What can a tree frog teach us about marriage? Ideological environmentalism would seem like an unlikely place to look for inspiration for social conservatives. It is an understatement to say that groups like the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund do not share our reverence for the sacredness of human life, but instead view humanity as the enemy. The difference between conservation and environmentalism is that as conservatives we deeply cherish the beauty of unspoiled nature but not at the expense of human dignity and flourishing. Nevertheless, the success of the environmental movement can teach us something as we strive to defend the institutions of marriage and the family.
As a child of the 80’s, your humble columnist remembers well that one of the most pressing issues of my youth was saving the rainforests. In school, we got our Weekly Reader with stories of endangered tree sloths that could potentially hold the cure for cancer and of course the endlessly repeated myth that the rainforests are the “lungs of the earth.” That last has the inconvenient drawback of not being true. The clear-cutting of virgin rainforest continues and the world has not ended, but at the same time, something has been lost which will take longer than any human lifetime to recover—if ever. This should give us pause without needing to resort to hyperbole and hysteria.
The institution of marriage is also a delicate ecosystem. Like the giant trees of the rainforest, it has stood solidly and immovably for thousands of years but is now under an unprecedented attack. With every change to our laws that weakens this institution, we lose something which will be difficult if not impossible to regain. As conservatives, we are stewards of the natural environment and of received institutions. They were here before us and they will be here after us. The more complicated something is, the more hesitant we should be about changing it and especially about improving upon it.
The locals of course do not share this hesitation. For them, our enlightened obsession with rare frogs and birds must seem disingenuous when we have already deforested so much of Europe and North America and either domesticated or caused the extinction of the once-diverse flora and fauna of our own native lands. The poor farmers in these ecologically rich places ask only to be able to work the earth and provide for themselves as we already have done. We cannot begrudge them this, but at the same time, it would callous and cruel to withhold the dearly purchased lessons of our own painful experience and chastened pride while indifferently repeating the tragedies of history. The fear of accusations of hypocrisy is no excuse for a retreat to condescending aloofness.
Much damage has already been done. With the relentless progress of sterility as the perceived “normal” condition, marriage has become barren and devoid of life and subjugated to raw and soulless industrial power. Instead of a participation with God in the miraculous perpetuation of mankind, marriage is now primarily seen as a mere economic partnership or legal contract, albeit clothed in airy and abstract language about love and romantic attraction. Like slash-and-burn clear-cutting, the feeble soil that remains behind is shockingly unable to nurture even the hardiest crops for very long before it becomes a dry and desolate wasteland. Were this the end of the story, it would be cause for nothing short of despair.
Unlike the paradoxical profusion of life in the otherwise inhospitable terrain of the tropical rainforest, we have the sturdy soil of faith and the soothing rains of God’s grace to nurture and renew the scorched and wounded landscape that is the late 20th century ecological disaster of the soul. Even then, marriage does not give life by itself. Without our care and effort, the next generation will not spontaneously arise out of the earth. As with all conservation, we must tend to the garden of life in harmony with God’s plan, or we invite our own destruction.