JUNE 19, 2003
Marriage and Civil Society
W. Clark Gilpin
In a society that seems intent on subjecting every institution and daily practice to methodical cost-benefit analysis, the cadences of the marriage vow in the Book of Common Prayer are beginning to sound radical: ". . . for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death." What are the personal and cultural benefits derived from an institution that begins its existence in a promise to ignore for life all questions of benefit, no matter the cost? How does a society understand the forms, evaluate the purposes, and respond to the changing needs of the complex creations we call marriages and families? What is the responsibility of government toward those institutions to which it entrusts its most vulnerable cohort of citizens, children? Since 1991, questions such as these have been central for Don S. Browning, Director of the Religion, Culture and Family Project and Alexander Campbell Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. In a series of books, including most recently Marriage and Modernization (Eerdmans, 2003), Browning has interpreted these questions in national and international perspective. This month, his commentary for the Marty Center Web Forum, "Critical Familism, Civil Society, and the Law," sketches the implications of this research for an extraordinarily ambitious "theory and strategy for the culture-building and socializing tasks of the institutions of civil society" with respect to marriage. And, although his principal focus is on marriage and family as "works of culture to be addressed in civil society," Browning concludes by illustrating the types of legal and public policy initiatives that would promote this cultural work.
Browning speaks of critical familism because "neither the general public nor the specialized professions of law, medicine, education or therapy understand ... inherited marriage and family traditions." Before religious communities and other institutions of civil society can proceed to policy recommendations, they must first face the task of retrieving and critically reconstructing these traditions. "Most people do not comprehend the complex interweaving of Jewish and Christian teachings, Greek philosophy, Roman and German law, and Enlightenment philosophy that have gone into the formation of Western marriage and family traditions." Cultural notions about marriage float on a "veritable ocean," of assumed metaphors, practical moral reasoning, philosophical arguments, and religious affirmations. These thoroughly entangled presuppositions are not neatly separated into "religious" or "secular," and practical religious reasoning will therefore be a necessary partner in the process of their analysis and reinterpretation. Furthermore, in an increasingly pluralist civil society, "the retrieval and reconstruction of these traditions also will require a nuanced dialogue between them and the more newly visible traditions in Western societies such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism."
Although primarily concerned with this process of cultural education and dialogue, Browning recognizes that appreciation for the complex marriage and family tradition has implications -- even radical implications -- for public policy, ranging from alternative work weeks, to marriage education in the public schools, to adequate legal protection for vulnerable mothers during childbirth and the early years of child care. For Browning's proposal and its policy implications, consult "Critical Familism, Civil Society, and the Law," at the Marty Center Web Forum.