A review of Conjugal America. By Allan Carlson.

Transaction Publishers, 2007.

A number of important books have appeared recently defending the institution of marriage. This new volume by family expert Allan Carlson adds to the collection, emphasising, as the subtitle indicates, the public purposes of marriage.

Carlson argues that a number of social, legal and political changes over the past half century have left the institution of marriage reeling from a number of body blows. These include the severing of the connection between marriage and procreation; the introduction of no-fault divorce laws; and the devaluation of the very idea of marriage.

Consider the first radical upheaval. For millennia, as Carlson demonstrates, the idea of marriage was always associated with the idea of procreation. Indeed, that has always been the fundamental purpose of marriage: to produce and protect children. While other purposes of marriage have existed, the overwhelming rationale for marriage has always been about procreation and raising the next generation.

Of course we moderns have managed to separate that vital connection, and have reduced marriage to a merely personal affair, with no social, communal or intergenerational concerns. Carlson examines the historical data on this fundamental feature of marriage, and argues that Western civilisation is in large measure formed by this constraint on sexual energy, and the channelling of human sexuality into the confines of marriage and family.

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Conjugal America: On the Public Purposes of Marriage by Carlson, Allan C. (Author) Amazon logo

The institution of marriage, says Carlson, is the “foundation of social order and community renewal, universal to human experience”. It is the “responsible source of new life; it channels the powerful sexual impulse toward the creation and effective rearing of children”.

So important was this cultural and social institution, that it was only recently that the concept of illegitimacy has come to no longer be a matter of concern. Childbearing for millennia was seen as the normal expression of marriage, and illegitimacy was rightly seen as scandalous and shameful.

But now the disconnect between marriage and procreation is all but complete, and thus the very rationale for marriage seems to be eroded as well. But children still matter, argues Carlson, and marriage is still the best way to ensure the well-being of children. The two-parent family, cemented by marriage, is the best thing we can offer our children.

Not only do children suffer when human sexuality is freed of all boundaries, and marriage is transformed into a purely private transaction, but so too do communities. Carlson examines how societies which have rejected marriage big time, such as Sweden, have created a huge range of social problems.

And of course the issue of same-sex marriage enters the discussion here. If marriage is not seen as a social good and a valuable community institution, then perhaps we should open it up to any and all takers. But Carlson notes that homosexual couples by definition fail to meet the two main criteria of marriage: one man and one woman, and the openness to procreation.

Indeed, if marriage is a mere private matter, then why stop with same-sex marriage? What about polyamorous groups? And what if a bisexual wants the right to marry both a husband and a wife? What is to stop these combinations, if we reject the very nature of marriage? Included in this short volume is a debate between Carlson and a defender of homosexual marriage. Interestingly he sees no real problems with these other permutations.

Carlson looks at other issues here: the economic nature of the marriage unit, and the various attempts to stamp out marriage and family in history. He also shows how a decline in marriage leads to a decline in fertility. The Western world is in the midst of a birth dearth, and the move away from marriage is an important factor in this drop in fertility.

He finishes with some proposals for a national marriage policy. Ideas include: the reintroduction of “fault” into divorce law; pro-marriage tax policies; and the full legal recognition of marriage as solely that of a man and a woman.

Carlson is not unaware of the uphill nature of achieving these proposals, as well as the broader job of reinvigorating the institution of marriage. But he recognises the tremendous value and worth of marriage throughout human history, and the need to champion it against its many enemies. As such this is an important contribution towards the battle to protect marriage.

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10 Replies to “A review of Conjugal America. By Allan Carlson.”

  1. We also need a restoration of the stigma of illegitimacy and cohabitation of unmarried couples.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  2. I am guessing that the ordinary man or woman in the street believes that marriage and family life are a good thing, but they see the return to family values as a pipe dream, or a false dream, confused with those black and white TV broadcasts of the 1950s that show the wife, after having experienced a certain amount of emancipation during the war, now confined again to the kitchen, attending to her husband’s and children’s needs. My own mother, born 1915, raised four children and though “confined to the kitchen” was not constrained from earning an additional income for the family from dress-making. She also gave us a love of reading and music with her own piano playing.

    Proverbs 31 says, “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life. She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands. She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar. She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions for her servant girls. She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers. She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy. When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet. She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple. Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land. She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes. She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue. She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: ‘Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.’ Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.”

