This is a follow-up to this post, in which I articulated the important benefits, to the father-child bond in particular, of civil marriage.
Here I want to pick up on the subject, on the basis of a recent exchange in a different venue (specifically, Facebook, so the exchange isn't readily available), and discuss what I see as a rather serious danger to Christians' and other traditionalists' clarity of thought. This is a danger that arises from the move to ditch civil marriage and rely instead on common-law marriage and on private religious ceremonies. Not only would Christians, if they did this, unnecessarily relinquish important legal presumptions concerning fatherhood and parental rights and custody for any children. Not only would they unnecessarily lose other benefits (such as, for example, the marriage exclusion from the federal estate tax). And not only would they downgrade their own marriages in the eyes both of the civil authorities and of the world generally. It now appears to me that they could also become confused about the very nature of marriage itself and could begin not only to downgrade real marriage to the level of a live-in relationship (aka "shacking up") but simultaneously to think of live-in arrangements without true commitment as actually being marriages. This is a very serious matter indeed.
If you can stomach it, take a look at some of the pathetic comments by various women in this thread. The Crescat, a feisty Catholic blogger with whom I don't always agree but whom I almost always enjoy reading, gives this sensible advice in the main post: "If a man says he doesn't want to marry you, believe him." It's pretty obvious. So is, "And take appropriate evasive action." But apparently a lot, and I mean a lot, of women are willing to live with men and, worse, even have children with them, when the men refuse to get married. This is about as dumb as it gets as well as being terribly unfair to the children conceived. Evidently the women hope that the boyfriend will marry them "when he's ready," which could be, y'know, years and years and years, and will probably be never.
It used to be that we just called these arrangements "living together." Or even "shacking up." Or "living with your boyfriend." Etc.
However, I have heard recently of a Christian in a Western-style country, not the United States, who counseled a woman in such a relationship that, unbeknownst to her, she really was married in the eyes of God after all. At this point, I will add the following corollary to the above advice: "If a man says he isn't married to you, believe him." But that is apparently not so obvious to everyone. The argument that they were really married, even though the boyfriend said they weren't and the unhappy woman (and mother of several children by the boyfriend) had previously believed they weren't, went approximately like this:
There is not a necessary connection between civil marriage and true marriage. It is possible to be truly married in the eyes of God even if one isn't civilly married. Some Christians are even considering not getting civilly married as a kind of protest to homosexual 'marriage'. Common law recognizes relationships as marriages if they have remained stable for a particular period of time. The man was de facto committed to the woman because he had stayed with her and their children for a lengthy period of time. Therefore, even though he refused to make a formal, public commitment to her either in a religious or a civil ceremony, they really were married in the eyes of God.
I believe this is very misguided reasoning.
There are, indeed, situations in which couples may be truly married though not civilly married. Desert islands come to mind. Or, more plausibly, in a Muslim country a convert to Christianity might not be allowed to be civilly married to a Christian, on the grounds that the convert was regarded as a Muslim for life under the laws of the country. In such a totalitarian situation, it could be possible for the convert and another Christian to undergo a religious ceremony and take one another "for better for worse, till death do us part" before God and before witnesses and be truly married even though the law would not acknowledge their marriage, because the law is perverse and will not permit their marriage. (I add: They should try really, really hard to get out of that country for the sake of their future children. But that's a prudential point.)
But where civil marriage is easily obtainable and a man simply says that he doesn't want to marry a woman, that's a different matter altogether. In this particular case, the claim was that the man considered marriage to have "religious connotations" (even though of course in the country in question it could have been done in a secular milieu) and was refusing marriage on those grounds. Without hesitation I will say that such an objection on the part of the man does not mean that marriage is impossible for the couple in the way that it is for the convert from Islam. This is just a man who has objections to marriage because of an anti-religious prejudice and a vague feeling that marriage is somehow religious. Very well, then, what can that possibly mean except that he isn't married? After all, he should know!
What does the position I am advocating mean about common-law marriage? It means that, just as civil marriage can come apart from true marriage (that is, just as someone can be civilly married but not truly married), so common-law marriage can come apart from true marriage. I am not saying that there should be no category of common-law marriage. There seem to be sensible, practical reasons for such a category to be recognized to some extent in law, though it also makes sense that there are restrictions on it (it isn't enough just to live together for a certain period of time), and it also makes sense that it has disadvantages, such as possible difficulties proving the common-law marriage when it really counts, such as when getting estate tax advantages. (By the way, the couple in the above case as described would not meet the requirements for American common-law marriage, precisely because the "husband" did not regard himself as married!)
In any event, if there is no good reason for a couple not to get civilly married and they simply choose not to (or one member of the couple refuses), this should be a fairly strong prima facie reason for considering them not to be married.
