Don't treat marriage like wilderness preservation

  • Article by: DAN OLSON
  • Updated: September 2, 2012 - 10:37 AM

Those who'd redefine it think like those who'd despoil the wilderness.

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A New York Times editorial recently justified same-sex marriage using the following evidence: Today, one in two children live in a single-parent family before age 18 (a proportion that has greatly increased since the 1970s).

Since marriage and child-rearing have been rent asunder, the logic goes, we should redefine the institution. Other advocates of same-sex marriage point to the high rate of divorce in heterosexual marriages -- since marriages in general are being torn apart, the answer is redefinition.

To my ears, these arguments ring hollow. They sound eerily similar to arguments that business developers and foresters have used to encroach on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Most wilderness, they say, has been lost to human activity -- so the BWCA must be changed. In our modern times, others say, wilderness is just a vestige of an earlier hunter-gatherer stage -- the march of economic progress must go on.

Yet the fight for wilderness preservation continues, at both the legal and personal levels. The law continues to decree that guests in the BWCA honor strict codes of conduct -- eschewing trash cans, motorized boating, cabins and electricity to preserve deep, but not obvious, cultural goods. The benefits for various species, biodiversity and the human soul are profound.

Like wilderness, the deep cultural goods of marriage have been the result of meticulous social and legal exclusion. Throughout history, marriage has involved time-honored renunciations -- premarital abstinence; gender separation for much of adolescence and early adulthood; parental oversight, and lifelong fidelity, to name a few.

The last 50 years have seen radical movements to discard these customs. No-fault divorce laws, the sexual revolution, birth control, workaholism -- the list could go on. These eased social customs have undone the landscape of marriage. To our forebears, we would have the look of joyriders on four-wheelers, whooping and hollering as we unwittingly break forgotten codes of wilderness.

Yet there remain today some quiet enclaves -- Boundary Marriage Taboo Areas, we might call them -- at the intersection of stable families, civil society, and strong churches, temples, and mosques. Here old codes continue to be honored, and, according to sociologists, incomparable social stability is the result.

I don't question the sincerity of moderate marriage redefinition supporters -- David Brooks and Jonathan Rauch, to name two. They argue for expanding marriage to strengthen the homosexual community, helping it move beyond adolescence and sensuality to the higher bonds of commitment, fidelity and family -- expanding access to the wilderness, so to speak. But the logic of same-sex-marriage proponents places priority on individual identity over the commitments intrinsic to genuine love.

Wilderness and marriage defenders have this in common -- they agree that the best way to preserve something is not redefinition but restoration. Surveying the state of affairs from Ely to Hollywood, I am hopeful that my Minnesota neighbors -- single parents, married couples and members of the LGBT community alike -- will discover that our best way forward through a wilderness is finding the not-so-carefully marked path back.

Once we start to rediscover the lost honor and sacredness of marriage, our children and our children's children will, one day, reap the rewards.

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Dan Olson is a school administrator in Minneapolis.

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