Orlando Shaw earned his 15 minutes of fame with a dubious distinction: fathering 22 children with 14 women. The Nashville man's story made news when the mothers of his children sued for child support.
But this deadbeat dad's delinquent payments aren't the only thing scandalizing observers. Shaw's apparent nonchalance about the 22 lives he brought into the world is shocking.
In one interview, he couldn't get the number of children right (citing 18). His answers to the reporter's questions revolved around himself, his love for women and his desires. His children's needs seemed to be an afterthought.
Shaw's escapades left many appalled, and rightly so. Despite all the family disarray of the last half century, Americans still have the sense that the father and mother who bring a child into the world have a unique responsibility toward that child, and each other.
After all, it takes a father and a mother to conceive a child. A mother is sure to be there when the child is born. But will the father still be around? And if so, how long will he stay committed to mother and child?
Marriage policy exists to answer these questions in a way that puts the child's needs first. Marriage reflects the biological reality that every child has a mother and a father. That's why sexual complementarity — the idea that it takes a woman and a man, the two halves of humanity — is essential to marriage.
It's also why monogamy is at the heart of marriage. Every child has just one mother and just one father, and this unique bond reaps special benefits for each. Social science confirms the common sense idea that marriage policy supports: mom, dad, and child all tend to do better together.
Marriage is based as well on the idea of exclusivity — committing fully and uniquely to one person — and permanence. Orlando Shaw is a vivid reminder of why these principles behind marriage matter to children.
These marriage norms are not as strong or well understood as they once were. No-fault divorce has done serious damage to the ideal of permanence. We need to reform divorce law to restore an understanding that marriage should end only for the most serious of reasons, not none at all.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule any day in two cases that involve the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Whatever the outcome, the debate over marriage will continue. As it should: Redefining marriage to remove its basis in the complementarity of the sexes would separate it further from the needs of children.
What's more, redefining marriage would remove the logical basis for the other norms — such as monogamy. If marriage isn't about drawing the two halves of humanity together with the capacity for reproducing the human race, if it is merely about intense emotional commitment, why should it be limited to just two people?
Redefining marriage also would send the signal that fathers or mothers are optional. Yet we know that fathers are crucially important. In a May 20 commencement address at all-male Morehouse College, President Obama spoke of the importance of fathers and movingly described the absence of his father:
"I was raised by a heroic single mom, wonderful grandparents — made incredible sacrifices for me. . . But I sure wish I had had a father who was not only present, but involved. Didn't know my dad. And so my whole life, I've tried to be for Michelle and my girls what my father was not for my mother and me."
By all accounts the president has been a wonderful father to his daughters, and not least through his commitment to their mother in marriage. Watching his daughters flourish in the security of that commitment, knowing the pain of his own father's absence, it is hard to explain why the president "evolved" last year to support same-sex marriage.
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By promoting redefinition of marriage, he promotes fatherless marriage — not just as an unintended circumstance, but as a matter of policy. Children need a mother and a father, and marriage policy should reflect that reality.
Interestingly, in the video that has made him infamous, even Orlando Shaw recognized the unique importance of a mother and a father to a child. That much he got right.
Americans' track record in marriage in recent decades leaves much to be desired. But this is no time to compound those mistakes by changing policy to deny the fundamental reality of what marriage is.
Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.