Earlier in “What the Social Issues are Missing” I talked some about the standard “social issues”: gay marriage, abortion, and contraception. Given with Obama’s recent endorsement and North Carolina’s new constitutional amendment, gay marriage is back in the news, and a few of the blogs I follow are now writing about it.
So I wanted to draw upon their works and enter the fray to add my own comprehensive take about gay marriage, detailing the underlying history, philosophy, and constitutional law of it, and maybe drop a bit of science.
The What and Why of Traditional Marriage
Unnaturalness: So what, exactly, is wrong with gay marriage? First appeals are to it’s unnaturalness, but we can put that aside as dumb, because it belongs in the same category as wearing glasses (not natural!), flying in planes (If God wanted men to fly, he would have given us wings!), driving in cars (totally not natural!), and marriage itself (animals don’t have contracts)! Clearly, nothing about being unnatural means diddly squat, as completely unnatural things are totally legal. Now imagine the surprise when we also find out that homosexuality is actually rather natural, found in over 1500 animal species. This is perhaps in the top ten stupidest arguments I’ve ever heard, and can be immediately discarded.
Tradition: So lets get on to some stuff that is at least minimally sensical. The real argument begins by saying that marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman, and has been traditionally always defined that way. Thus, any attempt to allow gay marriage is changing the definition of marriage and, perhaps even worse, eroding our traditions of family values, or something like that.
The Bible: So this is the first explanation of traditional marriage: it’s always been that way. But when pressed, we can get a few more potential explanations: the Bible defines marriage as between a man and a woman… or at least, sort of: Leviticus 18:22 says that sex between two men is an abomination (but not for woman). Roman 1:26-27 suggests homosexual desires are sinful, and 1 Corinthians 6:9 says that homosexuals are unrighteous and will not inherit the Kingdom of God. So because homosexuality is sinful in the Bible, we should not allow them to marry.
Procreation and Child-Rearing: What else? The last potential explanation is that of children. Biologically, only a combination of a man and a woman can have a child. Likewise, it is claimed, that a man and a woman are the optimal family structure for raising that child. Thus, since the purpose of marriage is to create a family unit most conducive to birthing and raising children, and since only mixed-sex couples can do so, only mixed-sex marriages should be allowed.
Three potential justifications: (1) tradition, (2) Bible, and (3) child-rearing. However, all of these justifications fall short. First, there’s little reason to take these purposes into account whatsoever: why should we care if marriages today are a-traditional and a-Biblical, or not oriented toward child rearing? Why are these matters at all relevant to marriage?
Yet, it gets worse, because the history of marriage throughout time and the history of marriage in the Bible both show very little continuity with the kind of marriages we have today. And many more legal kinds of marriage are destructive of the general idealized tradition, and Biblical tradition, and child rearing, than same-sex marriage.
Thus a complete historical and philosophical appraisal (with a little science sprinkled in), finds no reason to be specifically discriminatory against same-sex marriages, and that we should just be fine with marriage equality, without any need to resort to civil unions.
Not So Traditional After All: A Brief History of Marriage
The traditional view of marriage likes to make it sound like marriage has always been constant. And they’re right about one thing — until recently, marriage indeed was always between a man and a woman. But that’s where the constancy stops, because a lot of the rest changed. Primarily, marriage had been an ownership rather than a relationship, a man owned one (or more) woman.
Marriage was a private affair independent of government influence for the majority of history, until approximately the 1600s. In the 1700s, married men and women were considered legally one person, and thus could not hold any property apart. This ended up making the woman completely subjugated to the man, not permitted to do anything without his permission.
Indeed, it wasn’t until 1870 that woman were able to legally own property, and until 1891 that it was decided husbands weren’t allowed to imprison their wives, and marital rape involving a wife’s perogative to submit sexually to her husband was legal and prevalent until the late 1800s. In fact, it was made illegal to rape slaves before it was illegal to rape your wife.
Thus, if you really want traditional marriage, you’re looking to go back to a long and arduous history of subjugation and submission, where the wife was considered property. Luckily, this tradition has evolved away, and I only hope that marriage equality will continue to evolve further, rather than get stuck in horrible traditions.
The Motivations of Marriage
As Jay Michelson writes in “Traditional Marriage: One Man, Many Women, Some Girls, Some Slaves” (via Andrés Ruiz):
And of course, even until the present day, traditional marriage has meant arranged marriage. The notion that two adults would enter into a marriage on their own volition is a radical innovation in the institution of marriage, at most two hundred years old.
