The Meanings of Marriage

First Things, Vol. 126, pp. 30-41, 2002

Emory Legal Studies Research Paper

24 Pages Posted: 30 Mar 2011 Last revised: 14 Jan 2020

Date Written: October 1, 2002


Modern American marriage law was born of both Christian and Enlightenment teachings. Christians have long regarded marriage as a natural, contractual, social, and spiritual institution that depends ultimately on church, state, and society alike to be effective and enduring. Enlightenment liberals, however, have slowly reduced marriage to a terminal sexual contract with freedom to enter, exercise, and exit as the private parties see fit. While these liberal reforms were designed to bring greater equality to the marital home and greater protection to women and children, some of the more radical private contractarian views of marriage and divorce that now dominate American law have actually hurt women and children more than helped them. This Article thus calls for the reconstruction of a multi-dimensional understanding of exclusive and enduring marriage that recognizes both the private and public goods of marriage and that strikes new balances among churches, states, and other social institutions that support marriage. It also calls for legal reforms that rebalance the rigor of the rules governing marital formation and dissolution, that encourage longer intervals between formal engagements and weddings, and that offers a clearer separation of the procedures and consequences of annulment and divorce.

Keywords: Marriage; Divorce; Engagement; Annulment; Separation; Women; Children; Christianity; Enlightenment; Protestantism; Catholicism; Sacrament; Covenant

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, The Meanings of Marriage (October 1, 2002). First Things, Vol. 126, pp. 30-41, 2002, Emory Legal Studies Research Paper, Available at SSRN:

John Witte (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

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