Yesterday I was reading Timothy Dalrymple’s post on the gay marriage debate. Tim’s a good fella but we don’t agree on a whole lot. So it’s not surprising when either of us disagree with something the other wrote. Yet something in his post made me do a double-take:
But here’s the thing: no one ever claimed that the legal recognition of gay marriage is going to harm your marriage. The claim is that it will harm the institution of marriage. And, with all due respect, the institution of marriage is more important than your marriage. Societies are built on the institution of marriage. But I’m sure your marriage is nice too.
Just what the hell is the Institution of Marriage, anyway?
I mean, seriously? What is it?
I’ve heard that phrase for years and I still have no idea what it means, considering marriage is a constantly evolving concept. It sounds pretty darn important, especially since Tim says it’s the foundation of all society. I recall from my Christian upbringing that marriage, defined as 1 man+1 woman+chillen’, is considered the smallest and most basic form of government by some conservative Christians. It is upon such marriages all other forms of government stand. These marriages, ruled by the father and served by the mother and children, were considered the atoms that make up our body politic. As above, so below.
Rather terrifying, huh? This is what conservative Christians mean when they talk about defending the institution of marriage. They believe the government should protect their definition of marriage because they perceive that definition as an extension of the government and vice versa.
Yet, this definition, referred to as “traditional marriage”, doesn’t really fit American values or reflect the reality of human relationships. Religion had no role in marriage until Ignatius of Antioch suggested in 110 CE that marriage should not be about lust or secular considerations, but about the blessing of God and approved by clergy. Marriages were private contracts between individuals and families, regarded women as property and had no expectation of sexual exclusivity by both parties.
Marriages were contracts, which could be voided due to clauses in the contract or by mutual consent. In Greece, if a woman’s father died with no living male heir she could be divorced from her husband and married to her nearest living male relative to protect the family property. In Mosaic Law, a woman whose husband took another wife yet did not maintain for her the same financial support, social status and level of sexual activity that she had become accustomed to, she could divorce him outright. The Emperor Hadrian and his wife Sabina never had children, he kept a male youth as an official consort and she had affairs with other men. The recording of marriages as a government function only came about during the Reformation due to Martin Luther’s views on marriage, which, along with his views on women, weren’t exactly positive. Same-sex union ceremonies are known to have occurred in ancient Greece and Rome, leading to a law against the practice being instituted by Constantius II and Constans in 342 CE.
There are countless examples of how really “untraditional” marriage is, including in American history. Marriage in the colonies and territories was largely a matter of self-description: if you mutually considered yourselves married, then you were married. It was also a common practice in England, until the Marriage Act of 1753 required Anglican priests to officiate, and approve, all marriages. Interracial marriages were forbidden as early as 1691 and not declared legal nationwide until 1967, 276 years later. In 1996 for the very first time a federal law defines marriage as a heterosexual couple intending to have children. Under US law a disabled person, even if under the supervision of a guardian, retains the autonomous right to marry as long as they are capable of giving informed consent.
Women who are barren or post-menopausal, men who are sterile, and couples who have no interest in having children marry every day. Polyamory is a rising movement, and some Mormons are actively trying to reclaim polygamy as a religious right and wholesome lifestyle. A little over 40% of all live births in the US in 2008 were to unmarried women, and half of all marriages in that same year ended in divorce. In fact, if there is an Institution of Marriage, it’s not a very stable one. It’s certainly not a stable foundation on which to build a country.
However, our Founding Fathers didn’t declare we had a right to domestic partnerships whose primary basis is heterosexual conjugal access for the purpose of procreation, they said we had a right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. By narrowly defining marriage and casting it as an “institution” the Federal government would effectively be curtailing our Liberty and blocking our Pursuit of Happiness. A marriage is a Civil Partnership, and the government has no business regulating it.
Being raised a Southern Baptist, I recently recounted to a friend the number of marriages my devout mother went through and the lies, both blatant and by omission, she used to cover up her past out of shame. Her dishonesty caused my family unnecessary pain, and the multiple marriages were the result of her trying to find the idealized Christian family life. My friend shook his head and said that’s why polyamory makes much more sense. He’s right, because polyamory is about honesty and pure intentions. Marriage should be about honesty, whatever form it takes.
The Institution of Marriage is a lie. It’s a fabrication, a white-washing of history and an assumption that virtue lives in confined quarters. Marriage has traditionally been used as a tool to oppress women, minorities and children born outside of wedlock. Today, all over this country, people are reclaiming marriage as a positive affirmation of kinship, sexuality and honesty. I can’t support the Institution of Marriage with it’s crumbling and cracked foundations. I do support the Evolution of Marriage as a vibrant, honest way to build community and honor the oaths humans make to each other: male to female, male to male, female to female, for all time, as long as love lasts, in polygyny, in polyandry, in polyamory, in young adulthood, in old age, between every race, exclusive, open and in glorious diversity.
I believe in Virtue. I believe in Honesty, Community, Love, Respect and Justice. I believe in Liberty, that grand idea that we should be free to live our lives as we wish in peace. For some small sect of Christianity to restrict our Liberty and impede our Pursuit of Happiness by imposing a false narrow view of those Civil Partnerships we refer to as marriage is down-right Un-American.
If our society isn’t built on Virtue, on Liberty, Truth, and Justice, then our society is worthless, and no Institution of Marriage, or some other attempt to impose false values that restrict Liberty, will save it.
To close on a lighter note, the Prop 8 Musical: