The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market, and Morals, edited by Robert George and Jean Bethke Elshtain (Spence Publishing, 316 pp. $29.95)

The meaning of marriage has become a prime subject of the culture wars. The subject is itself extremely difficult to discuss dispassionately, tied up as it is with politics, religion, and the American self-definition as a land characterized by individual self-creation.

Some advocate that the benefits and legal recognition of marriage be accorded to same-sex couples, while series such as HBO’s recent Big Love, not so subtly defend polygamy, and some feminists want to do away with marriage entirely. Meanwhile, the majority of Americans continue to get married and have children, confronting, in areas from television to the tax code, what in some respects is an increasingly ant-family society.

This volume of essays arose out of a conference held at Princeton University in 2003 to address the legal, social, and biological meanings of marriage. The contributors include Hadley Arkes, philosopher Roger Scruton, legal scholar David Forte, and sociologist W. Bradley Wilcox. The selections contain deep reflections on what we mean when we describe marriage, and why marriage is a superior social institution than its competitors.

Several themes run throughout these contributions. First, is that marriage, while often imbued with religious meaning, is not an exclusively religious institution: it has existed, and continues to exist, in almost every human society for which there is a record. Second, the contributors argue that marriage is not, or not simply, a private affair and cannot be properly understood merely as another means for adults to find personal satisfaction. Marriage has a public dimension, and that dimension is profoundly connected to marriage being a structure designed for the begetting and raising of children. Children are independent persons, and must be cared for as part of the basic structure of a married relationship, and not simply as an afterthought. Finally, as Maggie Gallagher, for example, points out, marriage, not surprisingly, correlates with positive outcomes for children, more so than other arrangements.

Once any of these themes is discounted, marriage becomes something other than what most human societies have known it to be. As Arkes describes in his profound essay, even those arguing to radical reconstruction of the meaning of marriage do not follow their logic to where it must go: the elimination of anything called “marriage,” substituting instead an ersatz relationship covering any human relationship, deadening within a law-imposed uniformity the varied loves humans can experience. The Meaning of Marriage contains essential reading on this vital societal issue.

Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade, by Donald T. Critchlow (Princeton University Press, 422 pp. $29.95).

Much emphasis has been placed on the intellectual roots of American conservatism that occurred in the 1950s. However, of no less importance was the grassroots organizing that took conservative ideas and transformed them into a winning political movement. One of the more significant events of the emerging conservative movement was the successful defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment. That victory was engineered by Phyllis Schlafly, one of the most important figures of American politics in the last four decades. In this new book, Critchlow, a professor of history at St. Louis University, recounts Schlafly’s remarkable story and her lasting influence in American public life.

Schlafly (born 1924) rose to permanent national prominence in 1964, with her pro-Goldwater book, A Choice Not An Echo, but she had already been a well-known anticommunist crusader, political organizer, and candidate for Congress during the decade before that. Graduating from Radcliffe in 1945, Schlafly traveled to Washington and worked for the American Enterprise Association, which solidified the conservative beliefs she had grown up with as part of an intellectual Catholic family in St. Louis. By 1975, she had established the Eagle Forum, as a redoubt for conservative women who rejected feminism, which still has a readership of over 50,000.

Critchlow rightly focuses on the battle against the Equal Rights Amendment, the defeat of which is largely impossible to imagine without Schlafly’s organization and dedication. Critchlow places the fight over the ERA (which had been mentioned in American politics as early as 1920) squarely in the context of the aftermath of the civil rights movement and the feminism emerging under figures like Betty Friedan. The fight against the ERA, and an ideological feminism that spurned traditional gender roles and alienated millions of middle-class American woman, became Schlafly’s defining moment.

While not sympathetic to Schlafly’s conservatism, Critchlow for the most part fairly delineates her beliefs and her objections to modern liberalism. It is a worthy contribution to the history of the conservative political movement.

Conservative Thinkers from John Adams to Winston Churchill, by Peter Viereck (Transaction Publishers, 191 pp. $24.95).

This volume is another of the books of the conservative poet-historian Peter Viereck being republished by Transaction. Viereck is something of an outlier of contemporary conservatism, having faded from view in the 1950s after falling out with William F. Buckley and others over a number of issues, including the controversy over Joseph McCarthy. His conservatism lead him to some odd conclusions—such as arguing that the New Deal could be defended as a conservative program and that Adlai Stevenson was a true conservative—and conservatives such as Russell Kirk sometimes had harsh words about Viereck’s opinions, but his work perhaps deserves a second look.

This volume, first published in 1956, is a précis of most of the varieties of conservative thought up to the years following the Second World War. The first part of the book is a conservative genealogy, tracing it in four constituent parts: British, Latin Europe, conservatism “east of the Rhine,” and that of the United States. Viereck compares Burke as a conservative of liberty, with de Maistre, who is a conservative ofauthority. The American Founders were students of Burke, but were not the democrats of popular imagination; while the aristocratic Hamilton did not win the day, the founding was not a “democratic” event. Viereck interestingly explains Calhoun’s political thought as trying to combine Burke and de Maistre in an American context.

Of particular value here is the second section, “Documents,” which in fact takes up almost half the volume. In it, Viereck has collected over thirty representative conservative works that track his earlier discussion, including selections from Burke, Coleridge, and Disraeli, but also Calhoun, the Spaniard Donoso Cortes, Louis Veuillot, and others, down to the Wall Street Journal of 1955.

Despite its idiosyncrasies, Conservative Thinkers provides a good introduction to the main subjects, figures, and themes of conservatism.

The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism, by John C. Bogle (Yale University Press, 288 pp., $25.00).

Russell Kirk once stated that he studiously avoided the business section of a newspaper, finding economics justified its reputation as the dismal science. In his writings on the “wealthy American bum,” however, and the rarity of the God-fearing man, Kirk anticipated the kind of character that plagued the corporate world in the late 1990s and early years of this century. That period, which witnessed in the internet boom one of the largest wealth-creating episodes of American history, also featured corporate greed not seen since the days of the robber barons. But at least the robber barons, in the midst of their theft, built railroads, poured steel, and mined coal; their latter-day epigones seem to have done little but shuffle paper and engage in the latest management-speak while fleecing millions.

It is not often that a business man comes out so firmly against his class, but in this book, John Bogle, one of the giants of American finance and founder and former CEO of the Vanguard group of mutual funds, unleashes a coruscating attack on the financial industry for its misconduct. Bogle describes the top scandals of recent years, and tries to refocus corporate management where it belongs: on servicing its investor-owners.

In the mutual fund area, which he knows best, Bogle promotes a series of reforms intended to restrict the ability of fund managers to put their interests above that of their investors, which not only is bad for business but is also against the law. More generally, he is a proponent of corporate democracy; a standard defense of modern capitalism is that it mimics democracy. Shareholders own their corporation, and can vote on how it is to be run. Bogle overturns this easy formulation. He explains how individual shareholders have little or no say in corporate governance, and how entities like mutual funds are caught up in a hopeless series of conflicts of interest, as they try to balance the needs of their investors with the corporations with which they do business. These problems are compounded by an ethic of greed and selfishness that too often pervades the financial marketplace.

Bogle paints a dark, but not completely hopeless picture of modern American capitalism. Conservatives, and others, who seek to understand and critique how the market actually works should read this important book.