The Marriage Bond
Currently, one of the big political issues in the U.S. is about single-sex marriage. Feelings around the country are running high, particularly in regard to a proposed constitutional amendment to ban such unions. In 1996 during the Clinton Administration, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined "marriage" as being between a man and a woman, and specifically allowed each state (or other political jurisdiction) to decide for itself whether it wants to grant legal status to same-sex "marriage." It was an exception to the full faith and credit clause of the U.S. Constitution, which requires states to recognize each other’s laws. However, according to Andrew Koppelman, a law professor at Northwestern University and the author of "The Gay Rights Question in Contemporary American Law," "No state has ever been required by the full faith and credit clause to recognize any marriage they didn't want to."
The issue is indeed complex, raising, as it does, questions about civil rights and separation of church and state. No amount of argument, it seems, is going to change many minds about it. I have been mulling it over myself, attempting to clarify how I feel and why.
First, I need to acknowledge my own distance from religious traditions. That does not mean that I consider them irrelevant or superficial; it is simply a personal decision I came to over many decades. I have tried to see moral and ethical questions in a context not prescribed by any religion that I have encountered so far, but rather in broader terms of human culture.
I’m convinced that human beings carry in their genes some kind of impulse to bond with others—we are a social species. We also tend to clump, male and female, into biological family units, although that tendency is by no means universal. It seems that evolutionary pressures have kept these family relationships long-lasting. Certainly in Western culture, the "norm" has been monogamous pairing of men and women, with children that result from the pairing held relatively close for considerable time. Communities, and even societies, have developed stakes in this longevity, creating mores and laws to preserve family units and protect them from fragmenting influences.
To me, there are two separate issues involved. First is the issue of property. When mankind began to settle from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle into an agrarian lifestyle, the fruits of one’s labor needed to be protected from those who would try to take them away. One’s food, for example, or one’s tools or domicile or livestock, were seen as belonging to individuals. A man’s wife and children were just as important to his survival and prosperity, and so were often awarded the same protection as his other property. That the family unit came to be defined in terms of the dominant male is an unavoidable fact, regardless of the other possibilities or other equally just arrangements. Today, women and children in most Western societies have been awarded many more rights to self-determination. Even so, minor children are considered the responsibility of their biological parents unless otherwise arranged by legal process. The husband-wife partnership, legally at least, usually is responsible as a unit for monetary transactions. Some states recognize "community property" and some do not. But children born to the partnership are equally the responsibility of both. For these purposes, marriage is considered a binding contract that can be created and dissolved only with the permission of the state. Such certification is intended to protect the interests of the community as well as the individuals, in matters regarding children, property and debt. So without a doubt the state has an interest in marriage.
The other issue is moral. "Right and wrong" go far beyond societal legitimacy, particularly in such a heterogeneous society as ours. Although we share many of our moral values, there is a large expanse of differences, both in degree and in some cases in kind. The "proper" definition of marriage falls in this broad plain. At least since Utah was admitted to the union in 1896 on the condition that it ban polygamy, ours has been a nation of "one man, one woman" marriages. While the leaders of the Church of Latter Day Saints were required to give up a major tenet of their tradition in order to gain statehood, it’s been only recently that governmental units have seemed to need to formally define the parameters of marriage.
That trend probably had its impetus from the "free love" movement (if you want to call it that) of the 1970s. Among the books that challenged the traditional order were several by novelist Robert Rimmer. This is from the jacket of his Proposition 31, a fictional referendum in California permitting group marriage:
In real life, a lot of people experimented with living arrangements without serious lobbying for state permission to expand the definition of marriage. The practical aspects of unconventional "family" groupings became legal questions about the time that homosexuality became a civil rights issue. While the society in general began to accept same-sex pairing, these adventurers lacked official recognition. It was in the details of daily life that cohabiters discovered the hidden cost of their arrangements. For example, health insurance and other spousal benefits of employment were denied to unmarried couples. If it was grudgingly acknowledged that any two people could form their own version of a family, it was less acknowledged that they had any "rights" to official benefits. Only recently have people begun pushing for such rights as part of the civil rights struggle. The first state to give official sanction to unmarried couples was Vermont, allowing for what it calls "civil unions" in which people of the same sex can legally become eligible for many of the rights held by married couples. With certain restrictions, they can be awarded a certificate that is much the same as a marriage certificate.
