But it's amazing how all these different Christian religions are lining up behind a single blanket statement that "God created marriage" when their individual histories on marriage beliefs are so wildly different.
So when our enemies say, "God created marriage," we get to ask, "Well, which God? And which marriage?"
For many centuries in Europe, the Roman Catholic hierarchy insisted that the only "real" marriage was one of their seven sacraments. They burned "heretics" alive as punishment for thinking differently about marriage -- like the Cathars of southern France, the "pure ones," who rejected the routine definition of marriage entirely. In 1534, when the Church of England split away from Rome, It was precisely because of a marriage issue -- namely, Henry VIII wanting to divorce his wife. The Anglicans X'ed marriage off their own shortened list of sacraments, in order to facilitate divorce. About the same time, Protestant reformists, including Martin Luther, were also trying to disentangle themselves from Catholicism -- their approach was originally to insist that marriage was best done as a civil affair.
Later "dissenters" continued to re-define marriage their own way. In the 17th century, Quakers offended the Church of England with their belief that marriage could dispense with both a church ceremony and a civil binding -- it needed only the couple's mutual consent. Much later, in 1830, came the Mormons, who originally defined marriage as Old Testament-style polygamy. Mormon practices touched off a war with the federal government that finally compelled them to switch to monogamy.
The different Christian churches also had marriage-related rifts over divorce, with Anglicans and many Protestants allowing it and Catholics continuing to forbid it. Further splits took place around abortion, birth control and whether the wife should be submissive to the husband. But in the U.S. in recent years, most Christian churches are burying the old hatchets as deep as they can, so they can make common cause in their political activism against "gay marriage."
They're all panic-stricken that admitting gays to the marriage club will "change the definition of marriage." Yet the definition they're "protecting" is the civil one, not the various religious ones on which they often disagree. And they're the ones who are trying to change the civil definition -- by adding language that limits it to heterosexuals.
Yet even if same-sex civil marriage is allowed, the churches will still have the absolute right to define religious marriage their own way. And among themselves they are still defining marriage in very different ways. Go figure.
A Many-Splendored Thing
The fact is -- marriage was invented by human beings long before the Christian God ever came along. And people defined marriages in a lot of different ways. Whether it was monogamy, polygyny, polyandry, levirate marriage, concubinage, communes, marriage by abduction, even formalized incest in a few cultures -- marriage has been always one of the major nodes of culture. Archeologists and anthropologists find evidence of marriage from the earliest times. The institution did everything from ensuring child care to building tradition and wealth, and promoting peace between warring peoples.
For most peoples, marriage was a private family thing. It might have been swathed in drapings of religious customs common to the whole culture. Marriage even reflected the social pressure of any people anxious about their survival. But different peoples found varying ways of doing the private family thing. In the Middle East, the Old Testament mentions that the Israelites were a small tribe, and describes their efforts to have as many children as possible. Not only did they practice polygamy, so one man could have a whole raft of children -- but they even prohibited masturbation as a waste of a man's semen that might otherwise produce a child.
Meanwhile, in North America, nomadic tribes of the 1800s were often noted by early-day anthropologists as encouraging couples to have few children, and space them out well. Reason: they lived in an unforgiving environment and it was easier to keep a small number of mouths fed.
Another imposing model was that of feudal China, which survived into the 1900s -- with its emphasis on clans, its matchmaking, its elaborate etiquettes and ceremonies, its emphasis on the family having a son.
Among many of my Native American ancestors, marriage was also nested in the clan and an elaborate network of kinships, with the duty of marrying out of your clan in order to avoid inbreeding. Among the nomadic peoples of the northern plains, the ceremony was far simpler than that in feudal China. The couple simply declared in public that they wished to marry each other and a blanket was thrown over their shoulders before they entered their new lodge together for the first time. Lakota consultants for the film Dances With Wolves made sure that the movie showed the ceremony accurately.
Even the goddesses and gods were seen in divine marriages that moved cycles of existence in the universe. For Hindus, there was Brahma and his consort, Saraswati. For the Greeks, there was Zeus and Hera. In Egypt, there was Isis and Osiris, brother and sister deities, as per the marriage model of the Pharoahs, who married brother to sister to keep the dynastic power in the family. Even the early Hebrews, before opting to believe in the "one male God," once saw Yaweh as paired with Shakina, the female power.
Roman Marriage...Our Basic Model
Foremost, for our purposes, was marriage in ancient Rome.