Let's consider this notion of a supposed de facto commitment. Is it really true that a man who stays with a woman for, say, ten years, has children with her, and (let's assume to be very charitable) is sexually faithful to her during that time, is committed to her in the same way and in the same sense as a man who stood up in the presence of witnesses and said, "I do"? Let's ask it a bit differently: Should we assume that he has made a true commitment to the woman? Can we simply "take it" to be true? Is such a so-called "de facto commitment" the same thing as a stated and definite commitment? I say that it is not. The whole point of marriage vows is that you are committing yourself at a particular time to a particular person and making certain promises to that person. (This, by the way, is why prenuptial agreements are frowned on by the Catholic Church. And rightly so.) Commitment isn't a mere matter of hanging around for x period of time and then saying, "Oh, gee, it looks like I sort of am committed to you after all because I've hung around this long and done all of this for you and with you." This would be what we might call the "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" view of marriage. In contrast, a real marriage happens objectively at a time. It isn't something that just grows on you subjectively by means of a lengthy set of choices you happen to choose to make, one day at a time.
If the idea that Christians should engage in some kind of protest or boycott of civil marriage is going to lead to muddle-headed ideas, to telling women (like all those in that pathetic comments thread) whose boyfriends won't marry them, "Don't worry. You're actually married in the eyes of God even though he says he won't marry you," then this idea of a boycott is doing a great deal of harm to the clarity of Christian thought on this matter. I suppose one can argue that it needn't cause that particular confusion. One could imagine a "boycotter" saying that this is an insult to his own marriage, because he and his wife stood up before witnesses and made lifelong vows, even though they did not obtain a civil marriage license, whereas obviously the hold-out boyfriend just got the perks of living with his girlfriend while making no such vows. But apparently such confusion is happening in some circles.
I see two understandable routes by which confusion could be happening. First, it's my opinion that those who live in a country where it would be very easy for them to be civilly married but who don't get civilly married because they want to "protest" something don't, in fact, have good enough reason for what they are doing. Therefore their refusal to be civilly married is a very bad idea. (See also my earlier arguments concerning paternal rights.) Whether their misguidedness on this point undermines the metaphysical status of their own marriage is not something I'm prepared to pronounce on, other than to say both that it needn't do so by logical necessity and also that it is a troubling possibility. One thing one can imagine happening, though, is that the acceptance of one set of insufficient reasons for avoiding civil marriage could make one overly sympathetic to a different and even more trivial reason. One might therefore be inclined to see a mere live-in boyfriend and girlfriend as being "like us."
Second, the fact that the "boycott" idea involves substituting a specifically religious ceremony (with no civil connection) for a civilly recognized ceremony could make such people sympathetic to the idea that marriage is inherently religious, which could in turn make them overly sympathetic to the special pleading of the marriage-avoiding boyfriend. "Since I believe that one gets truly married, even without civil marriage, by an explicitly religious ceremony, and since an explicitly religious ceremony is something he's going to object to, maybe it's understandable that he connects marriage so tightly with religion and feels that he has no way to get married since he is not religious. So maybe he's just doing the best he can while being honest." This is, of course, extremely muddled thinking. In particular, it takes us in the direction of saying that non-Christian marriage is always "anything goes." In other words, that the only options are Christian marriage or something intrinsically much more subjective. That has never been the traditional understanding. Non-Christians and Christians both can be married with full, unequivocal commitment, and we should not lower our standards just because someone is not a Christian.
As a general rule, I think Christians need to realize that for us voluntarily and unnecessarily to separate ourselves from the civil institution of marriage is not for us to make some sort of statement or testimony to a higher order. On the contrary: It is for us to downgrade marriage itself in the social order as a whole. It will subjectivize the very meaning of marriage, certainly in the culture at large and very possibly in our own minds as well. This can do no one any good, and it may do a great many people a great deal of harm. Certainly it will do harm to concrete people, including children, insofar as it leads to weaker parental rights. If, as now seems not unlikely, it encourages more women to live with men who have no intention of marrying them in any sense whatsoever and to bear children to these men, it will do untold harm.
So let's put the breaks on a faulty and misguided pietism. Let's not retreat from the institution of marriage and the family.
P.S. There is another argument I can see people making against my position which is what I would call the "dog in the manger" argument. On this view, because no-fault divorce is already the case in America, marriage is already badly downgraded, so there is no point in holding on to anything or doing anything or caring. Or something like that. I have confronted this "argument" in a lengthy thread in the past, to the point that I groan with weariness at the thought that it will come up again here. So, here is my brief response, and at that point let's please not waste further bandwidth on this: You don't turn deliberately to destruction of what remains because other people have destroyed. That is madness. Civil marriage as it currently stands does (yes, whether the bitter people want to admit it or not) confer benefits and have value. It makes no sense whatsoever to tear down what remains of that value simply because we do not know how to get society back, right now, immediately, to the yet higher legal standing that marriage used to have. Moreover, just because civil marriage is not a sufficient condition for real marriage (for example, someone can get civilly married while making his apparent vows in bad faith, mentally trashing the whole thing and intending to get divorced whenever he feels like it) it does not follow that it shouldn't be, under normal present circumstances in countries where it is easily possible, a necessary condition. So please do not waste my time by going on about all the people who get civilly married and don't mean it. That doesn't address nor undermine my argument.