On Breaking the Marriage Covenant

For millennia, the institution of marriage was viewed as a solemn covenant, involving strong obligations and commitment. Recently however many Westerners have come to view marriage as just a mere personal arrangement, which can be treated lightly and dissolved at will.

As John Witte has remarked, historically, “marriages were presumptively permanent commitments, and marriage formation and dissolution were serious public events.” But the covenantal nature of marriage began to be replaced with the idea that marriage is simply another type of relationship, with no social or community bearing.

This reflects the push toward rugged individualism that so characterises the West. As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead put it, we have begun to “change their ideas about the individual’s obligations to family and society. Broadly described, this change was away from an ethic of obligation to others and toward an obligation to self.”

With this weakened view of marriage come some obvious consequences: divorce rates are rising, unfaithfulness is becoming more common, and trust is taking a hammering. Thus the importance of marriage, and its covenantal nature, need to be reaffirmed.

And this reaffirmation needs to come in two forms. The ideal of the institution of marriage must be publicly championed, and individual marriage partners need to redouble their efforts to ensure that their marriage does not become another breakdown or divorce statistic. Thus on both a public and personal level, we need to stand up for marriage and show forth its significance and value.

I pen this article because of a statement I read in the press yesterday. It may be just one isolated incident, but it is all too typical of where we have come as a culture. It involves the admission by Democratic North Carolina senator John Edwards that he had an affair.

The affair with blonde filmmaker Rielle Hunter was admitted to on Friday on national television. This followed months of lies and denials. Although confessing the affair, he denied claims by Hunter that he was the father of her baby girl.

Edwards, a father of three, had the affair while his wife was battling cancer. The political consequences are wide ranging, with the Democratic Party in damage control, and the adultery costing him the chance of being a possible running mate with Barack Hussein Obama.

But what especially caught my eye in this ugly episode is a remark made by a high-ranking Democrat who sought to defend Edwards. Howard Wolfson, a former senior official for the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, made this extraordinary remark: “We have unrealistic expectations for people. John Edwards, like the rest of us, is only human. The truth is a lot of ordinary, average Americans have affairs.”

There are a number of significant problems with such a foolish remark. The phrase “we are only human” is perhaps one of the silliest expressions around. Of course we are only human. What else would you expect humans to be?

But the phrase is usually used to cover a multitude of sins. We are indeed human, but that means we are not mere animals. Unlike animals, we have certain human traits which enable us to rise above the level of animals. We have such things as free will and a moral sense. We have the capacity for self-control, faithfulness, commitment and honesty.

Sure, we all can and do fail, but what distinguishes us from the animal kingdom is the ability to rise above our circumstances and make morally significant choices. Even in the face of great adversity and temptation, we can still choose to do what is right. We are not simply a victim of our environment, but can be the master of it.

And what is so unrealistic about expecting people to keep their marriage vows? Just what “unrealistic expectations” do we have of politicians like Edwards? We certainly do expect politicians to keep their word, and to be faithful to their pledges given to the electorate. We do not elect known cheats into office, but those we believe to be honest and reliable.

But if a man cannot be faithful to his own marriage vows, then we should have every reason to be suspicious of any political vows he might make. If a man can cheat on his own wife, then there is every possibility he will cheat on those he is called to serve.

Character is of a piece, in other words, and those who are unfaithful in one area will likely be unfaithful in other areas. Character counts and integrity is important. This is not a case of “being human” but of a leading political figure betraying the trust of his own wife and family, and betraying the trust of the American people.

And the idea that a “lot of ordinary, average Americans have affairs” is equally unhelpful and disingenuous. First, while a lot of people may have affairs, an awful lot of people do not. Indeed, one suspects that the majority of people are faithful to their partners and their wedding vows.

Second, so what if a lot of people have affairs? Since when is morality determined by mere numbers? A lot of people rape women. A lot of people sexually abuse children. A lot of people cheat on their taxes. A lot of people violently assault others. Does the fact that a lot of people do these things somehow make these things right?

This is simply a defence of the indefensible. We expect better of public figures. And we should expect better of one another. While none of us is perfect, in a civilised society we should all aim for that which is right, and not make excuses for that which is wrong.

Keeping one’s word, staying true to one’s marriage partner, and keeping solemn covenant obligations are all very important moral and social goods. We should all uphold such goods both as an ideal, and as practical realities which we strive to live out in our personal lives.

We certainly should not seek to make excuses for unacceptable behaviour, and try to whitewash what are some very serious vices. The more we justify vice and minimise virtue, the less civilised and human we become. The marriage vow is one of the most basic and important of all personal and social goods. It needs to be strenuously defended and promoted, not trampled underfoot.

