Open marriage and American ideals

Matt Rourke AP Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, accompanied by his wife Callista, arrive as for visit … Continued

Matt Rourke


Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, accompanied by his wife Callista, arrive as for visit to Children’s Hospital, Friday, Jan. 20, 2012, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Marriage forms families and families make a civilization. Many of us fail to live up to the high ideal of marriage, but the solution is not to declare our failures variations of the ideal and move on.

Marriage has been between one man and one woman for all of American history: our romantic ideal. Every part of this definition is under assault as some Americans try to define away immorality.

Hard tasks do not get easier when we change our goals so as to never achieve them. They remain merely an elusive ideal that we try to forget. The romantic ideal is loving someone forever, giving oneself to them until death, and attempting to create life and family that endures for eternity.

That is marriage and will remain marriage however we debase the word.

Advocates of “open marriage” refuse the ideal or attack it. They point the failures of some to achieve it as an excuse to ignore the perfect.

An open marriage is merely consensual adultery. Open marriage claims to remove the “cheating” from adultery, because an open marriage starts with the consent of both parties. Of course, American marriages have overwhelmingly included a third party: God. He makes the union sacred, but then He is not likely to consent.

An open marriage cheats one partner to a marriage: God.

But perhaps marriage for some is merely “secular” and not “sacred.” Sex will be redefined as an activity not reserved for marriage. What then will be reserved for marriage? Conversation? Intimacy? What sort of intimacy? What is the outer sign of an inner reality?

What is that inner reality? If it is mere feeling, what will carry a man or woman through the rocky times in any relationship when feelings are not there?

There are certainly many important aspects to marriage that are not sexual, but what are those reserved exclusively for marriage? Is marriage merely a business partnership that might include some sex?

What of children? If open marriage moved beyond boutique status amongst those already wealth and well educated (by a traditional society) would it produce stable extended families?

You can be sure advocates of open marriage will urge the rest of us to put the culture’s future in their hands with the promise that they will answer any questions as they go. If redefining our societal standards and goals bring long term harm, they are not worried about it enough avoid the risk to their own pleasure.

What once was called decadence can now be called progress.

Whatever open marriage works out to be it has nothing to do with the Western romantic ideal from Shakespeare to Austen. Every “Twilight” fan longs for something more. Couldn’t they just leave us our word, marriage, and find another term?

Our culture will have to decide the answers to those questions. To get good answers, we will need thoughtful leaders to defend both points of view, including traditional marriage. One historian and politician making a career of defending marriage is Newt Gingrich.

He rightly attacked Bill Clinton for using power and privilege to enable a life as a cad and roué. Gingrich admits he was a hypocrite, but every high standard invited failure. His hypocrisy undermines his character, not the standard.

But now Gingrich is accused of going further, of abandoning the standard and asking for an open marriage. Voters have no way of knowing if his denials are true. We know Mr. Gingrich lies about sex and marriage, but we don’t know if he is lying now.

If Gingrich is telling the truth about himself, he was a roué. He is right to say all have fallen short of standards and ask for forgiveness. All Christians give it him, especially those of us particularly in need of it in this area.

Gingrich admits that for decades he was a roué and a hypocrite and demands the White House as his penance. That seems a bit much. He calls himself a man of “grandiose ideas” and such men are apt to stumble again near power. Those who love him should keep him from it, the way an alcoholic is kept from the bottle.

Let us judge Newt Gingrich by his own professed beliefs.

If he is telling the truth, Newt Gingrich is unfit for public office.

Gingrich might, of course, be lying. His performance last night was not comforting. After answering questions about his marriage calmly all day, he raged against them in the debate. Immediately after the debate, he was backslapping with the “disgusting” questioners at CNN.

Advocates of open marriage should be comforted, however. If his second wife is telling the truth, Gingrich was asking for polygamy, not open marriage. He was asking for consent to be a roué, not engaging in social experimentation.

In any case, Gingrich himself rightly said that lying to the public, even about sex, is disqualifying.

If he is lying, Newt Gingrich is unfit for public office.

Newt Gingrich was disciplined and removed from his high office by conservatives for his grandiose personality. He was a political roué, unable to control his political urges or ideas. He was sent packing to the political morgue, but now the roué returns from the morgue to murder marriage.

Only a grandiose man who believes words are more important than deeds could think he would get away with that in the long term. His party is left defending him when it should be examining better people: the political roué does not care.

Perhaps marriage should be redefined or perhaps, as Pope Benedict claims, this will end civilization. In any case, the grandiose man is the last man we need leading the discussion.

Newt Gingrich is unfit for public office.

John Mark Reynolds is an On Faith panelist and professor of philosophy for Biola University.

John Mark Reynolds
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  • WmarkW

    Newt Gingrich is a blowhard and political mercenary, who will sell his services to anyone with a checkbook. He’s the one remaining serious candidate who would drive me to vote for Obama.

