"Upgrading their vows to that of a covenant marriage, a legally binding contract available only in Arkansas, Arizona and Louisiana, the Huckabees [the Arkansas governor and his wife] hope to jump-start a conservative movement that has shown little sign of moving in recent years. A covenant marriage commits a couple to counseling before any separation and limits divorce to a handful of grounds, like adultery or abuse." The New York Times, "Trying to Strengthen an I Do' With a More Binding Legal Tie." By Rick Lyman, February 15, 2005.
When liberals talk of a conservative agenda, mentions of pro-life and anti-gay marriage views are typical. Discussion of the anti-contraception and pro-covenant marriage movements is less common. While on one end of the reproductive rights debate is the question of whether a woman may end her pregnancy, on the other end of the debate is whether she has the right to prevent it in the first place. Similarly, the marriage question is on the one hand about which couples may wed, and on the other hand about which marriages, in a sense, count.
It's well known that not all marriages last. But most still think of marriage as the greatest voluntary commitment between two human beings. Couples that take marriage seriously are certainly free to remain married, but the commitment to stay in a marriage is left up to the individual. Yet now, with covenant marriage an option in some states, those who choose to regular-marry will start to seem wary and unenthusiastic.
Now, why is a multi-level marriage system problematic? Shouldn't consenting adults be allowed to agree to whatever nonsense they see fit?
Part of the problem with covenant marriage is its overtly religious nature. A legal marriage in America does not need to have any religious overtones. A covenant marriage is a redundant term (what is a marriage if not a covenant?) unless the covenant referred to is one with God.
The New York Times reports that, "proponents of covenant marriage have recently shifted their tactics, focusing increasingly on individual pastors and congregations as well as on lawmakers. Proponents say one goal now is to recruit as many pastors as possible who will allow only covenant marriages in their churches. That was a reason so many ministers were invited to take part in [the ceremony at which the first couple of Arkansas upgraded their marriage]."
In other words, covenant marriage is a way of writing a religious marriage into law. While two Buddhists or atheists could covenant-wed, and while plenty of Blue State types stay married, it's clear that covenant marriage is meant to catch on among right-wing Christians.
Another problem with covenant marriage is that, by creating less and more serious marriage options, it will in effect weaken marriage. Couples with the option of covenant marriage who choose "just" to marry will be seen by many as living in sin, or as always looking for an escape route. Married residents of the states that reject covenant marriage will all be seen as immoral and semi-married, further reinforcing the Blue State-Red State divide.
There are many reasonable qualms that even the most devoted spouses might have with covenant marriage. As a non-neutral institution, with its roots not in a universal human tradition but in the contemporary American conservative Christian South, covenant marriage will appeal only to those who feel comfortable with that particular subculture. (According to The New York Times, the first covenant marriage law was passed in Louisiana, in 1997.) Straight couples that support the right of same-sex couples to wed, who understand the pro-covenant, anti-gay marriage connection, will stick with regular marriage. Or spouses simply might want love, not a contract, to be what keeps their marriage together, and might have chosen to marry, rather than just live together, merely for practical reasons.
Opponents of gay marriage often note that gays, like all other Americans, already have marriage rights because they, too, are free to wed the opposite-sex person of their choosing. Those enamored of such technicalities should be the first to realize that all regular-married Americans already have the right to remain married and to continue to reap the benefits of marriage for their entire lives. Conservatives also argue against gay marriage on the grounds that it goes against tradition; let me repeat, covenant marriage began in 1997. By unnecessarily creating a two-caste system of marriage, one that excludes gays entirely and which turns straights who reject covenant marriage into objects of scorn, the proponents of covenant marriage are trying to remove one of the basic institutions that unite Americans across the political divide.