Lopez: Not to be simple, but do we need to help each other more in our marriages? Do more than toast at a wedding. Can and should public policy play a role here?
Donovan: Public policy has a role, but your question touches on the civic and interpersonal. And as a conservative, I believe they are ultimately more important aids to success in this area. Bob Woodson was honored at the Kennedy Center a few years ago with the Bradley Prize for his work on urban and family renewal. He could have received the award for any number of ideas and initiatives, and in his acceptance speech he could have told any of dozens of stories about the risks and rewards of his work.
But what struck me that night was not the story Bob told but the couple he introduced, a young black couple. The husband had been involved in gangs and had had run-ins with the law. He had grown to adulthood and never attended a wedding — until his own, to the beautiful young woman who was at his side that night. It wasn’t just a new leaf, it’s the entire tree.
Now, other than generating more Bob Woodsons, what was the policy work in that? We need a new Culture of Marriage alongside our Culture of Life, and both are primarily interpersonal projects.
Lopez: Does the debate over gay marriage suck some of the air out of the public-policy room on marriage?
Donovan: Yes, nearly all of it. That is one reason I wrote the paper we are discussing. It does not mention that subject once, though I’ve written about marriage redefinition as well. Would there be as much clamor to make marriage radically egalitarian if it were tilted once more toward permanence, exclusivity, multi-generational bonds, and mutual responsibility? The goal is not to make marriage hard, but to recognize that its meaning lies in the masteries it builds and the mysteries it opens. That is where more air and light are needed.
Lopez: You talk about rebuilding a culture of marriage. But are we too far gone?
Donovan: If by “we” you mean the United States or the West, yes, possibly. Recovery is impossible if we don’t recognize the illness. Media messages on maintaining and rebuilding marriage and the home are not numerous, although I finally caught up last weekend with a wrenching film called The Way Back by director Peter Weir that captures the sacrifices necessary both to secure freedom and to recover a broken trust — to find “the way back” home. Voices like that are small in the din of dissolution. But vibrant faith and vibrant families can be rebirthed elsewhere if not here. Marriage can be expunged from the law but not obliterated in reality.
Lopez: What can a congressman do to help marriage?
Donovan: Members of Congress must first observe the Hippocratic principle: First, do no harm. There is actually a law on the books that requires the Congress to append a family-impact statement to legislation that touches on family well-being. President Reagan issued an executive order, subsequently rescinded by President Clinton, to the same effect. The current Congress could observe that law and treat it with the same respect it shows when detailing the constitutional authority for proposed legislation.
Welfare reform along the lines of Congressman Jim Jordan’s [R., Ohio] bill would also be a big help. Marriage tax penalties, including the huge one in Obamacare, must go. And the Defense of Marriage Act is critical. Congress has not taken over family law but historically, as with polygamy, it has set definitional boundaries. It should continue to do so.
Lopez: What can a presidential candidate do?
Donovan: I would be content if candidates for president would speak as they live. My guess is that we will have a first woman president, first Mormon president, first many things, before we have another single president. So far James Buchanan, before the Civil War, was the only lifelong bachelor to become president. Four other presidents were widowed before taking office. Americans have no monarchy, but we prize our tradition of first families. Presidents, of course, can vigorously defend laws like DOMA in the courts and use the bully pulpit. And they should, not just for fatherhood but for married fatherhood, for example.
Lopez: What can any and every American do?
Donovan: Move marriage up your list of concerns, and recognize how it touches every aspect of our national well-being. Marriage is an economic issue as well as a social issue; it is a key to human happiness, an access card to the mansion that holds our past, present, and future dreams.
Lopez: What would you hope every American could know about marriage and take away from your research?
Donovan: Marriage is an indispensable institution designed by a Divine Architect. With all its flaws and occasionally spectacular failures, we cannot do without it.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.