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September 04th 2008 print

Bill Muehlenberg

On Breaking the Marriage Covenant

For millennia, the institution of marriage was viewed as a solemn covenant, involving strong obligations and commitment.

For millennia, the institution of marriage was viewed as a solemn covenant, involving strong obligations and commitment. Recently however many Westerners have come to view marriage as just a mere personal arrangement, which can be treated lightly and dissolved at will.

As John Witte has remarked, historically, “marriages were presumptively permanent commitments, and marriage formation and dissolution were serious public events.” But the covenantal nature of marriage began to be replaced with the idea that marriage is simply another type of relationship, with no social or community bearing.

This reflects the push toward rugged individualism that so characterises the West. As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead put it, we have begun to “change their ideas about the individual’s obligations to family and society. Broadly described, this change was away from an ethic of obligation to others and toward an obligation to self.”

With this weakened view of marriage come some obvious consequences: divorce rates are rising, unfaithfulness is becoming more common, and trust is taking a hammering. Thus the importance of marriage, and it covenantal nature, need to be reaffirmed.

And this reaffirmation needs to come in two forms. The ideal of the institution of marriage must be publicly championed, and individual marriage partners need to redouble their efforts to ensure that their marriage does not become another breakdown or divorce statistic. Thus on both a public and personal level, we need to stand up for marriage and show forth its significance and value.

I pen this article because of a statement I read in the press yesterday. It may be just one isolated incident, but it is all too typical of where we have come as a culture. It involves the admission by Democratic North Carolina senator John Edwards that he had an affair.

The affair with blonde filmmaker Rielle Hunter was admitted to on Friday on national television. This followed months of lies and denials. Although confessing the affair, he denied claims by Hunter that he was the father of her baby girl.

Edwards, a father of three, had the affair while his wife was battling cancer. The political consequences are wide ranging, with the Democratic Party in damage control, and the adultery costing him the chance of being a possible running mate with Barack Hussein Obama.

But what especially caught my eye in this ugly episode is a remark made by a high-ranking Democrat who sought to defend Edwards. Howard Wolfson, a former senior official for the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, made this extraordinary remark: “We have unrealistic expectations for people. John Edwards, like the rest of us, is only human. The truth is a lot of ordinary, average Americans have affairs.”

There are a number of significant problems with such a foolish remark. The phrase “we are only human” is perhaps one of the silliest expressions around. Of course we are only human. What else would you expect humans to be?

But the phrase is usually used to cover a multitude of sins. We are indeed human, but that means we are not mere animals. Unlike animals, we have certain human traits which enable us to rise above the level of animals. We have such things a free will and a moral sense. We have the capacity for self-control, faithfulness, commitment and honesty.

Sure, we all can and do fail, but what distinguishes us from the animal kingdom is the ability to rise above our circumstances and make morally significant choices. Even in the face of great adversity and temptation, we can still choose to do what is right. We are not simply a victim of our environment, but can be the master of it.

And what is so unrealistic about expecting people to keep their marriage vows? Just what “unrealistic expectations” do we have of politicians like Edwards? We certainly do expect politicians to keep their word, and to be faithful to their pledges given to the electorate. We do not elect known cheats into office, but those we believe to be honest and reliable.

But if a man cannot be faithful to his own marriage vows, then we should have every reason to be suspicious of any political vows he might make. If a man can cheat on his own wife, then there is every possibility he will cheat on those he is called to serve.

Character is of a piece, in other words, and those who are unfaithful in one area will likely be unfaithful in other areas. Character counts and integrity is important. This is not a case of “being human” but of a leading political figure betraying the trust of his own wife and family, and betraying the trust of the American people.

And the idea that a “lot of ordinary, average Americans have affairs” is equally unhelpful and disingenuous. First, while a lot of people may have affairs, an awful lot of people do not. Indeed, one suspects that the majority of people are faithful to their partners and their wedding vows.

Second, so what if a lot of people have affairs? Since when is morality determined by mere numbers? A lot of people rape women. A lot of people sexually abuse children. A lot of people cheat on their taxes. A lot of people violently assault others. Does the fact that a lot of people do these things somehow make these things right?

This is simply a defence of the indefensible. We expect better of public figures. And we should expect better of one another. While none of us is perfect, in a civilised society we should all aim for that which is right, and not make excuses for that which is wrong.

Keeping one’s word, staying true to one’s marriage partner, and keeping solemn covenant obligations are all very important moral and social goods. We should all uphold such goods both as an ideal, and as practical realities which we strive to live out in our personal lives.

We certainly should not seek to make excuses for unacceptable behaviour, and try to whitewash what are some very serious vices. The more we justify vice and minimise virtue, the less civilized and human we become. The marriage vow is one of the most basic and important of all personal and social goods. It needs to be strenuously defended and promoted, not trampled underfoot.