Shacking up

A recent blog from Nextavenue reminded me of a topic I’ve had in the back of my mind: cohabiting without legally being married, a/k/a “shacking up.” The blog dealt specifically with older Americans, and that is my focus as well. But my focus is narrower still: morally conservative people shacking up.

No, I’m not crazy. We’re in a Brave New World.

I’m aware that marriage and sexuality have become a kind of “third rail.” 30 years or so ago I scandalized some of my friends by not disapproving of “common-law marriage.” To their ears, “common-law marriage” meant “shacking up.” For me, as a lawyer, it meant a real marriage, albeit created without the formalities of ceremony or clergy by publicly declaring each other man and wife. Common-law marriage is not recognized in all states, but where it is recognized, I see nothing deeply immoral about it. Maybe it’s a little bit tacky to deny your friends the pleasure of attending a wedding, but your mileage – and budget – may vary.

Now the Supreme Court has given us another third rail: the Obergefell decision, which pretends that a right to same-sex marriage is embedded in the Constitution. That is the new legal status quo, with or without my approval.

In justification of Obergefell, much of America had begun treating marriage as little or nothing more than a package of financial benefits for sexual intimates. Why our governments should extend financial benefits to sexual intimates is one of the questions that led me circuitously to a conclusion adverse to same-sex marriage. But that horse has now fled the barn.

When I speak of people treating marriage as a package of financial benefits for sexual intimacy, I’m referring to such phenomena as aging widows and widowers getting together, perhaps with a religious blessing but without a marriage license, in order to preserve relatively high Social Security benefits, or to protect against the prospect of one spouse losing his or her life savings should the other spouse require Medicaid benefits (no such consequence attaches to assets of unmarried cohabitants). Other couples get married for Medicaid reasons; either alternative can make sense in different circumstances. For some, “married filing jointly” carried a “marriage penalty” tax as compared to filing separately. Some couples were tempted, and some of those presumably succumbed, by not marrying or by divorcing but continuing cohabitation. UPDATE: I just realized that this paragraph reeks of not marrying as the path to government benefits. The core point remains, though: When “to marry or not to marry?” is the question, financial benefits are on the table.

In the eyes of many people in my circles, the United States Supreme Court has not expanded marriage or created “marriage equality,” but, er, redefined marriage, a usurpation of well-nigh blasphemous proportions since government didn’t create it, but merely recognized God’s Institution. It requires no stretch of the imagination to say that government marriage and Christian marriage, by judicial fiat, are now clearly separate things. (Here, too.) And with that being the reality, it requires only a slightly greater stretch of the imagination to ask whether Christian people (my most familiar proxy for “morally conservative people”) are obliged to avail themselves of state-issued “marriage” licenses, particularly when they view the state’s new institution as a sham and a mockery.

In the wake of Obergefell, some people proposed that churches get entirely out of the business of solemnizing the state institution, and even developed a pledge. Others said “bad idea, and here’s why.”

I’ve long (maybe always) felt that I need professionally to take a holistic approach to issues like this. I need to tell clients, especially post-Obergefell, that maybe something unthinkable from 10 years ago (living together not legally married) is now worth a thought because the Supreme Court changed the meaning of civil government marriage.

If you want to think the formerly unthinkable:

  1. Do you have a faith tradition?
  2. Would it have an opinion on shacking up?
  3. Do you care about that opinion?
  4. Would your clergyman consider blessing your relationship without a marriage license if that’s advantageous for you?

Don’t think that avoiding the license will eliminate all conflict, though. The government may haunt you anyway, or hold your mind in fetters.

I know of a man, a very intense ideologue, who persuaded a woman that they didn’t need a marriage license. They went through some sort of religious hocus-pocus and then acted as man and wife in a state that doesn’t recognize common-law marriage. When the marriage whatever-it-was foundered, off they went off to divorce court, spending much time and money in adversarial proceedings, each asking the government to dissolve — each in their different preferred manner — a relationship over which, a few years earlier, both had said by decisive action that the state had no authority whatever. Their sham came to light, and then it really got ugly.

I’m sure God felt duly honored and glorified by the spectacle of Mr. & Mrs. Ideologue, the so-pure-in-doctrine-that-we-won’t-sully-our-marriage-with-a-statist-license, so spilling each other’s blood on the courtroom floor. Eeeeewww! Consider “what could possibly go wrong.”

One option I could never recommend, though, is divorce of the already-married morally conservative person, because even No Fault Divorce requires alleging under oath that the marriage is irretrievably broken. Unless you can come up with a helluva good argument that “being married will cost us non-trivial amounts of money” translates into “this marriage is irretrievably broken,” I could not recommend and would have nothing to do with a divorce on these financial grounds.

You may now give me hell. I probably deserve it for drawing out discomfiting consequences about “marriage” as demolished, and shabbily rebuilt, by SCOTUS.

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“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

I blame Trump

In a kinder, gentler age, C.S. Lewis pointed out that sex was unlike other appetites.

The biological purpose of sex is children, just as the biological purpose of eating is to repair the body. Now if we eat whenever we feel inclined and just as much as we want, it is quite true that most of us will eat too much: but not terrifically too much. One man may eat enough for two, but he does not eat enough for ten. The appetite goes a little beyond its biological purpose, but not enormously. But if a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined, and if each act produced a baby, then in ten years he might easily populate a small village. This appetite is in ludicrous and preposterous excess of its function.

He continues:

You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?

But that was then. This is now.

