Freedom, Responsibility, and Marriage


Last night as my wife and I were getting dinner ready, our oldest daughter, a sophomore in high school, dropped the question: “So, what do you guys think of gay marriage?”

I tried to downplay the shock and delight I felt that she actually initiated such a substantive discussion with us,  and decided to see what she was thinking. I deployed the old technique of answering a question with a question, and I turned it back around on her.

“Well, what do you think about gay marriage?”

“I think…” she began, “that Catholics are partially right and partially wrong about it. They’re right because it’s immoral, and people aren’t supposed to do that. But I don’t think they should be able to make laws telling people that they can’t be with who they want to be with. It’s wrong but it’s their choice.”

Considering the fact that we’ve never discussed this issue, I thought that was a pretty decent answer. These are difficult concepts to fully grasp at any age, let alone in high school. My daughter attends a Catholic school with a pretty solid reputation for orthodoxy, so she’s in an interesting environment to explore these issues. As anyone who has ever been to Catholic school knows, even if the administration and faculty are good, the other students come from many different backgrounds, and not everyone is going to agree. In other words — a pretty good place to begin learning to think for yourself amidst differing opinions.

So we talked about the issues. We talked about how in the history of Christendom, there were Catholic confessional states that both espoused the divinely revealed religion and outlawed sinful behavior. That there were, and still are, many Catholics who believe that this is the ideal form of government. We talked about how this nation was not founded upon that sort of governing principle. That here, our government was founded on the idea of liberty as everyone’s fundamental right, and how because of this, our system of laws don’t allow us to be as restrictive in legislating morality as, say, a Catholic monarch of France.

We talked about the concept of liberty itself, and how it flows out of free will. God is, in a sense, the ultimate libertarian. Although He gives us very clear rules to live by, and makes the consequences for breaking them known, He also loves us so much, respects the free will He has given us to such a radical degree, that He allows us to make our own choices. He wants us to choose Him, but He gives us the freedom to choose Hell instead.

That’s pretty astonishing when you think about it.

This is why I have come to believe so strongly that freedom, not government, is the only path toward this nation’s restoration. Let people have liberty, and demand that they be responsible with it. Liberty does not absolve us of the consequences of our actions, it makes us accountable for them. If we choose poorly, we have to live with the outcome of those decisions. If we hurt others, we will have to contend with the law. But the panoply of options at our disposal, from whether or not to wear a seatbelt to what substances we can ingest to the size of our sodas to the decision of whether to homeschool should belong to us, not the government.

This is not the current prevailing view in America. The more the government takes away our right to choose for ourselves, the less likely it is that we will think for ourselves. Failing to exercise of our free will will cause it to atrophy, along with the intellect that informs it.

Am I advocating getting government out of the marriage business? I’m still undecided. I recognize that there is a certain danger in the non-governmental approach. My marriage confers with it certain rights and responsibilities, and under the laws of the United States,  certain benefits. From tax breaks and child credits to custody, visitation, and survivorship rights, being married affords me social incentives and assistance that I would not otherwise receive. And despite my libertarian inclinations, I think this is a good thing. The State does have a compelling interest in ensuring the growth of its future citizenry. In most of the Western world (and no small portion of the East) fertility is at below replacement levels. Providing tax and legal incentives for marriage is, for the time being, a positive example of government intervention. Give men and women a reason to have children and take care of them together as husband and wife, and you’re more likely to have stable families. Common sense applies.

And yet, my marriage is not made real because I was issued a piece of paper by the courthouse, but because I made solemn vows to my wife before God. Our union is inherently, naturally capable of producing and nurturing children: those tiny, cute, sometimes stinky and often whiny building blocks of society.  If the government were to be prohibited from defining marriage at all, it might keep them from turning it into little more than a societal contract between two consenting adults of whatever gender who want to provide sexual pleasure to each other in a formalized context. If the government continues to define marriage in spite of us, pretty soon they’ll force the new definition on us. Elsewhere in the world, this is already happening.

So while I see the appeal of traditional, natural marriage protected and promoted by civil law, I remain concerned that the government is overreaching. It never stops at the inch when it can take the mile. I worry that the negative impact of allowing our government to have a say in marriage may soon outweigh the positive. When it comes down to it, I’ll take liberty for those I disagree with over government control and redefinition of what I believe in any day.

Which brings me back to the conversation with my daughter. I told her that it was very likely that she was going to hear people say, “Why can’t Catholics just leave people alone? Why do you impose your beliefs on others all the time? Can’t you be compassionate toward people who aren’t like you?”

This is, I told her, a misunderstanding of compassion. Compassion is the fruit of love, and love wills the good of the other even when they can’t see it. As a parent, just because my children want to eat candy for breakfast lunch and dinner does not mean I should let them do it. Even though they believe it would make them happy, in reality it would make them sick. What if they said to me, “Why can’t you just accept us, daddy? Don’t you love us? You’re happy eating meat and vegetables, and that’s fine for you. So let us eat the way we want and stay out of our business.”

Would any loving parent give in to that? No! That’s not love, it’s neglect, possibly even abuse. Love doesn’t mean just accepting when another does wrong and looking the other way. That’s indifference. Applied to adults, love is caring enough about another to tell them when they are in danger, whether that’s physical danger or the danger that is posed to their immortal soul.

In the end, forcing the government to release its grip on marriage may be our only hope. But giving people the freedom to do what they want is not the same thing as embracing it. We should respect the radical free will that God has given to us, but at the same time, we should recognize that God loves souls, and He wants us — all of us — to choose Him.  That means that no matter what happens, it falls back upon believers to speak to the world and tell them that love sometimes means saying “No, it’s not okay and I’m not going to lie to you and say that it is. You may be free to do it, but what you’re doing is wrong.”

Penn Jillette, an outspoken atheist and critic of the Church, has an interesting take on evangelism that we should all consider:

I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell, and that people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that well it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward, and atheists who think that people shouldn’t proselytize, ‘just leave me alone, keep your religion to yourself,’ how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible, and not tell them that? I mean if I believed beyond the shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming at you and you didn’t believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.

True liberty is a little bit terrifying. Getting the government out of our lives is like riding a bike for the first time without training wheels. It means standing over an abyss with only your reason and your conscience to guide you, knowing that you might just fall. The state loves to place restrictions on us, and for some of us I think that replaces the notion that we need to speak the truth. “Well, it’s against the law, so now I don’t have to deal with it.” But that never works. You can’t pass a law that makes people good. Congress will never introduce a bill that turns hedonists into Christians. The President can pardon a criminal, but he can’t absolve sins. The Supreme Court can determine the constitutionality of laws, but it can’t overturn concupiscence.

This is a fight. A fight for souls that is rapidly intensifying. I am not opposed to good laws, but I think we should be wary how much we attempt to legislate belief and behavior, lest those precedents, once established, be turned on us.

Liberty is a noble thing, but only if we can be worthy of the responsibility that goes with it. In the words of President John Adams:

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net…

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.


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