Linda & Richard Eyre: Defining marriage by what it does

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 8 2014 10:00 a.m. MST

Who would have thought after all the effort by so many Utah residents to protect marriage as a union between one man and one woman in other states, Utah would become the 18th state to allow gay marriage?

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Who would have thought after all the effort by so many Utah citizens to protect marriage as a union between one man and one woman in other states, Utah would become the 18th state to allow gay marriage and then have that put on hold with a stay order from the Supreme Court and find itself as the key battleground in the ongoing fight? Oh, the irony.

If someone is to be an intelligent and effective participant in the debate, he or she needs to get as far away as possible from name-calling, intolerance and hate-mongering. Individuals need to have a clear and defensible position on the purpose of marriage in individual lives and in broader society as well.

Because “marriage” and “family” have become such political words, they have been defined and re-defined in a great many different and divisive ways. Many people adopt definitions that suit their personal situations or circumstances or that seem to align with their political preferences.

In a religious paradigm, society doesn't do the defining — God does. And if a person follows his or her religion, he or she accepts God’s definition.

But politically, the best way to define marriage and family is by what they do, by what purpose they play in society, by what they can accomplish, and by the things they can do better and more efficiently and more cost-effectively than any other institution.

Said another way, the most useful political definition of the institution of marriage and family is in terms of its essential and indispensable functions within society. We believe there are six of these:

1. The role of procreation and reproduction, replenishing the population.

2. The role of precedent and example for the next generation. Boys need a role model for being a dad, and girls need a role model for being a mom.

3. The role of nurturing, facilitating the emotional growth of children and helping children develop into responsible adults.

4. The role of providing a lasting identity, something permanent in our lives as everything else changes — jobs, locations, etc.

5. The role of instilling values. Other institutions may help, but the buck stops with the family, wherein values are applied as well as taught.

6. The role of offering joy and fulfillment to individuals at a level beyond what is obtainable elsewhere. Children should receive unconditional love within families, and parents are refined and completed as people through the selfless love they give to their children.

No marriage or family performs these roles perfectly, but two things are absolutely clear. First, society cannot survive, let alone prosper over the long term, without these six functions. Second, no entity or institution other than family can perform them adequately.

From the child’s standpoint, these six roles can also be thought of as the core purposes of family and as the measurements of a family’s success. Parents who work deliberately at these six things derive a satisfaction that is available nowhere else, and they make an incomparable contribution to society.

Of course, advocates of same-sex marriage will argue that same-sex unions can accomplish the last four. Traditional marriage advocates will argue that the first two enhance and magnify the last four.

Perhaps before one takes sides in this emotional and political battle, he or she should think about the six purposes that traditional couples and husband-wife marriages have performed in society for eons and ask themselves the question of whether any other institution or any re-configured or re-defined type of marriage or family could accomplish them as well for as long.

The consequences of not carefully and correctly considering the impact of our actions with regard to these six purposes could lead to grave results, not just for families but also for society.

Richard and Linda Eyre are New York Times best-selling authors who lecture throughout the world on family-related topics. Visit them anytime at EyresFreeBooks.com or valuesparenting.com.

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