I’m posting this in a most self-indulgent way to get your reaction.

So Protestants in their way degraded marriage by depriving it of sacramental status as a manifestation of the divine personal logos in this world. Marriage became predominately natural but still somewhat Christian. It wasn’t rechained to the paganism of aristocratic patriarchy. For most Protestants, the marriage tie remained relational (or loving) and deeply—if less deeply—binding, and in fact it became expected of everyone—even or especially members of the clergy—as, for one thing, a remedy for the sin of lust.

To be personal continued to mean, for most Protestants, to be relational. The status of the Trinity was no longer clearly connected to the requirements of personal logos. But the Trinity remained a mystery that reflected something fundamental about who God is and those made in his image are. Tocqueville emphasizes that the Puritans were family men and women, and he contrasts them in their civilized religious and communal idealism from the solitary and rather godless adventurers who founded Virginia.

The Protestants—particularly the Lutherans—might be understood, from another view, to have elevated marriage by freeing it from comparison with the alleged superiority of the celibate or virginal or monastic life. By becoming less than a sacrament—or less an anticipation of the world to come, it became what it is in this world. So the jurisdiction over marriage shifted from the church to the state without simply subordinating marriage again to the requirements of the state.

Marriage became a contract between free persons authorized and protected by civil law. And so it became a contract that could be—for good, natural reasons—made and unmade. Divorce became possible for adultery and desertion. And the right to remarriage emerged—there being, after all, no natural obstacle to it. That right might be, for both natural or “sociobiological” and sociological reasons, more effectually exercised by men. But it’s surely now understood as a blessing for a woman with children.

So in some ways, at least, the “desacralization” of marriage might be understood as progress for free persons. Christian, relational freedom persists, but arguably with a more consistent articulation of the insight that marriage is not part of the more perfect relational world to come. Because everyone is called to live according to the moral and relational virtue required of sinful, biological beings in this world, celibacy—or living too much in anticipation of the world to come—becomes suspect as unnatural, too aberrant or perversely selfish, and impossible.

In Tocqueville’s largely true telling, the insistently religious dimension of being puritanical faded in our country. And what eventually became the dominant form of Christian heresy in America we typically trace to John Locke.

Locke’s intention is sometimes said to be anti-Christian, but he actually wanted to reform Christianity to tell the whole truth about the free person the early Christians discovered. The early Christians weren’t consistent enough in understanding the personal insight. From Locke’s view, the Lutheran/Calvinist view of who we are exaggerated our bondage to natural—or sinful, biological—necessity in this world. So marriage—and the person—can and should be freed much more than the more “mainstream” (or differently heretical) Protestants believed from relational or natural baggage here and now.

From Locke’s view, we might say, the mainstream or Trinitarian Protestants detached—in a quite un-Christian way—marriage from the full truth about our freedom. Locke restored that connection, but in a more heretical way: He disagreed with the orthodox view that to be personal is to be relational. To be relational is to be natural, and to be personal is to be free—or not a natural being.

Articles by Peter Lawler

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