Not everybody agrees that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue. Jeff Jacoby, writing in the Boston Globe recently, denies it emphatically:
Much of the heat of this issue revolves around the word "marriage." That word names an institution that is considered by some to be sanctioned by God.
The roots of our culture, secular and diverse as it is, are buried deep within religious tradition. The roots of that tradition, in turn, are buried in the uncertainties and fears that caused our ancestors to slaughter in the name of Love, to burn alive those who seemed not like us, to torture into submission people who saw things differently from us, to send our own children on Crusades to take back land that somehow seemed to belong to us. Our fear of forces beyond our control led us to create myths to answer our own helpless questions, to develop superstitious rituals to appease the gods who seemed to have dominion over our fates. (I hope that isn’t stating the case too harshly.)
In our present-day enlightenment, we may no longer cut the still-beating hearts out of victims of our sacrifices to offer up to the sun god, or wrench apart the bodies of heretics until they agree to believe as we do. We no longer sanction the owning of other human beings as slaves for our commercial or erotic interests. We, or most of us, at any rate, acknowledge that everyone has an equal right to live as they choose so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others. Our better impulses celebrate the diversity of heritage and beliefs that exists in our society. At their best, our religions encourage us to be better citizens. Our traditions become our colorful garments, warming us and providing us comfort without preventing us from moving where we need to go.
And yet our need to feel safe, to be comfortable in a confusing and sometimes threatening world, leads us back along the dark forest paths of our unconscious minds to the realm of rituals and slogans and secret handshakes. It takes constant awareness of the intricate and fitful meanderings of our minds to keep our wits about us.
In the end, those who are somehow "not like us" arouse our own uncertainty about who we are. Those who behave differently from us threaten our confidence that we are doing the right thing. It’s easier and more comfortable to blame, to criticize, to deny them a place in our world than it is to acknowledge our own secret and forbidden impulses.
If someone else feels passions that are foreign to us, why should that mean that they pose a threat to us? If someone speaks a different language, does that mean that they do not think like us? If someone’s appearance is strange to us, are they alien to our deepest sense of who we are? If their use of a word seems to violate our own meaning, must they conform in order for us to feel secure?
In the United States today, there seems to be a growing acceptance of the idea that two people, of either gender, ought to enjoy the same legal and economic benefits as do traditionally married couples. When a hospital restricts visits to "the next of kin," a gay partner has as much emotional need as a husband or wife to go to the side of the loved one. A partner, especially one who provides sole support, ought to have his or her family insurance benefits extended to the other partner. A couple with declared commitment ought to be recognized by the government as a family unit.
Should those of us who followed the usual arrangement of one woman and one man, joined in matrimony according to some scripture (or even without it), be able to deny others the right to their own arrangement according to whatever tradition?
Words often have different meanings according to their context. Our congress has defined "marriage" to mean the legal union of one man and one woman. Yet, the word is used in many different ways, without anyone getting upset—"He was married to his job" is not heard in horror, even in church. People use the word "family" in referring to a close circle of friends, and others hearing that are warmed by the suggestion of communal affection. Even words whose meanings are as diverse as people themselves—"love," for example—are in common use, and it is only in particular circumstances that one might question the one who uses it as to a more precise meaning. "Do you love me?" could mean quite different things to the one who speaks it and the one who hears it.
Most people want to be accepted by their community. Sharing a term for their version of a relationship with the generally understood version offers them the sense of being included in the life of the community. The communal benefit of the relationship is the implied commitment, not the gender mix of the partners.
Same-sex marriage does not threaten my concept of the institution of marriage. I don’t own the word simply because I am married. But as I pointed out, I am not a religious person. If, on the other hand, the word is the property of religion, then perhaps it belongs in church and not in our legal discourse.
Donald Skiff, March 20, 2004