MARRIAGE: by Bill MuehlenbergNews Weekly
On breaking the marriage covenant
, August 30, 2008
US Senator John Edwards has admitted to having an extramarital affair while his wife was dying of cancer. However, what is even more indefensible, writes Bill Muehlenberg, is that many people are prepared to justify his behaviour.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, beginning in the late 1950s, people began 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 its covenantal nature need to be reaffirmed.
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 write this article because of a statement I recently read in the press. 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 US Democratic Senator John Edwards from North Carolina on national television that he had had an affair with blonde filmmaker Rielle Hunter. 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 Obama.
But what especially caught my eye in this ugly episode was 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. It is usually used to cover a multitude of sins.
Sure, we all can and do fail, but what distinguishes us as humans 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.
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.
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.Affairs
Second, so what if a lot of people have affairs? Since when is morality determined by mere numbers? Does the fact that a lot of people do these things somehow make them right?
This is simply a defence of the indefensible. 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.
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.- Bill Muehlenberg.