Maggie Gallagher is a veteran of the culture wars that have turned backers of marriage and family into frontline troops for Christian civilization.
In addition to writing such best-selling books as The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better-Off Financially, the scholar and syndicated columnist is chairman of the board of the National Organization for Marriage. She now also directs the Center for Research on Marriage, Religion and Public Policy, which opened in October at Ave Maria School of Law.
Gallagher spoke with Register correspondent Matthew Rarey.
How did the Center for Research on Marriage, Religion and Public Policy originate?
The center came into being as a result of conversations between me and Bernie [Bernard] Dobranski [co-founder of CRM and the founding president and dean of Ave Maria School of Law]. It was my idea that we need an academic home for certain conversations to advance the debate on marriage. I remain chairman of the board of the National Organization for Marriage, which is my prime focus, as well as writing a nationally syndicated column and other marriage-related projects.
You have said that you hope CRM facilitates “intellectual and scholarly conversations that will help break new ground on our understanding of marriage and family formation.” What new ground is there to break in our understanding of such elemental things as marriage and family formation, which might have been considered differently in the past but never questioned as institutions essential for the preservation of society?
There’s always more to learn — and questions that arise anew in specific time periods. Our first conversation [at CRM] raised questions that I doubt the pagan ever even considered as real questions: What is kinship, and why does it matter to children? In our times, the idea of biological relationships has been problematized. And that raises new questions that need to be addressed.
Of course, there are also questions of new research. We can answer different questions empirically than people could have thousands of years ago. Just to give one example, advocates have argued that the terrible tragedy of gay teen suicide can be solved by passing same-sex “marriage.” Because of my background awareness of the empirical research available, I became aware that this is a question that could be answered with scientific evidence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Youth Risk Behavior Survey” asks about depression and suicide attempts among LGBT teens.
There are many interesting questions to be explored and new evidence to be brought to bear. Cross-disciplinary conversations about the nature of marriage and family and the contributions of religion and public policy are really needed today.
Do any of these “interesting questions” pique your interest in particular?
One question I’m intensely interested in is why Mormon faith communities are so much more successful than other religious groups in terms of family. They have much higher rates of marriage, lower rates of abortion, divorce and unwed childbearing than, say, Catholics. We Catholics tend to go to orthodoxy for all the answers, but there’s something to be said for orthopraxy, too. How do we live the faith successfully and transmit a marriage culture to the next generation under modern conditions? What institutions and practices can parents, schools, neighborhoods, faith communities and professionals adopt that help make marriage not a theory but a lived reality?
The ancients cannot answer that for us. We have to figure it out ourselves.
How will CRM facilitate these scholarly and intellectual conversations?
Our main goal is “working scholars” conferences, where we bring together people of different disciplines to offer new research and new insights. Down the road, I’d love to also sponsor original empirical research.
CRM’s initial conference was entitled “Children, Kinship, Psychological Health, and Identity Formation: The Cases of Divorce and Donor Insemination.” Why this topic?
Both divorce and donor insemination affect children’s identities in ways that we have only begun to think about and explore. Divorce is not just a practical problem for children. It poses an existential or ontological problem: How do I trust the family when the family can fall apart? Without the family, what is my core identity?
Adult children conceived by donor insemination are beginning to point out similar existential issues on their origins. The parent they love deliberately deprived them of access to the other biological parent, the so-called sperm donor. For at least some — and it looks like many of these children — the biological relationship continues to matter, even though the actual family of the child pretends it does not.
They point to the reality that donor conception is used because biology does matter: Their mother wanted a child who was her natural child. But the child’s longing to be connected to his or her mother and father — the two people who made him or her — is treated as a non sequitur. It’s just not taken seriously.
We know biology isn’t everything. We know that adoption is good. But if biology isn’t everything, is it anything? Are parents just “caregivers” who’ve taken on a role? Or is there a relationship that is in some sense beyond choice — that is created by creation, as it were? These are big questions.
On the small side, I think the scholars present learned from each other some practical things, too.
What do you mean by “practical things”?
There is a “nurturant father scale” that has been developed and can be used to measure father participation empirically. The center’s mission, in my view, is to value both the big questions and the technical answers that further future empirical research.
Well-meaning Christians often put their faith in government to redress problems, such as abortion and gay “marriage,” ironically caused by the government of this post-Christian liberal state in the first place. Are we focusing too much on government solutions? Should we consider going back to the days when marriage in particular, family issues in general, were not considered state issues but private ones, regulated by the Church? Most Catholics probably don’t even know that it was Protestant reformers who made marriage a state-regulated institution that, over time, degraded marriage into what it’s generally considered today: a contract between individuals issued by the state, with an opt-out clause on virtually any grounds.
In the old days, the Church did regulate marriage, but the king backed up the Church court’s decision. But marriage isn’t just a spiritual matter. It involves property and support obligations, which are either enforceable or not.
So it’s important to continue fighting for marriage and family in the political and legal arenas.
To abandon the civil order is to make marriage a thing only of the spirit, and to abandon it as a real and enforceable promise. To abandon the political fight will be viewed as a moral abdication as well. The only reason abortion is still a live moral issue is that people acted like they really believed it’s wrong to kill babies, which means you fight politically, as in other ways.
To concede “gay marriage” is to concede that the idea that children need a mom and a dad and that marriage is oriented towards this end is no longer a publicly defensible idea. Defending it privately won’t get easier, but it will get harder.
Truth is truth. If marriage is the union of a husband and wife, because children need a mother and father, we can’t abandon non-Catholic children. We have an obligation in justice, as well as love, to fight against an unjust civil order that redefines marriage and its purposes.
Since you were a former unwed mother, what can you say about this social issue, and what advice can you give to women in similar circumstances, as well as to their families?
As a young woman who grew up in a secular home in the middle of a sexual revolution — a lovely home, but my mother left the Church when I was 8 — I stumbled onto some hard truths on my own. My family gave me a simple rule: Do right by your kids. I added to it these thoughts: Don’t kill your children. Don’t have sex under circumstances in which your children will suffer if they are born. Get married; stay married; don’t break up your children’s family.
Also, having a baby is like falling in love: Don’t miss out on it.
Register correspondent Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.