Why Marriage Matters

Why Marriage Matters March 26, 2013

Supporters of Same-Sex Marriage hold up signs to rally against protesters of marriage equality. Photo by @alucidon on AARP Instagram

As I sit down to write this, SCOTUSblog has just tweeted that they don’t expect Prop 8 to be overturned:

That’s too bad. Justice Kennedy may not be ready for it — if so, he’s in line with many in his generation (Kennedy is 76). But, as Rob Bell said last week, that ship has already sailed. Frank Bruni basically said the same thing this week in the NYTimes:

But while they’re watching this moment raptly and hopefully, it’s not with a sense that the fate of the cause hangs in the balance. Quite the opposite. They’re watching it with an entirely warranted confidence, verging on certainty, that no matter what the justices say during this coming week’s hearings and no matter how they rule months from now, the final chapter of this story has in fact been written. The question isn’t whether there will be a happy ending. The question is when.

Now, it seems, evangelicals and Catholics are going to their fall-back position: the gays can have civil unions, but not marriage. Exhibit A is fellow Patheos blogger Ben Witherington, who writes,

I would just add several considerations from a Christian theological point of view. These points have to do with the definition of marriage, not the issue of civil unions sanctioned by state laws. I do not oppose the latter. What I oppose completely is the forced redefinition of the meaning of the word marriage, which up until recently referred to heterosexual monogamy in America law and society. This is precisely why there are anti-polygamy, anti-incest, anti-beastiality etc.laws on the books.

From there he makes a couple biblical arguments that are, IMHO, a stretch. And he refers to natural law, an even bigger stretch. He concludes:

For all these reasons and other good ones, I am not in favor of redefining the meaning of the word marriage, while I also do not oppose civil unions, because that does indeed touch on the issue of secular civil rights. No one should have an inalienable right to redefine the long time honored definition of marriage. And in my view, no Christian minister who knows his Biblical theology and ethics at all well and wants to stick to God’s Word on this subject, should be advocating or solemnizing non-marriages as if they were God-blessed marriages.

What’s surprising to me is that Ben should be aware that “marriage” has been continually redefined over its long history — indeed, most concepts and words do evolve, and marriage is no exception.

For that vast majority of human history, marriage was a contract — it was about property and children. Women and children had no say in the marriage contract, and often men didn’t either. Marriages were agreed upon by parents and village or tribal elders, and they hinged upon keeping social structures intact and protecting wealth.

Even the Hebrew Scripture has scores of examples of marriages that were not between one man and one woman, and most of those marriage were not entered into volitionally by both parties.

Marriage evolved over the 2,000 years that the Bible was written, but it didn’t evolve for theological reasons. Marriage evolved for cultural reasons, and the Bible reflects that evolution. Jesus’ words reflected the institution of marriage as he knew it in his day.

And marriage has continued to evolve. Of course, there are still places in the world where arranged marriage is the norm. And people in the US still get married for reasons of wealth protection or immigration status. But in the Western world, marriage today is primarily about love. Attend 100 weddings, and 99 of them will include professions of love as the impetus for the union.

However, we in our society also incentivize marriage. In our laws and tax codes, we enhance the lives of those who make a legal commitment to one another (even though these legal commitments do not need to be sexual). This is what conservatives want to give GLBT persons: the right to these societal incentives.

But like heterosexuals, GLBT persons do not want to get married so that they can visit one another in the hospital or get a tax break for “married filing jointly.” They want to get married because they’re in love.

“Marriage” changes. It evolves. It has, and it will. 

And GLBT persons don’t want civil unions. That relegates their relationships to second-class status, and class statuses is antithetical to the democratic ideals on which America is based.

It’s time for Christians of all stripes, including Catholics and evangelicals, to get on board with this, at a cultural and societal level. And they need not worry, because their churches will not be required to perform weddings that they don’t want to.

And finally this word to my GLBT brothers and sisters: Thank you for fomenting one of the quickest and least violent cultural revolutions in human history. Well done.

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