I got home from Vespers tonight to find, as if our wont, my better half tuned into the Food Channel as she cooked. But the show finishing up was  new to us, Ginormous Food, which concluded with a donut roughly 24″ in diameter and 6″ tall, followed by another new one, Incredible Edible America with the Dunhams, which started with a $777 Las Vegas burger, which was definitely large, but really “justified” the cost by tricks like including paté from the livers of vestal virgins (or something like that).

I didn’t know whether to laugh at the happenstance, or marvel at the cheek of the music editor, when the $777 burger was introduced with the unmistakeable strains of the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem.


The day of wrath, that day will
dissolve the world in ashes,
as David and the Sibyl prophesied.

How great will be the terror,
when the Judge comes
who will smash everything completely!

The trumpet, scattering a marvelous sound
through the tombs of every land,
will gather all before the throne.

Death and Nature shall stand amazed,
when all Creation rises again
to answer to the Judge.

Mezzo-soprano and Chorus: 
A written book will be brought forth,
which contains everything
for which the world will be judged.

Therefore when the Judge takes His seat,
whatever is hidden will be revealed:
nothing shall remain unavenged.

The day of wrath, that day will
dissolve the world in ashes,
as David and the Sibyl prophesied.

Soprano, Mezzo-soprano and Tenor: 
What can a wretch like me say?
Whom shall I ask to intercede for me,
when even the just ones are unsafe?

Food porn: the latest wretched excess from a culture where wretched excess personified now sits in the oval office.

I think I need to go shower now. There’s sure not much to watch on TV anyway.

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“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Cultural Liturgies

Let’s get this out of the way: James K.A. Smith reviewed Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option book in a way that struck Dreher and (assuming Dreher was truthful about Smith’s efforts to woo him to Smith’s publisher) me as low-down and deceitful. Since March 10, I don’t think Dreher has mentioned him nor, I believe, have I.

But I, too, have been accused of betrayal — unjustly, in my opinion, but this isn’t about me.  My devastatingly effective boycott of Smith must now come to an end. Smith is saying too many important things to ignore him.

For Smith, we are not primarily “thinking things” we are “loving things,” and people pursue what they love. Smith writes: “Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Our wants reverberate from our hearts, the epicenter of the human person.” This prompts an obvious question: what if you don’t love the right things? Going further, Smith observes that “you might not love what you think.” For fallen people, that will always be true to greater and lesser degrees. The remedy to disoriented loves is to be immersed in a liturgy that reforms your loves, pointing you in the right direction, to use Smith’s metaphor of the compass. The majority of the book then provides ways to work that liturgy down into your bones, so that you begin to long for the right things.

When hearts are pulled to negative things that work against flourishing, that life starts to be characterized by vice. Smith observes that humans “can’t not be headed somewhere,” and those liturgies, those stories, that capture our hearts move us to action for good or for ill. Unfortunately, many Americans are listening to a story that praises consumption over production and pulls people toward the path of least resistance, or sloth …

Smith is using this model to aid churches and communities in forming citizens of the Kingdom of God—pilgrims on the way to the New Jerusalem, paying attention to the liturgy of God’s people and letting it form and remold their affections. [Sen. Ben] Sasse wants to use the model to form citizens dedicated to republican virtues: commitment to neighbor, affection for their inherited Western tradition, engagement in Puritan-style industriousness, and appreciation for the diverse regions and cultures of the United States. Sasse proposes a liturgy to create mature, honorable citizens—and rulers—of the Republic. Indeed, he believes that this is not just an ideal that Americans could pursue it; it is a mandatory component of the American project. If families do not raise children who exhibit these traits, we might as well call it quits, warning that “if the idea of America is not reborn in our children’s hearts, we will all suffer a shared orphanhood.“

Sasse’s American liturgy is certainly not a know-nothing patriotism committed to “blood and soil.” Instead, it is one that is committed to the republican ideals of the Founding, which spoke of the American government as securing rights and privileges guaranteed by God. Indeed, the patriots made an “appeal to heaven” in their cause, believing they were engaged in a godly, and righteous movement. Sasse sees this American liturgy as a positive, and one that he, a Christian, can heartily embrace. Yet, Smith has emphatically warned Christians about the dangers of the American liturgy. In Desiring the Kingdom, Smith highlights that we are being formed when we are standing for the national anthem, reciting the pledge of allegiance, and praising members of the military for making the “ultimate sacrifice,” and for Smith, this forming tends to push Christians away from the Kingdom of God; instead of being compatible with the Christian liturgy, it, subtly, erodes allegiance to Christ and his kingdom by communicating that the defining characteristic of a person is his or her citizenship in an earthly kingdom. Though he allows that it can ‘make room for additional loyalties,” he believes “it is not willing to entertain trumping loyalties.”

If that is true, then patriotism seems to be antithetical to a religion that claims Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. Sasse and Smith, ultimately have a disagreement over the nature of the American liturgy ….

(Ben Sasse, James K. A. Smith, and Smuggling in Virtue, emphasis added) This article, by the way, summarized Sasse’s book in a way that sort of moots my prior mild dismissal:

Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse has written a book about raising children to be adults, and strangely for a book written by a sitting politician, it contains no concrete policy proposals. It’s a truism, especially on the political right, that politics is downstream of culture. From this perspective, politics and politicians are limited. The problems plaguing our society are rooted in communities and families; and the solutions must be formed by communities and families. Instead of passing the buck impotent politicians, Americans must take a long, honest look in the mirror. Sasse acknowledges this and writes from the point of view of a husband, father, historian, Augustinian, and American.

The aim of his book then is to help parents recalibrate their family culture in order to produce someone who is habituated toward doing virtuous deeds. Sasse wants to help parents in “nudging affections” toward a shared conception of the good ….

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There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.