My first night in Prague was typical: cold and snow swept. I had just attended a lecture on political philosophy at an old fifteenth century monastery, now repurposed as office space. My translator—a Czech-born Canadian ex-pat—asked me if I wanted to see the pub where her parents had played jazz and Václav Havel had recited poetry.
She told me stories of her folks and their friends gathering in this very bar, playing music, sharing poetry, living art. Their nightly gatherings were the underground resistance to communism before they even knew it. Their art and music supported one another. Those were nights of bootlegged liberty and artistic freedom. In the years that followed, the regime imprisoned and reviled them, but supported by one another, they kept alive their vision of a true and free human family and lead the revolt coalesced around Charter 77. These nights changed the course of of their own nation and others.
Like dissident music and poetry, marriage has been outcast—as much by social changes as by the political regime. To be a traditional parent is to be odd, eccentric, abnormal. The legal, economic, and social conditions for a married couple hardly provide the space for marriage to flourish. In the same way the poets of Prague had no publicly sanctioned space for their art because it was subversive, marriage too lacks a true home in our society, because it too is subversive.
The requirements of marriage are subversive of the popular view of freedom as entailing no restrictions upon our choices. Marriage subverts the liberationist narrative, upon which profits depend, as parents responsible for children reject it. It subverts the belief in sexual interchangeability behind the movement for same-sex marriage.
As a result, other values have been prioritized over the responsibilities inherent to marriage. No-fault divorce gutted marriage of its legally-supported durability; one partner can unilaterally and unconditionally end the marriage. Social and economic pressures make raising a family without a two-parent income (or a one-parent, high-earning, high-stress income) impossible; this leaves significantly less time for parents to dedicate the best of their times to children. Thus, the responsibility for rearing children has moved from a parent-centered, family-supported enterprise to a government and media-elite driven outsourced endeavor, with calls for more daycare, “family life education,” and other society-first, parent-second programs. Culture outsources parents’ basic duties because they are viewed as no longer competent or able to accomplish them.
Living marriage as it should be now requires an heroic effort. Our way is essentially unsupported and is increasingly unwanted by culture and law. Outside of certain elite and high-income circles, it is growing impossible to live freely and well the traditional form of marriage. People on both sides of “marriage equality” embrace traditional marriage. But only those who can “buy out” of our new, default cultural norms really have the stable liberty to live marriage.
Think of the Obamas. Despite their advocacy for same-sex unions, they buck the trend among Americans in their commitment to family life. No doubt their education and financial success—with an elite ability to offer their daughters the very best, including buying out of D.C.’s public school system—has helped strengthen their own values and commitment to family life.
The rest of us, we are left much like those Prague artists, needing to turn to one another in order to secure the liberty we need. Our benevolent engineers see family life lived separate from their rules and structures as a crime. If the marriages we have are now subversive, we can only live through resistance. We have to lead our family lives in resisting the unexamined assumptions that come with public and cultural support.
To do that, we need our own, dark, earthy pubs. In the dissenters’ Prague was the exhilaration of living the displaced and outcast arts that supported a genuine, flourishing life. Our churches must be the gathering places where we love the joy and beauty of the commitment to marriage we have made.
This does not mean churches need embark on specific “marriage encounter programs” or hire a “marriage minister” akin to a youth minister. Churches rather must be conscious that their services should support married couples, welcome families, especially those with small children, and their extra-liturgical events should be family-oriented and family-friendly gatherings. There families can encounter families and be able to share socially and in solidarity in the joys, difficulties, and worries of living genuine family life.
Our churches are essential, not just because they are “safe spaces.” Marriage is the domestic church, and without a life-giving connection to the universal Church families become all too subject to seek support in the culture at large, which is devoid of grace and the true ability to nurture, as well as antagonistic to the truths and virtues marriage requires and teaches.
Prague, however, also provides a warning. We will build the society we ourselves already live. That is, if the values we choose are stripped down to their most basic common core (in order for others to align themselves with us), eventually we will only build a society of those values. Without our churches leading the work to create this space, we run the risk of collapsing into prevailing values that ultimately do not honor families genuinely.
About a year after my night in Prague, I met Václav Havel. Havel had repurposed an old church into a new cultural center. The abandoned church, gutted of its sanctuary and renovated with a steel, art-nouveau second story promenade, saddened me deeply by its embrace of nostalgia. For all the art and beauty that Havel’s generation had embraced, they had done so as agnostics and atheists. That was core to their mass appeal: kneel to no authority. But Havel, now an aging man, could not do much but exhaust his legacy.
I don’t remember Havel’s exact words that day, but I do remember that he remarked to us gathered there, “Here we stand, where once was a church.” I felt conflicted. I wanted to celebrate Havel, his life, and his generation’s achievements. But we were standing in what was once a House of God. Like many of his fellow artists, Havel himself was agnostic; they in turn reflected much of Czech society as it is today, largely agnostic and atheistic. Freedom had won, but so had the communists. Havel’s Prague is a city without God.
In the midst of trying to defend marriage, we must first live marriage. While this starts with commitments to our spouses and family, we cannot flourish without a vibrant and flourishing marriage culture, cultivated within our churches. Ultimately, the victory we seek will reflect the lives we have lived. Collectively. Havel’s society became what he and the other members of Charter 77 lived. Their lesson to us is important: live what you wish to become. But it is also a caution: be careful what you live.