Marriage - -The Basis of Society

By: David W. Murray

1992, 500 years since Columbus discovered America, and America is now becoming a nation of bastards. Thirty percent (30%) of all the children born last year ( 1991 ) were born out of wedlock, up from five percent (5%) in 1960. Families are no longer simply breaking apart----with one in two marriages ending in divorce-----more and more parents aren’t even getting married. The growth of illegitimacy is most severe in the inner city, but, the phenomenon is not exclusive to any race, age or sector of society. More white children that blacks are born and raised out of wedlock, and it is among whites that illegitimacy is rising most rapidly.

The dangers of this growth in illegitimacy are now widely recognized. Single-parent families are much more likely to be poor than two-parent unions. Broken and unformed families are the most important root cause of violent crime, drug abuse, and academic failure. The psychological toll is enormous: boys and girls are devastated by the absence of their fathers.

The widespread failure to marry is a sign of impending disaster for America. Cultures differ in many ways, but all societies that survive are built on marriage. Marriage is a society’s infrastructure, its bridges of social connectedness. The history of human society shows and proves that when people stop marrying, their continuity as a culture is in great jeopardy.

Marriage is the very basis of society, because, it creates kinsmen out of complete strangers; it turns hostile outsiders into “in-laws.” The Zulus have a saying, “They are our enemies, so we marry them.” By uniting with the outsiders, marriage helps families multiply their economic capital-----and, perhaps even more important, their social capital. Relatives feel an obligation towards each other unmatched by any other kinds of ties.

No society builds the arch of social experience without the keystone of marriage. None. So, let the stakes be very clear; when American society experiments with even higher numbers of illegitimacies and single adult parents, we risk being crushed by our own roof. Children “out of wedlock” are ill-fitting stones in our social house.

It is easy to understand why the term “bastard” now implies cruelty or shamelessness. The bastard is the “child of no man”, and has few, if any, relatives, those who would be shamed or honored by his future actions. The bastard, like the anonymous stranger, may become callous to cruelty.

Where we find children playing, there we find safety for ourselves. But, neighborhoods without fathers are seed-beds for predators. Without a female and a male who consider themselves responsible for children, the stable features of social continuity are not constructed. Without marriage, there are fewer relatives----fewer people to help when things go wrong, fewer people to set a moral example. Therefore, the bastard is socially under-capitalized.

The most important----the principal----function of marriage is to legitimize the children born of the formal union. The legitimacy that comes from marriage is the source of an individual’s social identity, and conversely, the breakdown of marriage is an index of deep social alienation. Society seek to ensure that each and every child has a pater, a father who assumes full responsibility for his child, even if he is not the biological genitor who actually sired the child.

Here is the actual consequences of the “legitimacy” of the children: legitimacy is nothing more nor less than the orderly transfer of social meaning across the generations. Remember, that children are the ultimate illegal aliens. They are undocumented immigrants to our world, who must be socialized and invested with identity, a culture, and an estate. By conferring legitimacy, marriage keeps this process from becoming pure chaos.

Because bastards do not have an official status, relationships with them are not marked and choreographed as they are with kinsmen. Their identity is amputated, as it were, and they, like the notorious “half-breeds” of the old frontier, stand between two systems of family structure, not at home in either. Their world is one of “namelessness.”

From the elaborate formalities of the Japanese to the bargaining negotiations of Yemeni Arabs to the strict purity requirements of Hindu Brahmans, human beings are doing something very essential when they marry. Through concubinage, “irregular” marriages, adultery, prohibited couplings, and nose-thumbing resistance to the norms are common in the world over, the essential point is not the presence of deviance. Rather, it is the universality of the married state as an ideal for the human condition.

The norm for social experience, the cultural target towards which behaviors tend and against which deviance is measured, is some form of morally-sanctioned wedded state the world over. Marriages are political and economic affairs, and thus, are regarded by most peoples of the world as far to important to be left in the hands of personal attraction. For many traditional cultures, marriage may contain some romance, but, the institution serves primarily and historically to “arrange” the structure of society.

Thus, every society, from all time, is threatened by the disappearance of legitimate marriage. What we are losing when we lose legitimate marriages are kinsmen, the very necessary social relatives. Kinsmen are the formal actors of the moral order, bound to us by sanctions, duties, and rights which are legal, religious, and ethical. In place of that most desirable kinship role, we are substituting the indifferent welfare state, now the official pater of thousands of children. Women may marry the state, as it were, and for family have caseworkers and judges.

Marriage is the act of creating formal kinsmen who are bound to help us, and the ceremony of marring, itself, helps to create in us moral sentiments of commitment and formal responsibility. The absence of marriage is not only a major reason why single parents are found so often in a state of poverty, but, also why their children so often become solitary victims and victimizers.

An unmarried mother, with fewer people tied to the obligation of support, is really hobbled from the beginning. Single parenthood passed through more than one generation, from unwed mother to unwed daughter, results in a total collapse of the number of supporting relatives. Sociologists of the urban underclass find that jobs are located through family-based personal networks. Kinship was even more important than schooling in finding work. The pattern is clear: mobility out of poverty depends on kinship ties.

We see that there are two dimensions to the economics consequences of marriage. The assistance given by relatives provides a social stability to the marriage itself. Because an investment has been made, relatives sanction the couple when they waiver, and support them in times of stress. Marriage links us to two sets of relatives who are our best, loyal allies.

Second, being married strengthens the economic success of the overall family. We live in the context of three generations. Generally, we do not borrow from our children (“When a father gives to his son, both laugh,” runs the Yiddish proverb, “but when a son must give to the father, both cry”) So, the relevant number of supporting relatives branches upward. I we are married, we have four parents’ estates to draw from and that of eight grandparents. For the single parent, perpetual impoverishment is their likely lot.

Marriages can be integrative for our society, if we will let them be. Individual marriages are the rivets of the social order, low-level attachments by which the whole structure is ultimately assembled.

To be brought up without male authority in the household is a deficit. But, what are most keenly missing from the lives of the impoverished, these spouseless mothers and troubled children, are not just male authority figures, role models, or wage earners. Important though those identities are for the well-being of society, the absence of a genitor from the home is not the central loss.

What are missing from these families are Fathers and Husbands as well-defined social statuses. Many people, as it were, and not just one, are missing whenever a Father is absent, for Fathers bring Brothers, Uncles, Grandparents, Sisters, and yes, even mother-in-laws. And it is this network of attachments and affiliation that finally enables Fathers, and not boy-friends, to transform bastards into Sons and Daughters.

In a home where there has never been a Father/Husband, there is, no matter how valiant and strong the Mother, a crippled relationship unit, condemned to isolation from society’s opportunities and to predation from society’s brutal. “It takes the whole village to raise a child.” runs the African proverb. And, it takes an intact, and legitimate, marital union to raise moral and responsible progeny, whose lives are enriched by the structures of opportunity and stability provided therein.

By marrying, we make our children legitimate, as they reciprocally make us safe. They will care for us no more than we have cared for them. In the social ecology of the human species, marriages will appear wherever the soil and climate are favorable. Creating conditions for the appearance of such vital and valuable forms is perhaps the most effective, and the least intrusive, task of social engineering.

Helping people to marry helps society to remake itself, to restore in each generation that delicate but essential web on which our humanness is enacted. As it stands now, the web is shredding, and through its widening holes plunge our own children. We shall surely follow!

Editors note:

David W. Murray, a social anthropologist, is a Bradley Scholar in Residence at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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