Is the Institution of Marriage Really Crumbling?

Is the Institution of Marriage Really Crumbling? July 8, 2011

I recently wrote a piece entitled “Three Red Herrings in the Gay Marriage Debate.”  A colleague of mine named Star, the managing editor of Patheos’ Pagan Portal, responded in “Life, Liberty, and the Institution of Marriage?”  I am a fan of Star’s.  She’s a true believer.  She’s not a pagan because she finds it fashionable, or because she thinks the pagan gods “represent virtues worth emulating” (but do not really exist).  She not only believes that the gods of various ancient pagan traditions really exist; she believes they are active in her life, and deserve her worship.  She would even say that she has a close (personal) relationship with gods like Hephaestus and Baba Yaga.

Star is about the most winsome representative of contemporary American paganism I can imagine, and a friend, and I won’t tolerate ad hominem arguments against her.  She is also an amiable soul and slow to anger, so the frustrated tone of her post says something.  There are a good number of Americans who find “the institution of marriage” truly repressive.  That’s worth listening to.  Here’s a part of her post:

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.

There are a couple things here worth considering.  The basic question, “What is the institution of marriage?”, is entirely fair.  There’s a fair amount in Star’s recitation of history that is not historical, but we’re not going to solve that problem right now.  The basic points — and they’re worth taking seriously — are these: (1) the concept of marriage is constantly evolving, and (2) marriage, especially when narrowly construed, has been a tool of oppression against women, minorities, and the like.  In other words, there may be no such thing as an “institution” of marriage, since definitions of marriage are fluid — but the attempt to turn marriage into an institution is confining, arrogant (Who are we to say that our marriage is really marriage and your marriage is not?), and creates the conditions for abuse and hardship.

Star tells us what she does affirm:

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.

Christians and non-Christians who believe in the institution of marriage need to pay attention.  Some of my liberal friends call it hyperbole when Christians say that the next thing after same-sex marriage will be polygamy and even incest.  And Christians are sometimes very clumsy in the way they frame this.  They do not mean to liken or equate same-sex relationships with polygamy or incest; they’re arguing that the legal justification proffered for same-sex marriage would also serve to justify, or at least lead in the direction of, polygamous and incestuous marriages.  As I’ve said before, slippery-slope arguments often sound silly or alarmist, but I think a good case can be made to support one in this instance.

Same-sex marriage proponents don’t want to talk about these things, because they’re (justly) concerned it will scare Americans away from allowing any change in our marriage laws.  But there are, waiting in the wings after the same-sex marriage movement, people who will challenge the laws limiting marriage to only two individuals.  Pagans (and others) are already arguing that their religion affirms multiple-marriage (as many forms of paganism do), and it’s an infringement of their religious rights that they are permitted to marry only one person.  Others stand against “discrimination on the basis of ancestry” (i.e., they favor the permission of relatives to marry.)  If marriage can be redefined internationally as “The uniting of consenting individuals in a witnessed ceremony,” then “laws against polygamy and consanguineous intimacy” will be “repealed, overruled, or superseded,” and people of any orientation, any number, or any birth relation, can marry.

Unless we can provide a clear sense of what we mean by the institution of marriage and why we believe it’s worth defending, we are going to lose this argument.  We need to do better.  We need to hear why people are so frustrated with what we have made of marriage; we need to hear why we’re viewed as hypocrites for preventing others to marry when we’re failing in our own marriages; and we need to explain clearly and persuasively why marriage should still be considered one man and one woman.  I will post an article on Monday entitled “Why We Marry.”  Then I will address, “Is the Institution of Marriage Worth Defending?”

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