Whether Americans like it or not, we are children of pagan Rome in the truest sense. In its early centuries, Roman Christianity adopted Roman law and Roman imperial institutions wholesale, and carried them into the Holy Roman Empire. Roman institutions and philosophy were revived again during the Renaissance. From there, Roman government in the form of a republic was segued into our own nation's founding. While Roman marriage was an imposing institution, it was only "religious" (a temple ceremony) if a couple wanted it to be. But most marriages were not religious, and civil law regulating Roman marriage said nothing about religion. More about that later.
If we look at history under a microscope, we can find some ancient models for same-sex unions too. Pagan Roman had a private marriage formula that could unite two males. Emperor Hadrian never married his beloved Antinous, possibly because he was already married to a woman. But after Antinous died by drowning in the Nile, the young man got a posthumous spousal status of sorts, by being deified, thus becoming the social peer of the Emperor, who was also viewed as a god by Rome's state religion. Hadrian spent the rest of his life worshiping at the shrine of his departed partner.
We know less about the ancient models for lesbian women, though some historians try hard to find hints of wedding ceremonies in the fragment's of Sappho's poetry that still survive. But Sappho evidently withdrew from mainstream Greek society to live on the island of Lesbos, where she and other like-minded women created their own high-spirited world.
Among native American peoples, I'm told that lesbian women often formed unions and felt that they needed no other authority than their own to do it. Idaho medicine woman Earth Thunder says, "Among us, many womyn chose womyn partners and men chose men. It was obvious and natural to us, to choose each other for reasons of good energies." In the Pacific Northwest of the mid-1800s, Woman Chief of the Crows became renowned as a warrior, hunter and horsewoman...and she had not one but several wives, since polygamy was accepted among some native peoples. Woman Chief also adopted several children.
Since the imperative to have children and continue a culture may often have been missing in homosexual loves, ancient homosexual unions seem not very anxious to mimic the same marriage purpose as heterosexuals. They seem to have been concerned more about the daily love and mutual support, the sharing a life and household together over a long period of time. The "brother" ceremonies noted by gay medieval historian John Boswell were detailed with agreements about mutual care and sharing property and possessions.
Christian Empire = Christian Marriage
So the Christian model of marriage evolved from the pagan Roman model. Why? Because marriage was part of the Roman social and legal apparatus that early Christians took over. Once they had Christian emperors in place in the 4th century, they used that apparatus to ensure their freedom from persecution and establish their power base. Along with going Roman, the early Christians also shuffled off as much old Jewish practice as possible, and that included Jewish marriage customs.
Usually Roman marriage had been a family affair, negotiated by the fathers of two families. The legal part of the proceedings, as well as the festivities, both took place at home, and the daughter brought a dowry with her. Roman Christians adopted this model, and continued to celebrate marriage at home for a number of centuries, without much church interference.
Meanwhile, the Roman imperial model spread Christian marriage across Europe. Because pagan Rome had been an empire, always looking to extend its influence, it became the perfect vehicle to spread -- and impose -- the Christian gospel and the Christian marriage model on all those other "pagan" peoples out there -- the Vandals, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vikings, Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Franks, Celts and all the rest. Roman Christians insisted that Jesus had told them to spread the word; taking over an existing empire, with all its institutions and bureaucracy, gave them the perfect vehicle to missionize the rest of the Western world by force...and they did.
With time, private marriage was appropriated by the Church -- ripped out of the home, and established as a "sacrament" that could only be dispensed by a priest. The church's claimed authority over marriage was based on their claim that Jesus was God, that he had transferred all his divine powers to Peter, the first Pope...and that the succeeding Popes had the power to teach infallibly on any subject, including marriage.
In the 16th century, when the Anglicans and Protestants came along, they rejected the Pope and his claim to universal authority. But they had to have some kind of absolute "divine authority" of their own to peg things on. So they picked the Bible as their sole authority, the allegedly "unerring and unaltered word of God." Scripture's teachings on marriage were to be viewed as supreme -- which meant, of course, that Old Testament examples of Hebrew polygamy and levirate marriage had to be sidelined as an "oops."
With time, Catholics and Protestants would differ fiercely over whether those same scriptural pages prohibited divorce or not.
The Missionary Imperative
Throughout their later history, all the major Christian branches imposed their marriage views through the spread of their own Empires. Indeed, missionizing has always been enabled by conquest. Missionaries followed closely in the dust of armies. It did no good for conquered peoples to point out that their own gods had ordained their marriages.
