What is marriage? Back in 2004, Senator Hillary Clinton gave a pretty good definition. To be fair, the larger context was her speaking against the idea of a federal marriage amendment, but in the course of her speech she resolutely defended the notion that marriage is between a man and a woman.

I believe marriage is not just a bond but a sacred bond between a man and a woman. I have had occasion in my life to defend marriage, to stand up for marriage, to believe in the hard work and challenge of marriage. So I take umbrage at anyone who might suggest that those of us who worry about amending the Constitution are less committed to the sanctity of marriage, or to the fundamental bedrock principle that exists between a man and a woman, going back into the midst of history as one of the foundational institutions of history and humanity and civilization, and that its primary, principal role during those millennia has been the raising and socializing of children for the society into which they become adults.

She later sounded quite conservative in warning about the consequences of what we might call non-traditional family situations.

We could stand on this floor for hours talking about the importance of marriage, the significance of the role of marriage in not only bringing children into the world but enabling them to be successful citizens in the world. How many of us have struggled for years to deal with the consequences of illegitimacy, of out-of-wedlock births, of divorce, of the kinds of anomie and disassociation that too many children experienced because of that.

Mrs. Clinton even defended the rights of the states to define marriage as they see fit.

The States, which have always defined and enforced the laws of marriage, are taking action. Thirty-eight States–maybe it is up to 40 now–already have laws banning same-sex marriage. Voters in at least eight States are considering amendments to their constitutions reserving marriage to unions between a man and a woman. But the sponsors argue that we have to act with a Federal constitutional amendment because the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution will eventually force States, if there are any left, that do not wish to recognize same-sex marriages to do so. That is not the way I read the case law. With all due respect, the way I read the case law is that the full faith and credit clause has never been interpreted to mean that every State must recognize every marriage performed in every other State.

Several years earlier, President Bill Clinton waxed eloquent about the significance of liberty of conscience as he he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

We all have a shared desire here to protect perhaps the most precious of all American liberties, religious freedom. Usually the signing of legislation by a President is a ministerial act, often a quiet ending to a turbulent legislative process. Today this event assumes a more majestic quality because of our ability together to affirm the historic role that people of faith have played in the history of this country and the constitutional protections those who profess and express their faith have always demanded and cherished.

As Clinton explained, he was eager to sign the legislation so that the Supreme Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith might be reversed and a better standard established for protecting the free exercise of religion.

The free exercise of religion has been called the first freedom, that which originally sparked the development of the full range of the Bill of Rights. Our Founders cared a lot about religion. And one of the reasons they worked so hard to get the first amendment into the Bill of Rights at the head of the class is that they well understood what could happen to this country, how both religion and Government could be perverted if there were not some space created and some protection provided. They knew that religion helps to give our people the character without which a democracy cannot survive. They knew that there needed to be a space of freedom between Government and people of faith that otherwise Government might usurp…

What this law basically says is that the Government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone’s free exercise of religion. This judgment is shared by the people of the United States as well as by the Congress. We believe strongly that we can never, we can never be too vigilant in this work.

Clinton argued that there was an unhealthy “climate in this country” in which people were embarrassed to admit their actions were motivated “by their faith” and by “what they discern to be. . . . the will of God.”  After observing that “the most central institution of our society, the family, has been under assault for 30 years” the President implored his audience that it was “high time we had an open and honest reaffirmation of the role of American citizens of faith.” Religion, as he saw it, belonged in the public square and the free exercise of religion deserved the strongest protections under the law.

We are a people of faith. We have been so secure in that faith that we have enshrined in our Constitution protection for people who profess no faith. And good for us for doing so. That is what the first amendment is all about. But let us never believe that the freedom of religion imposes on any of us some responsibility to run from our convictions. Let us instead respect one another’s faiths, fight to the death to preserve the right of every American to practice whatever convictions he or she has, but bring our values back to the table of American discourse to heal our troubled land.

So to summarize from the speeches made by Senator Clinton and President Clinton:

  • Marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman.
  • Marriage is a foundational institution because it exists for the raising of children.
  • The presence of illegitimacy, out-of-wedlock births, and divorce negatively affect our children.
  • The states have a right to define marriage as they see fit and recognize marriage according to their definition.
  • The Government should be held to a very high level of proof before interfering with someone’s free exercise of religion.
  • We can never be too diligent in protecting religious liberty.
  • Religious believers not be ashamed to admit that their actions may be motivated by faith and by their understanding of God’s will.
  • We need more religion in the public square, not less.
  • We should respect other people’s faith (or lack thereof), but without running from our own convictions.
  • We should fight to the death to preserve the right of every American to practice his or her convictions.

Three cheers for the Clintons–of 1993 and 2004! Are there any Democrats or Republicans or college presidents or members of the mainstream media who would dare to say the same things today? It is sobering to think that the wisdom of two millennia (which Hillary Clinton affirmed) and the Constitutional protections of two centuries (in which Bill Clinton exulted) can be cast aside as backward and bigoted just two decades later. The insanity of our time is to think that everyone else was crazy before Our Time. Maybe we have something to learn from history. Maybe there are things to learn from the past. Or maybe we are smarter and nobler than all those who have come before, including, as a prime example, the less enlightened version of our former selves.