In 2005 I published a long article in Gay & Lesbian Review, about the history of marriage in the West. Researching it was an illuminating experience. It got me clearer about what the real issues are, and how they're being smoke-screened by the religious right. Today, as the Proposition 8 protests reverberate around the country, the highly emotional comments by our enemies are telling me something. A lot of these people who are so adamant about "protecting marriage" are very confused about what they think they're protecting.
Their confusion is compounded by the fact that conservative Christian leaders have lied to them about how "marriage" got to be what it is today.
Many Americans talk about "civil marriage" and "traditional marriage" as if they were two kinds of marriage. And yes, from the social standpoint, a couple does have two options. (1) They can do the government thing at city hall...or in front of a magistrate...or a justice of the peace. The government representative will witness the couple's spoken agreement in which they freely consent to be married. The spoken formula usually has no religious wording in it. Or (2) the couple can do the religious thing at home or in a religious venue with all the bells and whistles of their chosen faith -- Christian, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, etc. etc.
But it's government, not religion, that makes the marriage legal and binding.
In a sense, it's silly to talk about "civil marriage" as distinct from "religious marriage" because all U.S. marriages derive their legality from civil law -- even the ones done in a religious setting. It's also silly for the religious right to claim that even "civil marriage" is sacred and controllable by them, when civil marriage actually divorced itself from religion several centuries ago.
In the U.S. and most Western countries today, marriage is officially regulated by government. Here in America, the power to do that was granted to the 50 states. The marriage license is granted by the county clerk or clerk of the court. And you don't get the license unless you jump through flaming hoops of health parameters and other kinds of scrutiny. Anybody who thinks they can do the religion part without the license part will soon get a wake-up call that their marriage isn't legal. In short, the religion part confers no legality by itself.
Nor does the religious part alone provide a couple with any of the 1001 benefits, perks and privileges that LGBT people would like to have. You only get that with the guv'mint license.
Marriage is a legal contract between two people. It devolves on consent -- and well it should, because some traditional religions did (and still do) have a habit of marrying people against their will. In the religious nuptial, the minister or rabbi or priest is just a stand-in for the state, witnessing the spoken agreement of the couple. Afterwards he or she files the marriage license for the public record. But he or she is just a paper-pusher deputized by the state. Government, not religion, is calling the shots here.
A Nightmare of Religious War
If marriage is so "sacred," how did it get to be guv'mint-regulated, along with agriculture and transportation and telecommunications and the stock market? Where is the "traditional marriage" that the church folks keep talking about?
And how in the world did people get so confused about what marriage really is?
To get clear about this, we can go back to an ugly and bloody time in Europe -- the 16th century. The Protestant Reformation and Henry VIII's Anglican revolt were ending a millennium of Holy Roman Empire. The Catholic Church was in shock -- it had cozily controlled all civil government through its claim to be the supreme authority on Earth, with its power to anoint kings and emperors. The Church had also controlled family life through making marriage a "sacrament" available only through the Church. Now, as more and more Europeans were embracing non-Catholic varieties of religion, Catholicism stuck its head in the sand and continued to insist that there was no legal marriage outside the Catholic Church.
Protestants reacted with understandable outrage. They began to demand a non-religious (i.e. civil) type of marriage as a solution, that would take marriage off the battlefields. Even Martin Luther admitted that this solution was needed.
Meanwhile, in England, after Henry VIII died, the newly established Anglican Church had replaced Catholicism as the state church of the land. So the Anglicans felt they had the right to tell the country's Protestants, Jews and other "dissenters" that they could only marry in the Anglican church. Result: rather than marry in a religion they hated, many English people simply didn't get married at all, or they celebrated secret unions in their own religions, which had no force of law. This meant that legally, they were "cohabiting," and their children were born "out of wedlock." Parliament finally woke up to the fact that nearly half its adult population was "living in sin." Social problems boiled up around children and property that English government finally realized it had to deal with.
As the Holy Roman Empire continued to implode, as old Catholic regimes were toppled by anti-clerical revolutions clear into the 19th century, the moment of truth finally came for marriage. Christianity realized -- very grudgingly and reluctantly -- that it could no longer control and monopolize marriage law. Indeed, the civil governments of these emerging modern nations were powerful now, more independent, flexing their muscles -- and they were insisting that marriage be politically neutral and available to everyone, regardless of belief.
Eventually, most European nations separated church and state to some degree, notably with marriage. Some, as in Scandinavia and England, did keep a state church but they still granted civil (i.e. government) marriage to anyone who wanted it. England herself stayed in stubborn denial of her people's sufferings till 1836, when she finally opened civil marriage to all except the royal family. Today most Western governments regulate marriage.
Today U.S. marriage, as a legal institution, is non-religious and secular. There's nothing "traditional" about it -- except perhaps that torturous "tradition" of a gradual secularization that has shaped it since the 16th century.
I find it ironical that conservative religions are having a heart attack over the desire of LGBT people to call their proposed unions "marriages." Non-Catholics had no problem plundering the word "marriage" from those hated Catholics of long ago. Indeed, when the horrible, cruel, gory, destructive, insane religious wars of that whole era were over, all the different Christian factions -- who had hated each other's guts -- were also still using the same word -- marriage. Even Jews, who were treated with extreme cruelty by many Christians, don't mind sharing the word "marriage" with them. Yet today in America, conservatives of all these religions get together to deny the use of the word "marriage" to gay people. I don't get it.