For Roman Catholicism and the Holy Roman Empire, Spain made probably the biggest effort. Throughout their conquests of Central and South America, as well as parts of Africa and the Pacific Rim, the Spanish made every effort to smash the old native religions -- to topple their temples, and execute their priestesses and priests as "heretics." The old ways were replaced with Catholic "culture," and that included Catholic rituals of marriage. However, the Spanish were only partly successful. Today wide areas of Spanish-speaking America are nominally "Catholic," but the resilient native peoples created their own part-Christian, part-pagan fusions of religion and continued to practice certain old ways underground.
Meanwhile, the Russian Empire and Orthodoxy pushed eastward across northern Asia to Siberia, and footholds in North America, including Alaska.
For its part, the Church of England was following Britain's dreams of empire into Africa and south Asia. For example, through three centuries in India, the Church;s missionaries hammered on Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims to get them onto the Christian bandwagon. As Bishop Milman of Nagpur put it, "India should be won to the Lord Jesus." Among other things, these were to give up their "heathen" marriage practices. Through establishment of British law and state religion, Anglicanism became law in India. By the early 1900s, Anglican historian Eyre Chatterton could burble, "No one who has spent a Sunday at Taljhari, with its fine Church, will soon forget the joy of seeing a great body of Santhal Christians worshiping the true God and our Lord Jesus Christ in the heart of a country which was once wholly given up to devil-worship." The Anglo-Indian chapter of Christian imperialism ended in 1947, when India expelled the British and became independent.
But the Christianization of North America followed a more mixed-up course. Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Protestants, even Russian Orthodoxy, all fought fiercely with one another to establish colonial empire here. In the end, Protestantism and Anglicanism got the upper hand. But the potential for ongoing conflict between religions made something clear to our founders. They realized that no one church could ever be imperially established or favored by U.S. law -- otherwise we wouldn't ever have a unified country. With the establishment of a Roman-style republic here, our founders eventually re-instituted that Roman-style civil model of marriage as well. As in ancient Rome, the United States allowed Americans to opt out of the religious marriage if they chose.
However, the boot-heel of Christian empire came down extra-hard on the First Nations.
By the late 1800s, when all the tribes had finally surrendered to federal jurisdiction, with some placed in prisoner-of-war camps called "reservations,", they retained a nominal sovereignty as "domestic dependent nations." But the white man's imperialistic religion intended to have its way with native marriage. The government parcelled the tribes out to selected Christian churches, who established missions on the rez. Bureau of Indian Affairs agents tried to compel church attendance by withholding food doles from peoples who were often battered survivors of many years of war. In spite of that, many tribes resisted conversion, holding their traditional ceremonies underground and marrying as per the old custom, preferring to believe that marriage was created by the Great Spirit, not by the white man's God.
But by 1901, all Indians were required to get a marriage license to marry, whether it was a civil ceremony or a church ceremony -- or even the marriages according to the old custom, which the feds had agreed to allow. Some hard-nosed agents went farther than that. On the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho, the agent regarded the old-time marriage custom as "illegal cohabitation." He punished any perpetrators by holding their annuities and property rights hostage till they finally buckled and came in to get married by either himself or a local minister. Yet Indians were not declared U.S. citizens till 1924.
Even the newest arrivals on the U.S. church scene, the Mormons, launched their own powerful missionary movement, though it was not as patently attached to conquest as others. Instead, the Mormons sought to expand their influence through trade and diplomacy. By 1837 they already had missionaries in England; by 1854, they were reaching out to China. Today the LDS Church fields an estimated 65,000 missionaries throughout 162 nations. Mormon missionaries are out there teaching their unique present-day definition of monogamous marriage, which includes the "sealing" of a couple, so they can stay married in Heaven.
Given the LDS Church's record on this kind of international effort, our LGBT leadership definitely underestimated the ability of Mormons to ring every doorbell in California and talk up Prop. 8.
Our Own Creation
Today LGBT people are fighting the "God created marriage" myth everywhere in the U.S. And a myth it is -- one that is believed by enough non-gay Americans to influence the vote. Here we are...children of Rome in our own right, asking for access to the same legal and civil model of marriage as heterosexuals.
So...did God create marriage? That's a question for every individual to answer. For some LGBT people who believe in Christianity, God did create marriage...and that creation includes them and their partners. For LGBT Muslims and Jews, God also created marriage. For me, it was created by Goddess and God and humans in their endless dance. For some in our community who are atheists or agnostics, there is no God. But they'd like to be married anyway, and have the package of benefits. Still others are not interested in marriage at all. But that's the way it has always been.
Meanwhile, where Prop. 8 is concerned, it looks like the courts will be taking their own shot at weighing that old question. The issue of "God's creation" festers in other areas of American political controversy as well -- like education, and whether it should be taught in schools.