As many as two billion people — about a third of the world — were expected to watch today’s British royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton.
The global euphoria highlights the enduring ideal of marriage. For all the extravagance and fanfare of a future monarch’s wedding, we recognize in it some of our deepest human aspirations and the shared nobility of the institution of marriage.
That same chord was struck 30 years ago, as the world watched another royal wedding on July 29, 1981. As ABC’s Ted Koppel commented that evening: “Today’s marriage between Charles and Diana was … a hugely magnified version of what most of us hope for, the idealized beginning of what is meant to ripen into the perfect partnership of a man and a woman.”
Koppel’s ABC colleague, Bob Green, added: “The royal aspect almost was secondary … [T]here was something universal about the ceremony of life that was taking place. The message was the same one that comes through at a wedding in a church recreation room in New Hampshire or a justice of the peace’s office in Ohio.”
When the royal couple said, “I will,” the roar of the crowd outside St. Paul’s Cathedral “was almost as if the world was cheering for itself,” Green reported.
And indeed we do cheer for ourselves when we rejoice in wedding vows.
Marriage is a promise. Not just between one man and one woman but to the community at large, to generations past and to those yet to be born. Wedding vows set apart this lifelong, life-giving relationship from all others.
As Heritage senior research fellow Chuck Donovan writes:
The simplicity of this truth accounts for the nearly universal history and expression of marriage across cultures. Despite the enormity of the pressures marriage and family face today, the vast majority of people in American society express the desire to marry, experience a lifelong faithful relationship, have children, and raise those children into adulthood where they are able to establish families of their own.
Even in 1981, however, ABC’s Green noted that “marriage and the family have fallen on hard times.” How much more so in the 30 years since: The bitter, postmodern ending to Princess Diana’s own fairy tale during that time is an apt metaphor for the troubled state of marriage today.
Still, the institution of marriage endures, even when a particular marriage falls apart. Our failure to attain it doesn’t change the ideal–nor should current challenges.
Today, the route to marriage isn’t nearly as clear as in generations past, and once entered, its endurance less sure. Americans are marrying at half the annual rate they did four decades ago, data posted at FamilyFacts.org show.
Last year, The Marriage Index, published by the Institute for American Values and the National Center on African American Marriage and Parenting, rated the strength of marriage in America at 60.3 out of a possible 100, based on a set of five indicators. In 1970, the score would have been 76.2.
The erosion of marriage and family bode ill for the strength and stability of American society. Scholar Michael Novak famously referred to the family as the “original Department of Health, Education and Welfare” because of its role in providing for the needs of all its members, and particularly the next generation.
That’s why one of the most important ways that government can promote the general welfare is by upholding the institution of marriage. As Donovan recently stated in testimony on behalf of the Defense of Marriage Act:
All of the governmental interests embodied in the Defense of Marriage Act ultimately serve one overarching purpose: to create and foster conditions of public policy that reinforce the binding of men and women to one another and to the children they co-create. Study after study of the impact of marriage and the sustained presence of mothers and fathers in the home, striving together and nurturing their children, demonstrate the advantages of a married mother and father over every other family form that has been exhaustively studied to date.
Yet, in the shadow of the royal wedding, a worrisome class divide on marriage is emerging that threatens to make marriage more of a fairy tale than a shared ideal. Writing about a 2010 report, “When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America,“ author W. Bradford Wilcox and Heritage’s Donovan observe:
Marriage is in trouble in Middle America. High rates of divorce, nonmarital childbearing and single parenthood were once problems primarily concentrated in poor communities. Now, the American retreat from marriage is moving into the heart of the social order: the middle class…
What is happening today is a widening gulf between the middle class, where a sharp decline in marriage is at work, and the most educated and affluent Americans, where marriage indicators are either stable or improving.
An understanding of the central importance of marriage and realistic expectations about it will go a long way toward making the institution more durable and pervasive across socio-economic levels.
“The writers of fairy tales most commonly ended their stories about princes and princesses at the altar,” Koppel intoned 30 years ago. “These writers knew what marriage was meant to be. They were also wise enough to know that it rarely turns out that way.”
Fairy tales, however, often leave out the wedding vows that dispel the easy illusion of happily ever after, set appropriate expectations for a lifetime of commitment and connect couples to the communities of support around them. The vows begin where the ceremony ends.
With good reason, the world once again roared with joy at the universal promise embodied in William and Kate’s vows today.
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