Oh, and let’s not forget that in Europe and North America, marriage was considered a commercial proposition first and foremost—not a romantic one. Princes married princesses not because of fairy tales, but because their parents had political alliances to consider. Further down the economic ladder, people married for a variety of biological, commercial, and genealogical reasons—but rarely for love.
Yet another way more freedom has developed within marriages, and how the alleged tradition of marriage has not been constant throughout time.
Lastly, the debate over gay marriage is most analogous in history to the debate that was once had against interracial marriage. Long before America even existed, the Thirteen Colonies had enforced racial segregation by banning marriages between races, and even sex between races. These laws existed in many states until gradual repeal began. While Pennsylvania ended their interracial marriage law as early as 1780, for the Southern US states, it took until the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia for their laws to be deemed unconstitutional and repealed against their will.
And believe me, all throughout the gradual appeal and Supreme Court case aftermath, there were lots of controversy. People protested, wrote angry essays, and petitioned the government to keep interracial marriage illegal? What was their justification? A few people invoked God, like Virgina Judge Leon Bazile, who famously said “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red, and placed them on separate continents, and but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend the races to mix.” Other people called it clearly unnatural. Yet more said it would break the foundations of society to allow the races to intermix.
Sound familiar? That’s because it’s eerily similar to the rhetoric used against gay marriage today. But the bigger point is that just a mere 50 years ago, traditional marriage involved strong racial segregation. For the majority of American history, marriage was between only a man and a woman of the same race. Luckily, we no longer have the traditional marriage of fifty years ago. Hopefully for same-sex couples, we will soon not have the traditional marriage of now.
Not Quite Like Today: Marriage in the Bible
Those against same-sex marriage commonly, though not always, rest their argument on the rules of the Bible. Remember, homosexuality is a sin, and thus we should never let them marry. However, the Bible definitely wasn’t the land of the marriage we know, love, and call traditional. From the same Old Testament that the famous Leviticus verse is from, we also have, as Jay Michelson puts it better than I could:
Abraham had two wives, Sarah and her handmaiden Hagar. King Solomon had 700 wives, plus 300 concubines and slaves. Jacob, the patriarch who gives Israel its name, had two wives and two concubines. In a humanist vein, Exodus 21:10 warns that when men take additional wives, they must still provide for their previous one. (Exodus 21:16 adds that if a man seduces a virgin and has sex with her, he has to marry her, too.)
But that’s not all. In biblical society, when you conquered another city, tribe, or nation, the victorious men would “win” their defeated foes’ wives as part of the spoils. It also commanded levirate marriage, the system wherein, if a man died, his younger brother would have to marry his widow and produce heirs with her who would be considered the older brother’s descendants. Now that’s traditional marriage!
Also, as Garren Hotchstetler puts it:
To review, marriage in the Old Testament treated women as property purchased from their fathers, or as spoils of war plundered from enemies. Polygamy was occasionally practiced, but polyandry was unheard of. The New Testament urged women to be unilaterally submissive to their husbands. Husbands were to love their wives, not as separate persons, but as part of themselves. The concepts of mutual choice and co-equal partnership in marriage did not yet exist.
Essentially, marriage has changed significantly since the times of the Bible. The traditional marriage of the Bible is nothing like the kinds of marriages we have today. We’ve taken major steps away from the concubines, slavery, and general woman-ownership found all over the Bible.
Clearly all this talk about tradition and old-timey Biblical values has been distracting us from noticing that there really are no such things. The scope of marriage is evolving, as it has evolved, trending more toward equality. The step toward same-sex marriage is no different.
Jay Michelson sums this up nicely for us:
So, let’s see if I can total all this up. Traditional marriage is one man with multiple wives, multiple concubines, wives conquered in war and wives acquired in levirate marriage, possibly including girls under the age of ten, but definitely not including anyone of a different ethnic group, in an arranged marriage with disposition of property as its purpose. That seems very different from “one man, one woman,” does it not?
In the next essay, we’ll pick up where we left off, by looking at the argument that only a married man and married woman together can best birth and raise a child, and that homosexuality is just generally destructive of society. Then we’ll finish up by looking at marriages that are far more destructive of society, yet completely legal. Then we’ll talk about the true definition of marriage.
Continued in: Much Ado About Gay Marriage, Part II
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