    That said, it’s time for the evangelical Christian community to grow up about sex. The period from puberty to marriage in modern times is too long to expect celibacy. NOTHING creates poverty like single parenthood (in the USA), and IMO nothing causes single parenthood like the disconnect between sexual and birth control practices that religion causes.

    Stop pretending that the highest moral value is to play with the fire of abstinence-only.

  • john1234523

    Well, Newt fell short of any reasonable ideal of sexual moderation. In fact, I know many young adults who are lining good lives. Sorry if you do not.

  • john1234523

    Living good lives…

  • cniels

    JMR, Your analysis is spot-on. We have become a morally corrupt society willing to embrace a morally corrupt individual as a candidate for president merely because what he says sounds good. Wake up, people!

  • usapdx

    Can one be a sex glutton at a old age too?

  • catatonicjones

    He was removed from office because he was a criminal, geez, were you an adult back then?

  • john1234523

    He resigned. He was not a criminal. He was unethical and unfit for office.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    “But now Gingrich is accused of… asking for an open marriage.”

    I wonder if this accusation is true. One person’s word against his.

  • persiflage

    As I watch the run-off here in South Carolina from the democratic bleachers,
    I see Gingrich snatching a completely unexpected victory by way of an all- white religious vote – at least that how it looks as of now. I’m no Romney fan, but the small-mindedness that humans are capable of runs rampant hereabouts. The number of non-religious voters of either party in this state could fit on the head of a pin – and have plenty of room to spare.

    No matter how corrupt and unfit for office Newt may be, the white locals will take Newt over either Romney or Obama. It’s not easy living in a state where your vote rarely counts – I only vote in national elections anyway.

    This may be the first time since 1980 that South Carolina DOES NOT pick the eventual republican candidate for President. It’s hard to believe that the remainder of republican voters elsewhere would follow suit.

  • persiflage

    We all remember that Gingrich led the impeachment charge against Clinton while he carried on secretly with his current wife – although not his wife at the time. And then later was asked to step down based on multiple counts of unethical behavior.

    Apparently the fundamentalists here in South Carolina don’t have a problem with a candidate so completely lacking in character, as long as he’s white and not a Mormon.

  • WmarkW

    I don’t know why they let SC hold its primary so early.
    It’s what, the 45th most competitive state in the country?

    The 2000 and 2004 Presidential elections were the most similar ever, with only three states changing sides. Iowa and New Hampshire were two of them. New Mexico should hold the third primary.

  • LucyInMaryland

    Callista, dearie, just don’t get sick. Surely you noticed that Newt leaves when his Wife-du-Jour needs her man the most and medical personnel surround her.

    What he has done to Wife 1 and Wife 2 he will surely do to Wife 3 – given half a chance. Slimy creep…

  • WmarkW

    BTW, it was pointed on another site I read that none of three Republican primary winners belongs to a mainstream Protestant denomination. So assuming there’s no groundswell for Ron Paul, this will be a first for a Republican nominee.

    Just like on the Supreme Court (zero Protestants, all conservative leaners are Catholic) it appears that rabid anti-abortion and anti-gay politics is no longer tenable with the Protestant tradition of personal interpretation of scripture and doctrine.

  • john1234523

    If Newt is the nominee I will not have left the Republican Party, it will have left me.

  • csintala79

    His “reaction” to John King is reminiscent of Clinton indignantly claiming, “I have never had sex with that woman.” Newt, get it right: it is not a sin for the media to ask questions about rumors or claims that a candidate has committed adultery, but it is a sin to commit adultery. In hiding infidelity one has to become a serial liar. Acting indignantly sanctimonious when is asked a question about one’s morality is not contrition. Newt has no moral compass.

  • john1234523

    Newt Gingrich is running for President. The job requires being a Commander in Chief, but Newt is erratic. He is unfit for the job. The President must be head of state, the bully pulpit, but Newt is unfit for that job because of his moral character. The President must be head of government, but Newt was a disaster as head of the House.

    Anybody but Newt. . . .

  • Catken1

    “In fact, I know many young adults who are lining good lives. Sorry if you do not.”

    My goodness. So any young adult who isn’t absolutely celibate isn’t “living a good life”? No matter how well they behave towards their partners, or how responsible their behavior?
    What’s next, arguing that women keep their virtue in their hymens?

  • stephes74

    It’s one thing to support a candidate who hides his true character and you get fooled. It’s quite another when a candidate such as Newt openly flaunts his personal and public character flaws and the people support it. The people of South Carolina have put a stain on the Republican Party that will last for years. I’m ashamed to be part of the grand old party!

  • Catken1

    “Of course, American marriages have overwhelmingly included a third party: God. He makes the union sacred, but then He is not likely to consent.”

    What makes you so confident that you speak directly for God, and know what God wants?

    Oh, right, the same ego that gives you the right to tell others that they are simply seeking to “legislate immorality” by demanding the right to live their lives and choose their marriages without concern for your religion’s taboos.

