship provides should not be denied to homosexual individuals. You may contend that they have that ability now and that it is just not legally recognized. But it’s that recognition that is vital to its integrity as a union.

    Although we can dispute the d/evolution of marriage, how exactly does extending the franchise–diminished though it might be–do harm to it?


  8. Prufrock, Fr. Thomas Hopko (one of our pre-eminent theologians and seminary professors) wrote a book about homosexuality in which he (scandalously) said essentially he thought it was Christian to extend the CIVIL rights of union to homosexual couples because of the demand of justice. Personally, I agree with him though I think we’d be in the minority in the Orthodox community. What the Church blesses does not necessarily define what is “just” within the fallen order in the civil arena.


  9. Now it seems like the conversation is getting interesting. Mr. Anderson here has posited that marriage has at least two components: those that “define” it (mark the boundaries within which a marriage is possible?) and those that “make it”. There are probably other things that should go in both categories than have been mentioned here… But Matt may disagree.

    Anyway I will volunteer one to add to our list of “definitional” (wc?) ingredients – good for each other. My church (Anglican) made of habit of “publishing the bands of marriage” several weeks in a row prior to my marriage. The reason? If someone could produce evidence that I or my beloved were a. bad b. already married or c. getting married under false pretenses, then the wedding would be off. The Church, it seems, has a duty to only allow marriages to go forward that have the potential (at least!) to be successful. Getting to my point… Homosexual marriage is a non-starter because, regardless of the opinion/testimony/experience of either party, the marriage can never be a success – which means, at least, that the marriage is more likely than not to fail in its goal of being a happy thing… because it is indivisibly composed of things that are (apparently – see Romans) bad for you.

    For this reason, it seems like it would be, at best, uncharitable and, at worst, horribly cruel (condemning someone to a permanent union that can never succeed… always desiring, never possessing) to “extend the franchise” in this way. With regards to what is most likely to lead to a successful marriage, the three most important inputs are the teachings of scripture, the opinion of the Church, and what history has taught us. Finally, in the case that you consider it uncharitable to withhold from someone a thing that they believe will be good for them (regardless of your personal belief), remember that the Church has always been in the business of unmasking things that appear good but are, in fact, bad for you.


  10. s-p,

    Thanks for recognizing the distinction, although I don’t go for the “fallen order” thing.


    You don’t define what a “successful marriage” requires so I can’t really respond to your main point. If marriage is just to be a “happy thing,” that does not exclude a homosexual marriage.

    I don’t want to open this can of worms but it is at the heart of your argument. Homosexuality in itself is not bad (we may differ on this point) but so your Church’s requirement would not necessarily exclude two homosexuals from marrying. That’s not an argument, I know, but a contrary assertion.

    But mine better corresponds with the facts.


  11. That last line was needlessly provocative. It’s assumed in any argument but it doesn’t look right in print.


  12. Prufrock, I guess the “fallen order thing” hinges on your understanding of the role and purpose of God ordained government and civil authority in the world which governs for the most part unbelievers. IMHO, I can assert that homosexuality is “in itself bad” (ie., not the intention of God as an iconic representation of the Trinity), and yet not demonize it any more than I would any other human issue or predisposition or struggle, and extend to the homosexuals the same legal and civil protections that any other human being has without endangering my theological views or the Christian understanding of marriage. I agree that “the chances of, or definition of a successful marriage” are not a good criteria for the Church to reject the possibility of marrying homosexuals. The criteria for the Church needs to be “does this marriage represent what God has ordained for man and woman?” The criteria for the state can be whatever it wants it to be. (And personally, I don’t care what the state wants to call its unions… as long as the state does not attempt to force the Church to perform or recognize the unions/marriages as sacramentally valid, it is free to do with its citizens whatever it wishes. But I know that puts me toward the fringe of the “right wing” of evangelicalism and the East too.)


  13. Again, I appreciate how you distinguish between the civil and the sacred. The problem is that many Christians seek to deny the civil right of homosexuals to marry on the basis of its supposed wrongness.

    Those doing that which is considered wrong are often treated badly by those who believe it is wrong. Just an observation.

    I once held the same position as you but I kept asking myself how would a homosexual person feel to know I supported their right to marry but I believed that their lifestyle was a sinful choice. To my mind, it was not tenable position.


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