The row over Conservative Party plans to give tax breaks to married couples has made headlines in a way that shows it has touched a few nerves.
Conservative Party leader David Cameron believes that marriage is an institution that the state should support. Marriage breakdown leads to poverty and damages children. It costs billions every year. It is creating a class of people who have never known a stable and loving family life, and who are therefore unlikely to be able to create one for their own children.
One of the reasons why families split up is that the financial pressure on them is so great. So it makes sense for the state to relieve some of that pressure.
Many Christians will instinctively sympathize with this view. And indeed the policy, once it has been thoroughly thought through and costed, which it has not at the moment, is likely to be a vote-winner.
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We should, however, be wary of knee-jerk endorsements just because they tick our moral boxes. It is not the government’s job to legislate for morality. It has to make laws on the basis that they are demonstrably good for society. In other words, they promote security, prosperity and justice.
The Conservative proposals are not, on this basis, beyond criticism. Cameron has said that whereas one out of 11 married couples have separated by the time their first child is 5 years old, around half of unmarried couples have separated. But it still needs to be established that the playing field is level. Perhaps the people who are going to get married are the type who would stay together even if they weren’t. And whether giving couples whose relationships are foundering a few hundred pounds a year would keep them together is an open question.
A more fundamental question is around the question of justice. It is impossible to privilege one section of the community without disadvantaging another – in this case, to reward married parents without penalizing equally deserving unmarried ones. In a world where people are so conscious of their rights as individuals, it is never going to be easy to argue that the welfare of society as a whole demands that some people make sacrifices – though law is a blunt instrument at the best of times.
There will, at least, be scope for an intelligent Christian debate about real policies come election time. And for that, at least, we may be thankful.