    As it happens, I don’t think open marriages work for most people, certainly not my husband and myself, though I do know some folks that manage them quite nicely, and seem healthy and happy in them. I don’t suppose their existence to be any threat to me or mine – after all, it’s not as if polygamy were anything new, and modern open marriage simply opens the possibility to the wife as well as the husband. (Polyandry has existed in healthy cultures as well – just not so many, probably because it doesn’t increase a woman’s childbearing potential the way polygamy increases the number of children a man can have.) If my sort of marriage really is best for me, it will continue to be so regardless of what other choices other people make. Bad marriages and adultery (defined as cheating without the other partner’s consent) will always exist, and always have done – they don’t really threaten healthy marriages. Wailing about “redefining social standards and morals” just shows that you are incapable of taking responsibility for your OWN standards and morals. (I don’t hear my Orthodox Jewish friends whining about how government and society don’t support their Law – I see them living it, practicing it, and taking responsibility for it even when it conflicts with social norms. Take an example from them.)

    As for Newt, I’m more offended by the fact that he vigorously and vociferously condemned behavior he himself engaged in than by the mere idea of him wanting an “open marriage.” If he hadn’t made himself a spokesperson for “tradi

  • john1234523

    Good cultural luck with your position. It might work for the upper middle class in a society that is already formed. Nobody yet has maintained a society or started on that way.

  • john1234523

    I should add that I don’t claim to speak for God. I am following what Americans have believed and continue to believe in large numbers.

  • Catken1

    “Marriage has been between one man and one woman for all of American history: our romantic ideal. ”

    And note how deftly gay people and those who don’t fall under “traditional” marriage norms are written out of the “our” that is America…

  • Catken1

    “Nobody yet has maintained a society or started on that way. ”

    I was an anthropology major. You would be stunned to find out the variety of marriage types that have been common in sensible, long-lasting societies, from casual, temporary alliances between individuals as they see fit, to couples who live in separate houses and come together mainly to eat and have sex, to strictly-controlled harems, to a set of brothers all married to the same woman, to husbands visiting their wife’s clan furtively by night, to permanent alliances that can’t ever be broken except by death (sometimes not even that – ask a Hindu widow), to family-arranged marriages that can be split up any time the husband’s parents decree. And yes, including gay marriages, poly-marriages of both sorts, etc. Human societies are nothing if not versatile and flexible. Regardless of what “Americans” (meaning, I presume, “Americans who think like me,” – remember that there are many, as American as you, who do not share your beliefs) believe in large numbers.

  • ccnl1

    “Comparing the content of Hammurabi’s Code, Mosaic Law, and Justinian Law”

    ” If a man and woman were caught in adultery, Hammurabi and Moses decreed that both man and woman be put to death. (i.e. “Billy Boys” had short life spans in the good old days!!!!!) Each set of laws also prohibited a man from having more than one wife at a time. In addition, Justinian and Biblical law required parental consent for any marriage. “

  • john1234523

    You are not written out of America or American history any more than my celibate single friends. All of American history is not about marriage.

  • john1234523

    As a philosopher you will not be shocked to learn that I know this. This is why I limited my discussion to marriage.

    The West of the world has had a romantic ideal. It has not always achieved it. You don’t think those family ideals had anything to do with our culture’s development for good.

    I disagree.

    We will see.

  • john1234523

    By good cultures I mean cultures that lead to the development of science, human rights, and constitutional forms of government.

  • Catken1

    But saying that “marriage” as a matter of “one man and one woman” is “_our_ romantic ideal” writes out those who don’t necessarily consider differing genitals the defining feature of marriage.

  • Catken1

    Ah, yes, all of which are based on the Noble Ideal that marriage is about the union of man bits and woman bits, with only incidental human beings involved. Right?

    Never mind that human rights and constitutional government are very late arrivals in our culture, and that others got there first (the Haudenosaunee Nation has the second-oldest continuous republic in the world, and a better record than ours on, say, women’s rights and the liberty of the individual – also far different ideals about what constitutes a “family”).

    Never mind that science has flourished in societies all over the world, with drastically different cultures and attitudes towards marriage, and that the only reason we’ve gotten farther in this day and age is better technology and more freedom from dogma.

    Of course, we’re the only ones who have done anything worthwhile in the world. Ignore all those other civilizations out there, with trade and science and art and culture and ideals of individual liberty and justice. They don’t matter because they don’t have…well, us. And of course, it’s all because we don’t let gay people have marriages or legal protections for their families and kids. We know full well that everything we have done and accomplished has been because we have protected heterosexual marriage from the dire threat of a legal alternative that heterosexuals, by definition, would not choose anyway.


  • john1234523

    Good luck with the ahistorical belief that all the stuff still so rare in this world existed everywhere.

    In the past, the Founders protected heterosexual marriage, because it was “natural.” Men and women are required to create life and the creation of children and raising them is in the interest of the state.

    Moderating other desires is also a good thing.

    Anyway Europe is a few years further down this road. We will get to see how it goes for them and see if we want to keep heading down it. I am guessing that this weird experiment in defining vice into virtue will pass away.

    That people want to do things does not mean it is good.