Saturday, February 21, 2009

Marriage: Part 2

In this portion of my exploration of marriage, I’d like to put the six initial findings of my research to work, to see how they relate to the two major sides of the same-sex marriage issue in the United States.

Finding 1: The historical record supports marriage as first and primarily an institution designed to protect property and resolve matters of inheritance and lineage.

This standing is firmly upheld in today’s civil marriage laws. All other things aside for the moment, the legal code relative to marriage has clearly evolved to settle as unequivocally as possible the questions of property and inheritance. Most of the 1,400 legal and economic benefits and protections recognized by the state and federal governments involve matters of property and inheritance, and cannot be privately contracted. Only in a civil marriage contract are they recognized as valid.

Based on this, there is no standing for the point that our country’s view of marriage was founded on religious principles. This further argues that the contention that a marriage contract is a legal entity designed to discourage parties from dissolving their unions is untenable. This was certainly not the case initially, although a new type of marriage contract, a covenant marriage, provides for just such a distinction in today’s world.

Finding 2: The recognition of marriage in western Europe (where American marriage practices evolved) has a basis in Common Era history as a religious institution (and even earlier in Judaic practice), but at no point in the historical record is there evidence to support the contention that marriage was viewed primarily as a religious commitment by the general population.

The popularity of churches as a locale for marriage ceremonies notwithstanding, nowhere in the literature could I find statistical evidence to suggest that, however closely tied Americans as a whole may feel to their religious practice, their entrance into a marriage is predicated upon that commitment. Quite to the contrary, the rise of marriage dissolution in the U.S. in recent years as a result of the availability of no-fault divorce would suggest strongly that issues other than religious commitment are at work. The hesitancy of the general public to embrace the concept of covenant marriage (for reasons of its religious overtones) also evidences the fact that religion is not a primary impetus for marriage in our society currently.

Finding 3: Although we accept governmental oversight of marriage as the norm in modern society, its original involvement was the result of attempts to restore the institution to its standing as an informal social arrangement.

The American government’s interest in using its control of marriage as a tool to promote its own ends is well documented, and it must be conceded that marriage law has not been equally granted in my nation’s history. Yet, it has nonetheless been recognized and upheld as a key freedom under the U.S. Constitution [1]. This finding strongly supports the contention that marriage, as a long recognized private and personal contract, is fundamentally tied to all other discussions regarding civil rights.

Finding 4: American marriage tradition was based popularly not on a religious model, but a secular one.

The traditions we observe in weddings may be deeply rooted in religious observance, but these should not be confused with the very secular manner in which we approach the business of creating and dissolving marriages. This serves to underscore the point that marriage, as a social contract, has no foundation to be viewed through the lens of religion in the current discussion about same-sex marriage.

Finding 5: Although there is precedent in Roman times for the recognition of same-sex relationships as a form of marriage, there does not appear to be explicit mention of the validity of such relationships in later writings, religious or secular, in the Common Era.

I need to defer on certain aspects of this point until I’ve done more research, but even absent that information, it nonetheless adds strength to the argument that marriage, as a word, has, throughout history, had the accepted definition described below.

Finding 6: Writings on marriage, when viewed in context, are clearly based on a long accepted colloquial definition of the term as referring to unions between men and women, although there is no particular mention of the term as restrictive to one man and one woman alone.

Despite marriage’s possible origins as a polygamous arrangement, since the beginning of the Common Era, there has been little attempt to use the term “marriage” alone to describe social unions other than those between a single man and woman. That a host of other terms abound to describe a great many variants of human relationships (many of which are narrowly defined types of social unions) is testimony to the fact that the term “marriage”, when used on its own, is popularly held to be distinct and special.

The rapid semantic change of a term, especially one that has a specific, time-honored implication like “marriage”, carries with it a host of problems, not the least of which is confusion in what the term really means in current oral and written usage. Legal and administrative uses of a word, especially, require rigid forms of standardization to prevent misinterpretation over time. This issue is not the primary objection of those concerned with the perceived usurpation of the term “marriage”, but it is certainly one that bears consideration in a global discussion about how to create a functional paradigm of marriage that all sides can take ownership of.


The following conclusions are based on what I have uncovered so far:

1. Although marriage is integrally connected to religion in our minds because of the traditions and perceived sanctity of the institution, it is not, practically speaking, religion that motivates us to seek such unions, nor is religion a primary influence over how marriages are viewed socially, politically or legally. That is not to say that discussions about marriage reform should ignore the input of religion; rather, it is that religion should not be the lens through which we examine the issue.

2. The right to marry is a fundamental freedom in the United States, and has standing as such both by virtue of its extensive history and modern constitutional interpretation. Like other rights, however, exactly which constituencies in American society are given such freedoms has evolved over time. We should not lose sight of this fact in discussing how to include all Americans equally in the freedoms and opportunities of our society.

3. The term “marriage” is a specific term with far-reaching significance for all segments of society. Its meaning cannot be broadened without confusing what has been said and written about it in the past, or without complicating the discussion of how to create an inclusive model of social union that meets the needs of all Americans.

In the next post, I want to look at what these three conclusions mean in the context of gay marriage, specifically, and how we as a country might begin to think about ways to approach that particular discussion.

[1]“The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.” [HERE]

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