    Is this a picture of a unfulfilled and un-emancipated woman, deserving of nothing more than our pity? The Judeo Christian family is a fruit of the Vine. To try to return to such family values without being attached to the Vine is laughable. As western European governments try to cope with increasing disorder within society, never once do they mention that the root cause our problems is a spiritual one. Never once is mentioned the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. God has been airbrushed out of society.

    Psalm 127:1: Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labour in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.

    David Skinner, UK

  3. Thank you Bill for a timely posting, and well said David. In addition to the issues you mention in reviewing Carlson’s book, we also need to mention the significant role that scientific (more like horrific) research has played in this devaluation of the family. In fact, not only has the concept of illigitimacy vanished, but the very act of procreation has been removed from the marriage relationship and indeed, even the the man/woman relationship. Sperm and ova donation, test tube fertilisation and surrogacy have severed the connection between marriage and procreation. Now even gay couples can have families. Thus we are witnessing a reinvention of the concept of families by what are essentially radical groups, such as the left-wing secularists, gays and “new age” groups, who tout themselves as the voice of modern reason and who manage to get enough media attention such that their voice in out of propotion to their size.

    Bill, you have previously referred to the mountain of data showing that children are best raised in a stable family with a mother and a father. But the radical groups who argue about equality and rights have shifted the focus. As Carlson says, the fundamental purpose of marriage has always been “to produce and protect children”. But the radical groups who seek the dilution of marriage never mention or even acknowledge the data. In fact, to ensure that the data is never brought up in the debate, they do not mention the rights of the child, but instead focus on an expanded concept of “parental rights”.

    In our defence of society’s most important institution, an institution that itself guarantees order within society, we must not let the opponents skew the debate.

    Frank Norros

  4. David Skinner is right that the only real and lasting hope for a restoration of the family is for some kind of Christian revival, but even in the absence of this there are still some measures governments can implement that will help the situation instead of making it worse as they appear bent on doing at present what with the undermining of marriage etc.
    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  5. Our society is finding out that there are true consequences to not having both parents raising their children together under one roof.

    Marriage IS a sacred institution.

    Why mess with God’s creation? What God joined together, let not man separate.

    Judith Bond

  6. Thank you to David for the lovely translation of Proverbs. It is interesting to note that it presents a picture of an industrious and conscientious woman who governs a household whilst also engaging in a range of social and business/craft/farming activities that involve her in the community. Its a challenging picture for women trying to do similar juggling acts in present society. It should also remind some that many women have talents and skills together with a desire to use them productively without sacrificing the needs of their children. In the Proverbs picture we also note that she had lots of help.It should also challenge us as a society to recognise that families, as Carlson has consistently maintained, are naturally economic units. Families ought naturally to be engaged as a unit in productive activities. Current social and economic conditions have eroded away this economic foundation and that, Carlson believes, is one of the chief reasons why we find the institution of the family is in a bad way. Good public policy and laws can help to bolster the family but ultimately, we may also need to work out how to regain the economic aspect of the institution.

    As for illegitimacy. Modern social abhorrence for this status began with a rightful dismay at the injustice and stigma that was heaped on the children. Illegitimacy had become a heavy burden for children rather than the parents. Surely, the stigma should have instead rested on the irresponsible parents. Often men, well respected in the community and exploiting positions of power, fathered children and bore little serious consequences. So if we want to restore concepts like illegitmacy, we really ought to just focus on the value of marriage and the possible lacks in families founded on unstable defacto marriages or worse – when kids are carted around from one household to the next as the constantly evolving relationship permutations around their mother unfold. Let people know that they are shortchanging their kids if they don’t give marraige their best shot.

    Angela Conway

  7. Certainly the stigma of illegitimacy should be aimed at the irresponsible parents not at the children of those unions. I don’t think that economic conditions are a major factor in the undermining of marriage. It is primarily a worldview issue – a Christian marriage should survive all hardships including economic ones.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  8. Angela, I have not read Allan Carlson’s book and I don’t fully understand your assertion that economic factors play a part in binding families together. Does this have something to do with arranged marriages – whatever form that might take – whereby romantic considerations, between a couple, though not to be minimised – were not the most important? Certainly western marriages based solely on romance do not have the monopoly on stability compared with many, eastern arranged marriages. The marriage of Ruth and Boaz, though a beautiful story does have unmistakably strong, prosaic, economic factors. Such marriages also take a great deal of pressure off the unrealistic expectations that many entering marriage today have of the other partner satisfying all their innermost longings.
    David Skinner, UK

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