There can be no meaning apart from roots. –Walter Brueggemann
For astute cultural observers, nothing about the recent SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage should be surprising. Though there was widespread popular opposition to redefining marriage as recently as 10 years ago and though 30 states voted on and passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, there was still an inevitability to what happened in 2014. This was no triumph of big government or judicial activism going against the popular opinion of the people. As the Onion noted, the question wasn’t whether marriage would be redefined in the USA, but merely when.
In the aftermath of this decision conservatives should focus less on the question of same-sex marriage itself and more around the issue of how something considered a categorical impossibility for much of human history has come to seem not only possible, but an essential part of a just society for most of our peers.
A related question that must also be addressed is why the arguments we have made (and strong cases have been made) have so little purchase with our peers. Why is same-sex marriage so intuitively logical to them and why are the arguments against it so odd and implausible?
Some critics have noted that the cultural shift we have seen on same-sex marriage has been years in the making. The rise of no-fault divorce as well as the changes brought about by widely available contraception have, no doubt, played a major role in this shift—and both of those changes date back to the 1950s and 1960s. But even that response is an inadequate and incomplete account of the problem that has led to the popular acceptance of same-sex marriage.
The Brueggemann quote above hints at an answer. You can have no meaning apart from roots. While other critics have done well to note how contraception and no-fault divorce have changed marriage in America, I’ve yet to read anyone who has noted how the industrial economy changed home in America. And home, of course, is the place where families grow and live out their lives.
In a pre-industrial society, home carried with it certain key ideas. It was the place where a husband and wife cultivated a life and family together. Home is where the husband would practice his trade (note “trade” rather than “career”) either by working in the fields on the family farm or by laboring in a workshop or study located somewhere in the house. (Princeton theologian Charles Hodge had his study set in the middle of the family home so that his children would pass in and out throughout the day. He even had the latch on the door removed and put the door on a loose spring so that even the smallest child could enter at any time.) The wife, for her part, shared an equal part in the creation of the home, assisting with the husband’s trade work as needed while also maintaining the rest of the house and providing in more direct ways for the children. Neither one of them had a career in the typical sense of the term; rather they both shared a home and shared the work of creating that home.
Home, in this understanding, was an entire economy unto itself. Much of the goods needed for its continued existence were grown or made on-site and what things did require money were paid for from money earned through work done in the home. The life of the home was self-sustaining. This economic reality complements the classical idea that the family is the fundamental community on which all others are built.
What’s more, the work of the home was not only productive, but dignifying. It took time to acquire the skills needed to maintain such an economy and possessing those skills as an individual elicited a sense of honor and respect from one’s neighbors.
Finally, the economy of the home was a comprehensive economy, an economy big enough to comprehend all of life and recognize when factors other than strict financial considerations must be reckoned with.
With industrialism the economics of home-life began to shift. The father was first taken out of the home and into another separate place whose entire existence was oriented toward the generation of material wealth. Yet the economy of the factory was a truncated economy; it could know nothing of family, affection, or even history because it cared nothing for family, affection, or history. Its sole focal point was the bottom line on the owner’s spreadsheet. The economy in which human beings lived shrunk—and so human life has been forced to shrink in order to accommodate it.
Thus the husband and father was taken out of this functional and healthy (if financially limited) home economy and placed into an industrial economy that offered greater financial rewards while also removing the father from home life. Thus we began to develop the idea of men as a baser form of humanity that will, inevitably, behave badly unless they are chastened and redeemed by the fairer, more noble women who were unsullied by factory life and stayed home, creating and maintaining the domestic sphere.
Yet that could only be a temporary arrangement. It would last as long as the industrial economy did not have a solution for childcare and home maintenance. But once that was developed in the form of daycare centers and government schools it became inevitable that the women, likewise, would follow the men into the factory and later the office. The parallel rise of “labor-saving devices” which have rendered much of the art of place-making in the home into menial work likewise played a role in women following men in their abandonment of home life. We shouldn’t be surprised when women find home-life stultifying and repressive; through our economy we have done everything in our power to make it so. We have made the home little more than a consumption center and storage facility—so why should we expect anyone to find such a place an enjoyable place to spend one’s time?
The end result of this arrangement is best described by Wendell Berry in his marvelous essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine”:
Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate “relationship” involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided. During their understandably temporary association, the “married” couple will typically consume a large quantity of merchandise and a large portion of each other.
The modern household is the place where the consumptive couple do their consuming. Nothing productive is done there. Such work as is done there is done at the expense of the resident couple or family, and to the profit of suppliers of energy and household technology. For entertainment, the inmates consume television or purchase other consumable diversion elsewhere.
It’s essential that we understand the connection between the first paragraph and the second. The economy in which marriage has traditionally existed, in which natural marriage has made intuitive sense to people, is an economy oriented around fruitfulness and productivity in the home in which the family’s life arises naturally from the love of the husband and wife—literally in the form of children, but also seen in the physical fact of the home itself.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry may have said it best on Twitter:
That Kennedy paragraph everyone is breathlessly tweeting doesn’t include the word “children.” And that pretty much sums it up.
— PEG (@pegobry) June 26, 2015
This natural home economy has been entirely destroyed, replaced with a home that has ceased to be an economy in any sense of the term. And the economy we now have is one answerable only to the dollar and literally incapable of understanding anything else—and professing Christians have been at the center of this change.
The purpose of the American economy for at least the past 60 years and arguably for much longer has been to systematically dig up the roots of family life by destroying home life and replacing it with work life centered in a place other than the home and cordoned off from all concerns not immediately answerable to the almighty dollar.
What this means is that industrialism made a redefinition of marriage and home-life inevitable. Indeed, it’d be truer to say that industrialism redefined marriage decades ago by making it an essentially genderless relationship consisting of two careerists sharing resources they earned in their separate lives. It was merely a leftover Christian veneer that preserved natural marriage in the time since that initial redefinition took place.
Marriage in the USA long ago ceased to be an institution meant to solve the social problem of “how can we ensure that children are raised in a stable, loving home with their parents?” and instead became a set of legal privileges accorded to independent careerists who feel a strong emotional, social, or relational bond with each other. And this is why we are able to see both the presentation of strong arguments for natural marriage from smart folks like Ryan Anderson and the equal insistence that there are no persuasive arguments for natural marriage from smart folks like Damon Linker.
The meaning of marriage cannot be separated from the meaning of home—and conservative Christians have been party to the destruction of home for decades. The coming winter is merely the fruit we must reap for having sown in barren fields.