A few years ago, the Witherspoon Institute assembled essays from nearly a dozen outstanding scholars in a book that probably slipped under radar at the time: the meaning of Marriage; family state, market, & morals. In the Foreward, University of Chicago professor Jean Bethke Elshtain makes the keen point that “the terms of our public discourse seem poorly equipped to engage in a serious and nuanced discussion concerning the nature and purpose of marriage in society.” Then she asked: “Why is it so difficult to discuss marriage?”

Good question. Short answer is that we all have a stake in its outcome. But we’ve become all discombobulated in trying to talk about it…if we’re willing to try at all. She notes that

distinguised sociologist Robert Bellah, along with his colleagues, point out in the 1988 bestselling book Habis of the Heart that Americans have lost ways of talking about their commitments and what gives their lives meaning, except in and through a subjective kind of rights-talk….

This way of thinking and speaking tilts the debate from the outset. The benefits and burdens of traditional social relationships can be re-described only imperfectly in the language of individual choice. Therefore, anyone with doubts about same-sex marriage is often seen as “anti-choice,” or even bigoted, by those who uncritically adopt the contemporary terminology of the debate. Matters frequently stall out there.

Not for Don Feder. The Boston Herald columnist turned author and commentator is not among the uncritical relativists who accept cultural drift. He recently published the warning If Marriage Is Lost, We Lose Everything.  He opens with this declaration:

Memo to conservative defeatists: Surrender on gay marriage is surrender on marriage – which is surrender on the family and, ultimately, surrender on civilization.

No less.

This unwillingness to fight for the family, on which civilization depends, is another sign of the failure of modern conservatism. The right can win a thousand battles against big government and lose the war for America’s future, if it surrenders on marriage and the family.

America’s social traumas – illegitimacy, juvenile crime, drug abuse, female-headed-households – can all be traced back to the decline of the family, which started with the Great Society in the ’60s, accelerated with no-fault divorce in the ’70s, continued with the rise of cohabitation and reached its culmination with strange-sex marriage.

These are words not usually uttered in “polite company”, though Feder relies on the shock value of his message to jolt a complacent culture into awareness of what they are doing.

Voters of 30 states have amended their constitutions to prohibit recognition of pseudo-marriages, by an average vote of 67 percent. In 2008, in the most liberal state in the nation, 7 million Californians cast their ballots for the only definition of marriage that makes sense.

But the voters were overruled by activists and a complicit judge. Feder takes this trend to its ‘logical’ progression.

All they do is accelerate the decline of an institution as old as human society. How can we say yes to gay marriage and no to polygamy, group marriage, cohabitation, child brides and other lifestyle choices seeking official sanction?

Unfortunately, many conservative intellectuals have lost sight of a crucial fact: American exceptionalism rests on three pillars – faith, family and freedom. Remove any one, and the entire structure collapses…

Conservatives who don’t understand this understand nothing.

What do we understand and what are we willing to fight for?

Jean Bethke Elshtain concludes her Foreward and makes us consider….

In the summer of 2005 I was one of four speakers debating–in a friendly way and to a learned and (it must be said) relative affluent audience over the course of a week–the role of religion in public life in America. One of the speakers stated his own doubts about same-sex marriage and lamented the fact that we were not having the sort of debate about marriage as an institution we ought to be having. To my astonishment, he was booed by this respectable and mannered assembly. The hoots echoed across the audience. This left me, although I wasn’t the target myself, with a rather bad taste in my mouth and a genuine sadness about the inability of such well-educated people, who are influential and accomplished in their fields of endeavor, to acknowledge the need for such a debate. Maybe it is too late and we shall never have this much needed discussion. But perhaps not.

The time is now.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....