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17 Replies to “On Breaking the Marriage Covenant”

  1. Not only did he commit adultery, but he did it while his wife had CANCER. Surely even in the eyes of the world it’s a doubly despicable thing to do when your spouse has cancer…

    What a guy…

    Bec New

  2. An Affair to Remember
    by Chuck Norris

    I believe in personal redemption. I myself have experienced it, as I wrote about in the chapter “A sin that became a blessing” in my autobiography, “Against All Odds,” in which I discuss an adulterous one-night stand in the early ’60s that resulted in my wonderful daughter Dina. That is why I hope, as he says, John Edwards truly has asked God and his wife for forgiveness, and I pray for their restoration and the long road that results from it.

    But then again, John Edwards continues to minimize his culpability by playing linguistic and moral dodge ball. He lied to his closest colleagues and the public for nearly two years about the affair. And even in his confession last week, he doesn’t call it a “lie,” a “sin,” an “affair” or “adultery.” Rather, he repeatedly calls it merely a “mistake” or a “serious error in judgment.” Is that all it is?

    I believe leadership should be above reproach. I believe those who govern should lead also in civility and decency and that their character should be congruent with their call to office. Like parents to children, a nation’s politicians’ integrity and character should supersede its citizens. But as long as we the people tolerate leadership immorality and elect corrupt politicians, we cannot expect the heart and character of our nation to improve.

    “Good morals precede good laws, which is why government isn’t much help. Unless the people and their legislators are grounded in morality, the best of laws will be broken and the worst of laws will be made, legalizing immorality. We can’t look to government to improve decency, civility, and morality. For that we need to look to another source.

    “John Adams put it well when he said: ‘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.’ …

    “Our Founders had a better answer than government or even education. God is the answer. God is the moral compass of America. Or He should be, if we ever want to restore morality in our homes and civility to our land. Our Founders believed morals flowed from one’s accountability to God, and that, without God, immoral anarchy would result.”

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  3. Until the Word of God is in our hearts, where we will act on it, our flesh will always find ways to excuse sin.
    God expects unconditional love.
    Judith Bond

  4. As Tim Blair reports here:

    Edwards admits to having an affair with Hunter but says it began and ended while the cancer afflicting his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, was in remission.” Decent of him.

    Ewan McDonald.

  5. Just yesterday I heard three of my work colleagues sharing how they were in ‘trying before buying’ relationships. As I looked around they were in the majority in my office.
    Stephen White

  6. Thank you Jonathan for this superb quote from John Adams. It fits in with the fact that our laws reflect a society where trust has completely broken down, where a handshake has been replaced by a mountain of legislation and an army of lawyers.

    With regard to the statement “After all we are only human,” the thought that humans are only advanced apes or even just dust and vapour, renders us free of all responsibility regarding the way we conduct our lives. This is very comforting indeed, but even more is the Evolutionary Humanist idea that man is forever evolving into something else:a new thing is stirring. Suddenly Man becomes the measure of all things, the only object worthy of true worship. Twentyfirst century, post-modern, technological man, in almost mystical terms, will talk about human progress – to that of becoming a god. Man becomes that than which no greater can be thought. His kingdom will come and his will…. will be done. He speaks glowingly of taking control of his own destiny and having the courage to take us into a future of infinite freedom, the likes of which we could not even dream. He will even omnipotently re-order the very laws that underlie all of creation so as to reflect his own image.

    However when he wants to do something shabby, like cheat on his wife, he will suddenly revert to the comfort of just being a pile of dust. As C.S. Lewis said at the end of chapter 4, in Mere Christianity…”All the thrill of religion and none of the cost”.

    David Skinner, UK

  7. I saw some statistics recently which indicated that the divorce rate in Australia was reducing, for the first time in many years. But not knowing exactly what was being measured and in what context (“lies, damn lies, and statistics”) I was a little sceptical, and was wondering whether this was due to many people choosing not to marry in the first place.
    Stephen Frost, Melbourne

  8. Marriage is sacred, and no good can come of one night stands regardless of whether an innocent child is concieved, for the vows are to be faithful always and forever. If a man can’t stay committed to his wife, then he is not fit enough for marriage and cannot possilbly and truly love her whole heartedly.
    Simply do not get married if you feel unsure of your sexual fantasies.
    The bible is above all clear with the joining of man and women and becoming one flesh – let no man come between them.
    Fivos Panayiotou

  9. Ever since the 60s, with Alfred Kinsey and Hugh Heffner of Playboy magazine, it is the heterosexual who has been responsible for blazing a trail of promiscuity. Nothing stops us however from criticizing heterosexual adultery and fornication, but for us to even think of trying it with the LGBTs, would result in a first stop visit to the police station. We cannot criticise the LGBTs with adultery and fornication is simply because the vast majority of them do not operate on universal morality but on the principle of the individual having the right to choose for him or herself what is right and wrong and what it true and what is false. The biggest crime is to appeal to a set of moral values as though they were an objective and absolute truth. What, apart from the residual, bourgeois liberal adherence to heterosexist ethical norms, makes permanence, faithfulness and stability things that homosexuals ought to value?

