Since the end of the Second World War, with the creation of the legal scheme known as "no-fault" divorce, in which a marriage could be ended without some other cause other than mutual agreement between the two parties, the institution has been in trouble, socially. With the rise of an activist brand of conservative Christianity we had the odd specter, in the midst of on-going social change in which the institution of marriage continued to lose its grip, the insistence that it was the very heart of American civilization. This continues to be claimed, even as the delay of marriage, even considering marriage optional for long-term relationships, also continues.
Untangling the messy knot of social and theological attitudes toward the institution of marriage is not easy. By and large, for most the country's history, churches could pretend there was a rough equivalence between the establishment of marriage as a social institution and the theological defense of marriage contained in the Biblical witness. There is little doubt that, with the advent of the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century, the family and the marital institution became the backbone of society. Where better to inculcate and pass on the virtues and assumptions of bourgeois life than hearth and home, after all?
As capitalism spread, however, it became pretty clear that the family and marriage were increasingly a hazard to the social needs of a rising class. It created lasting emotional and legal ties that inhibited the possibility of a mobile, and easily cowed, working and managerial class. As the managerial revolution of the 20th century spread, the need for a co-opted proletariat - offered the promise of social mobility in exchange for setting to one side personal needs and wishes - increased. The lie buried within the promise is clear enough, and the resulting social disintegration is part and parcel of the destructive nature of industrial capitalism, providing weak social ties in order to strengthen the hold of dominant class.
Ignoring the socio-economic roots of the demise of marriage, however, politically active conservative Christians made common cause with the enemy of the family - industrial capitalism - out of either ignorance or naivete. The results, of course, have been the total apathy toward what is commonly referred to as "social issues" by the dominant political party of the past generation, in favor of the needs of industry for a labor force easily manipulated.
The mainline churches, meanwhile, have fared little better than the more conservative ones. Refusing to consider the possibility that our society is structured in such a way as to erode marriage as an institution, relying by and large upon a traditional view of themselves working in tandem with the state to uphold an institution the state, in fact, has neither the need nor desire to uphold, there has been little serious reflection on our current state of affairs. The mainline churches continue blithely on, writing and talking about marriage without any reference to the reality that it is dying on the vine. Because of political considerations, which should be the least of their worries, I believe many mainline denominations have been wary to go too far out and talk about marriage in theological terms that might set themselves in some kind of theological alliance with their more conservative brothers and sisters. There are also the contingent but very real needs to make sure few folks in the pews are either insulted or angered by any mention that marriage is dying, and that we need to get serious about defending the institution as believers, quite apart from any role as citizens of this country.
This, I believe, is where the heart of our confusion lies, as well as the heart of our troubles. We Christians in America are a bit too comfortable switching the modifier, considering ourselves American Christians rather than Christians living in America. With the former description, we find ourselves easily led to uphold certain secular, national values at the expense of the inheritance of faith. Not the least of these is the belief that, in "defending" something called "traditional marriage" we are helping to support the social fabric of the country at its most important, and most vulnerable, point. On the contrary, however, we are finding ourselves increasingly incoherent, as well as marginalized, precisely because, just like our conservative fellow Christians, we refuse to begin discussing marriage as a faithful, grace-imbued possibility, something that couples can discover for themselves over a lifetime of work and prayer. Setting aside matters of romance (not to mention Romance) and law, the church might find itself better able to address the decline of marriage if it began, as the writer of the Epistle to the Ephesians did, considering marriage in the light of the crucified and risen Christ. This transformative approach, I would argue, is a far better starting point for defending marriage than quibbles about gender.