The Essence of Fidelity

The news this week is dominated by two cases of sexual impropriety involving famous and powerful men.  There are many differences between Arnold Schwarzenegger and ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, not least of which is the difference between the former’s consensual affair, and the charges of sexual assault filed against the latter.  One notable similarity is that both are married, and each has four children with his wife.

The French press has been mocking Americans for caring about that sort of thing, all the way back to the Bill Clinton impeachment saga.  Why make such a big deal about minor complications like marriage? 

Our cultural and political elites have made much progress toward overcoming these awkward hang-ups.  Actress Cameron Diaz, for example, recently dismissed marriage as a “dying institution,” and thinks “we have to make our own rules,” rather than living our lives “in relationships based off old traditions that don’t suit our world any longer.”

Meanwhile, the President of the United States unilaterally decided the Defense of Marriage Act – passed into law, as fate would have it, by President Bill Clinton – is a dead letter that he doesn’t want to enforce any more.  If you want to soak in those old traditions about marriage involving exactly one man and one woman, you can run back to your little church and do so, but less uptight Americans will be following Cameron Diaz’s advice and making their own rules. 

It’s funny how so many Americans refuse to follow these exciting new cultural directives, and cling to their old marriage superstitions.  There’s a certain flavor of shame that attaches to a man who betrays his wife, or a wife who betrays her husband.  It has resisted all attempts to blend it with other flavors, or dilute it out of existence.

It is often suggested that modern science and economic power have erased the original rationales for monogamous relationships.  They’re not strictly necessary for procreation any more.  Men and women no longer find themselves huddled in frontier cabins, sharing the arduous chores required to maintain a decent life. 

And yet… men and women still need each other, and for most of us, the enduring emotional needs of a loyal relationship cannot be replaced by the momentary fulfillment of random desire.  When we learn of someone who doesn’t feel that way, but still pretends to observe the traditions of marriage, we recoil in disgust.

Trust is not easily given to a man who betrays his wife and children.  We are wise to feel that way.  It was always foolish to think the importance of marriage would be diminished by the removal of biological necessity and physical hardships.  They were not the factors which made marriage indispensable, after all.  Even a rich and powerful man, with all the science of the twenty-first century at his disposal, is still left in spiritual poverty when he discards the vows he made to his wife. 

We need marriage because a society of free men and women depends on trust, and marriage is the essence of fidelity.  It does not degrade the value of other relationships, or people who choose to remain single, to note that something special occurs when a man and woman promise their eternal devotion to each other.  That union kindles the flame of commitment, which spreads from marriage, to family, and onward to illuminate communities and nations.  There really is no substitute, no matter how hard various ideologies work to manufacture one.

The power of this relationship is sanctified by religious traditions, but it was not artificially created by them.  Marriage is not an illusion sold by priests and rabbis.  If you could somehow populate an island with completely innocent, newborn children, and leave them to their own devices for a generation or two, you would return one day to find husbands and wives working together to raise their children… or you would find savagery and devastation.  Marriage is a core component of civilization, not an accidental byproduct.  This is a truth that requires a great deal of careful conditioning to obscure.

We’re baffled and disgusted to learn about the tawdry misadventures of a popular figure like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Tiger Woods.  We are also saddened, because we know their betrayal has taken something special from their wives and children, and no cash value can be assigned to the loss.  The rest of us lose a highly visible example of wonderful and admirable trust.  The world needs more examples of fidelity.