    Children for some years now, in Britain have been taught to construct their own moral codes.

    Since civil partnerships and gay adoption has been made legal, there is not exactly a stampede for either the registry office or the adoption agency
    http://www.lga.gov.uk/lga/core/page.do?pageId=194714 (Civil partnerships fall by 55%)


    Unlike race and gender, which are innocuous, neutral traits, sex is a powerful and often times unstable instinct, capable of radically impacting on us all for better or worse. None of us has clean hands with regard to this. When harnessed and contained within the God -given institution of marriage, it can be the cause for much blessing, in that it results in children, families, community and nation, but which, when allowed to roam wherever and in whatever form it wants, outside the safe bounds and constraints of monogamous, heterosexual and enduring marriage, becomes the cause of adultery, fornication, pornography, child prostitution, sado-masochism, bestiality, polygamy Aids, Sexually Transmitted Infections, unwanted pregnancies and the bloody carnage of abortions taking place in a hospital “near you.” These are the hall marks of a sexually addicted and decadent society-such as ours.

    It is bad enough, that over the last fifty years we have rejected, more and more, the safety barriers of heterosexual marriage, as defined by Christianity for the last two thousand years, but we now want to embrace sexual practices like homosexuality (and no doubt further down the road incest and paedophilia) that are noted for even less inhibition and a positive addiction to risk. People are going to be criminalized for teaching their children a rational fear and hate of sexual practices that will inevitably end for their children with sexually transmitted diseases, mental and personality disorders such as bi-polar depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, loss of family life and an early grave. History bears this out. Do we want this for our children who already show signs of anxiety. According to UNICEF, Britain comes bottom of a league table with regard to child well-being across 21 industrialised countries?

    Civitas, however, claims that for those heterosexuals who want to marry and raise a traditional family, the costs are prohibitative. Marriage is not out of fashion but out of reach: http://www.civitas.org.uk/blog/family_marriage_and_the_cultur/

    David Skinner, UK

  10. I refuse to use the term “affair” as it has a somewhat glamorous meaning nowadays. I much prefer to call it what it is … adultery. It is not unreasonable to expect higher standards from those in public office. The “only human” defense is unsupportable.

    Peter Coventry

  11. …‘trying before buying’ relationships.

    You don’t get too far with this attitude in a café

    Michael Watts

  12. Well written Bill!
    Keep up the good work. This article couldn’t have come too soon!
    Brian Chu

  13. Timely message. Seems the legalisation of samesex marriage in California is going to be used by lobbyists to speed up attempts for this to happen soon. The united front obtained (with backing of much prayer) at Marriage Forum August 2004 at Parliament House needs to be regained for the battles upon us: Marriage, Adoption, Abortion, Euthanasia, Education, etc. Moral issues were made a minor issue at last Election. The Voice crying out for truth (yes spoken and written in love) must rise in this nation to speak as did the prophets did throughout the ages. One is reminded of the price that is paid to be Voice to the Government of the day – in the entry to the British houses of Parliament, which is the chapel of St Stephen the first martyr you see many murals showing clergy etc speaking the the leaders of the day. You see the section that honours the four patron Saints of England Ireland Wales and Scotland. This is part of our heritage – to speak out for Truth.
    Why do I say that? John Anderson the former Deputy leader of Australia spoke in the Great Hall to Governent and church/ministry leaders and preached on who he thought were the most influential people that caused Australia’s foundations to be framed within the Judeo-Christian ethic;: William Wilberforce, Earl of Shaftesbury, and John Newton. The former WW never gave up being the conscience to Parliament on subject of abolition of slavery – we can be inspired again to be the voice crying out for truth.
    Stephen Lewin

  14. To add to Stephen Frost’s preceeding post, apparently the recent reduction in the divorce rate in Australia is purely as a result of economic decision. the word is that as the economic times reportedly become more difficult folks are less likely to separate because of the increased costs of finding separate accomodations etc. one might view this as a little bit mercenary but in a different reality it seems that any reason for staying together once the vows have been taken is better than a hundred reasons for splitting up? i mean, if it is possible for stressed couples to work through times of greater difficulty then doesn’t it seem plausable that they might be able to relate when the pressures ease? in my unqualified view it is that all issues can be solved if both parties have a willingness to be involved. However, having said that, marrage issues will also be greatly avoided if the participants actually believe and take for Gospel the vows they made to each other at the time of marrage. no more-no less. all things are possible in God’s love.
    Mark Tatnell

  15. Does our morality dictate our theology or our theology dictate our morality?
    Judith Bond

  16. Thanks Judith

    Yes quite right.
    And by the way, for what it is worth, your comment was the 8000th to appear on this site! Well done.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  17. This should be read in every church pulpit. Except don’t name John Edwards.

    Other than that, it was perfectly written!!

    Travis Walker

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