Many Christian opponents of gay marriage insist that marriage was something that either did not exist prior to God’s instituting it – presumably to the mortal Adam and Eve.
Marriage as a somewhat formalized relationship agreement, a coupling or pairing up, if you will, does seem to have ancient roots that go back in time as far as the literalist mortal beginnings as described in Genesis.
The argument – if an argument exists – is about the rhetoric of who owns marriage. Who has the say so as to what marriage is, who and how many are the partners in marriage, and whether the partnership should be societally endorsed and recognized as an element of human life.
A monopoly or ownership of the patent and copyright of any marriage or marriage contract is not something over which we usefully get our undergarments in a bunch and something that has very little to do with making life worthwhile, making a living and making our own contentment.
That monopoly does however seem to have much to do with politics and elections in that there seem to be sufficient numbers of religious folks who believe in the monopoly to justify campaign rhetoric that appeals to and glorifies one noisy segment of society at the expense of another. We all then suffer the sober silliness of say-anything and sing-any-song to a self righteous choir assumed to hold the reins of electoral power.
But I digress and am not interested in spending too much time on the soberly silly.
Conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan – who is also gay – may perhaps be the best known representative of what outwardly might seem two contrary public perspectives. The two perspectives are only contrary if one insists on the absolute and judgmental moral perspective that God Hates Fags.
But if God is not in the condemning business, but the saving business, as a Mormon bishop once reminded me repeatedly, then that judgmental moral perspective is less meaningful than the more mature idea expressed by Sullivan and others: gay marriage will not, as social conservatives fear, cause us to lose our moral bearings, so much as it will bring gays into the fold of a single gay-straight community of shared moral values.
Let me go back to the monopoly-on-marriage idea.
It seems that the family as portrayed by all those focusers on families is not in fact an ancient tradition invented at the earliest times of human tribal life. I’m speaking of the idea of a man-father, woman-mother and their pro-created and privately-owned children who dwell alone and separated from extended blood relatives and tribal family in community.
The notion of heterosexually-founded family as one of many fundamental units of society is – even as you read the descriptive words – more a creation of commerce and society that was born out of the development of industry and commerce. Perhaps in fact as preached, such a notion of marriage as a basic economic unit has greater relationship with capitalism and an organized free market society toward whom concepts of marketing and conformity are targeted.
Philosopher Justin E.H. Smith says it this way:
Indeed, the expectation that everyone should find a place in such an arrangement appears to be Fordist in origin: the same vision of the future that caused us to believe that everyone might have a place in a system of production, might commute to it in an automobile, and might return home at the end of the day to a freestanding domicile with a family inside.
Smith further makes the point that historically, the contemporary evangelistic political notion of marriage does not actually describe the nuclear notion so adamantly proclaimed by activists and politicians.
In this respect, relative to the great majority of marriages throughout human history, gay marriage is not really marriage, but then neither is first-world, individualistic, freely chosen heterosexual marriage. Marriage was for most of human history a variety of exchange, one that consolidated social ties between families or clans. When a young man of the Nuer tribe is initiated, he receives cattle that he will care for his entire life and will trade for certain goods, including a wife. When the men give the cattle, it is understood that they are giving a part of themselves, and their newly-swapped spouse becomes an essential part of their lives and their lineage.
Then of course in the scriptures when Christ talks about marriage and giving in marriage He is not necessarily referring to the 19th, 20th, and now 21st-century fundamentalist notions of nuclear families that are formed when a man and woman meet, fall in love, and marry of their own free will and choice.
Marriages of convenience, political alliance and more commonly, arranged by parents, other relatives or even outsiders were quite common back when some would have us believe that marriage was a product of total freedom of choice and the pure chaste love of godly devotion and holy lust.
Many of those early marriages were in fact physical and human agreements that established relationships “of mutual credit and debit with their neighbors as they exchanged their nubile women … who were transformed into wives.”
Wives first and then children of marriages became not part of the basic nuclear unit of man/woman/child family, but rather human basic units of social exchange.
Feminists studies scholars take this as far as suggesting that accepting the notion of historical man/woman/child nuclear unit is in fact accepting a masculine appropriation of the reproductive capacities of women
But whether or not early human societies were really so misogynistic as to see their daughters as mere commodities, it is difficult to deny the basic insight that, historically, marriage has mostly had to do with the maintenance of society through the consolidation of interfamilial bonds.
Thus it seems that historically the notion of nuclear marriages created as a result of free-will courting and mating based on romantic love and passion disciplined by religiosity is a myth; a myth promoted despite the early religious thinking of founding fathers like St. Jerome:
“Men should appear before their wives not as lovers but as husbands.”
This is hardly the fundamental behind the constructing of the nuclear family pedestal but is highly useful in the contemporariness of our industrial and corporate capitalistic age in which economics, politics, religion and consumption are all melded into a dynamic that allows some sort of assumption of family orthodoxy that is in fact an insistence on a social conformity intended to keep dissent and free-thinking definitions at a minimum.
Gay marriage will not impact socially our economy or our morality except in the positive and common sense ways of ethics and goodness; ways that far surpass the rhetoric and continuing impact of either/or thinking that aggrandizes us-but- not-you and that insists our godly civic bathwater is the only drinkable potion in our tumultuous wilderness of thirst.
I recommend Working Arrangement, an article in a quarterly periodical about history. The author is Justin E.H. Smith, an associate professor of philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal.
Also recommend a perusal of the works of Claude Levi-Strauss, a French anthropologist and ethnologist, who has been called, along with James George Frazer, the “father of modern anthropology”.