I also think it's ironic that conservative Protestants are such fierce opponents of LGBT right to marriage, since they were the ones fighting deserately for the right to marry in the 16th century.
The Mormons are a different case, since their religion wasn't founded till 1830. But here, too, is irony -- since their practice of polygamy was one of the reasons the U.S. Army marched against the Mormon territory of Utah in 1857. But even today, with monogamy now their policy, the Mormons' definition of "marriage" differs somewhat from that of standard Christianity. Yet they too would deny the word "marriage" to gay people. Go figure.
Government's Investment in Marriage
Why did government take on marriage? Because the modern emerging nations of Europe realized that even a secular state should have an interest in regulating marriage. The same was true of the United States after we got established.
Most of the state's interest in marriage relates to social issues, not religious issues. The state wanted to ensure consent, as well as stability for property ownership and inheritance. By passing laws on who could marry whom, the various U.S. states weeded out child marriage, consanguinity, bigamy and polygamy. STD and TB testing, and later vaccinations, was introduced to ensure that disease was not passed through marriage. Some states barred the mentally disabled from marrying, on grounds that they might not be capable of consent.
Now and then, the state came up with some really bad ideas for marriage. Like the so-called "eugenics movement," which prohibited marriage to people who were deemed "socially unfit" (many of whom were compulsorily sterilized). These requirements mostly ended in the 1930s because of the bad example of Nazi eugenics. Meanwhile, many states outlawed interracial marriages till the 1960s. Indeed, once upon a time, marriage as a legal institution was predominantly "white." It was illegal for black slaves to marry each other. With abolition of slavery, African Americans finally got access to legal matrimony. But today Native Americans are still battling a bad idea. The U.S. government denies tribal membership to any offspring of enrolled tribal members who marry outside their race or tribe -- a policy that many tribal people view as an effort to exterminate the tribes.
So...where is this "traditional marriage?" that the conservative religions say they're "protecting"? Well, the thing they talk about may be "traditional," but it's not marriage. Our society bases marriage on civil law, and the issue is about changing the laws.
What these religions are protecting is their beliefs and teachings about matrimony, which vary from religion to religion. They're also protecting what marriage-law experts call "the customs of their religion." Says USMarriageLaws.com, "A religious ceremony should be conducted under the customs of the religion, or, in the case of a Native American group, under the customs of the tribe. Religious ceremonies normally are conducted by religious officials, such as ministers, priests, or rabbis. Native American ceremonies may be presided over by a tribal chief or other designated official."
So Catholics can still get hitched with the nuptial mass that parish priests have been celebrating for centuries, dating back to the good old days of the Holy Roman Empire, when they thought they ruled the world. Mormons do their ritual thing in their temples, Jews in their synagogues. Protestants and Anglicans have their own variously established rubrics. For any and all religions in the U.S., it IS their absolute right to cherish and protect all these teachings and customs from any outside influence that they please.
Customs are a big part of "tradition," as every anthropologist knows. But customs aren't the law of the land. And customs -- however sacred they may look to those who observe them -- aren't a good enough reason to deny a whole group of Americans the right to legal marriage.
In other words, conservative religionists are putting enormous energy into protecting a legal institution that isn't even theirs to protect. They haven't owned it for centuries.
The Power of Hysteria
In the comments I read online, I'm seeing how extreme the "traditional" feelings are -- expressed by the many Americans who actually believe that their churches will see their "traditions" hi-jacked. They are panic-stricken that the government will force their ministers to perform marriages for those "degenerate queers" that they detest. One outraged Mormon who wrote to me was convinced that fascist thugs were going to break down the door of his local temple and force the elders to marry all the local gay boys.
So far it hasn't worked to assure these believers that this isn't going to happen. Indeed, LGBT people don't want their "traditional marriage." But our opponents are so stuck in hysteria over these perceived attacks on their religions that they're just not listening. On November 4, they stampeded like lemmings to the polls in California, Arizona and Florida, and voted the way their leaders told them to vote.
Indeed, few of us would even want to get hitched by any of those conservative religions -- many of which have a long history of sodomy-law enforcement in the past. If I were going to marry another woman today, the last place on Earth I'd want to tie the knot would be the Catholic Church, though this was my religion for some years -- especially if the parish priest and congregation were filled with hate for me and my partner because they were being forced.
At best, some of us might opt for having a "customary" nuptial service in gay-friendly churches that welcome us, like the Unitarians or liberal Presbyterians or liberal synagogues. Many of us might write our own rites, and invite some representative of the state to officiate in a wedding on the beach or at someone's home. But probably most of us will do like they're doing in Connecticut today, for the first time -- flocking to city hall.
Because that's what we want -- the guv'mint thing. The legal thing. The thing that hasn't been "traditional" for several centuries. The thing that the bureaucrats had to take over. Because if they hadn't, the Catholics and Protestants would still be killing each other over marriage -- like they're still killing each other over Ireland today.
Warren article on marriage history in Gay & Lesbian Review
Daily Kos discussion on confusion about what marriage is
U.S. marriage law
More on marriage laws