Friday, June 24, 2011

The Traditional DEFINITION of Marriage

As the by-no-means-settled issue of gay marriage fights its way through the labyrinth of New York state politics (I'll leave it to you, dear reader, to decide who among the power players is the Minotaur of said labyrinth), I'd like to discuss the traditional definition of marriage. UPDATE: Upon Governor Andrew Cuomo's signing the bill approved by the New York Assembly and Senate, marriage equality will be the law of New York. On to a new labyrinth.


My goal here is to explore what those words mean rather than throw around the phrase "the traditional definition of marriage" which has become an almost useless term that usually kills dialogue.

Much of the gay marriage debate in the United States continues to focus on "traditional values" in American society (as if those values are monolithic and eternal) and the structure of "marriage" as a legal term and a social and/or religious institution (as though the structure of that civil and/or religious institution has never changed). Any person willing to face the realities of history must admit "marriage" has undergone various changes since the term marriage was first used, both in secular and religious contexts. Moreover, values are not static. Example: The apostle Paul may have been against it, women do indeed speak in most Christian churches. Also, while Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers seem quite clear on various capital offenses, under U.S. law (and Israeli law, I have it on good word), people are not subject to stoning for disobeying their parents, breaking the Sabbath, blaspheming or touching Mount Sinai.

Granted, having the term "marriage" include same-sex marriages in addition to opposite-sex marriages in any context is arguably the biggest change the term would undergo since early Mormonism brought to American culture the centuries-old tradition of polygamy enshrined in more places in the Bible (and in Mormon doctrine) than the allegedly blanket prohibitions against homosexuality. Now that I have that out of my system, I'd like to cast this hot-button issue in a different light and focus on what we mean by "definition."

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary's first two definitions of "definition" are: 1) an act of determining, and 2) a statement expressing the essential nature of something. It seems to me that, collectively, we have been so caught up in determining what the term marriage is, and isn't, that we've pushed aside the essential nature of marriage and its real-world, life-affirming, soul-searching, glorious impacts on the lives of the two people for whom marriage means the most---a married couple. In other words, we've been talking about the structure of marriage too much and the nature of marriage not enough. The structure of marriage is who is allowed to enter into it, along with the legal rights and responsibilities it entails. The nature of marriage is about the relationship between two people that, at its best, makes the structure of the marriage of each couple beautiful and ennobling. While the legal definition of the institution of marriage is immensely important, it is only the formal part of the more important human relationship.

The definition of the nature of marriage in modern American life is found in the visceral meaning of the words of the marriage ceremony that exists in the American public consciousness. Ultimately, that definition finds expression and meaning in the life a married couple builds together. The collective (and perhaps over-romanticized) definition comes from the wording of the vows in marriage liturgy found in the Book of Common Prayer known to most Americans regardless of their religious affiliation or non-affiliation. Let's take a look at some of those words. Keep in mind, I'm citing the most well-known parts of the liturgy, including the outdated patriarchal "obey" and "serve" language. And I'm not claiming that the Anglican rite somehow inherently allows for gay marriage. That's for Anglican theologians to determine. I'm trying to get at the heart of what the "mystical union" of marriage MEANS to the people who get married and want to get married by using one example among the many examples available from the multiplicity of traditions in cultures in American society. Feel free to share your own perspective in the comments section.

The traditional Anglican wording:
Wilt thou have this Woman to thy wedded Wife, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?

Wilt thou have this Man to thy wedded Husband, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?

I M. take thee N. to my wedded Wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.

I N. take thee M. to my wedded Husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.

With this Ring I thee wed, with my Body I thee worship, and with all my worldly Goods I thee endow: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Deep within the American psyche is the drive to expand. We Americans, for the most part, are a hopeful (and sometimes naive) bunch who like to expand rights, freedoms, territory, opportunity, economics, and all sorts of things. That expansion is never smooth, but it usually prevails over limitation, for good or ill. Gay marriage is another area of expansion. Advocates want to expand the definition and see that expansion as good. Opponents want to limit the definition to "one man one woman" and see any expansion to include same-sex couples as dangerous and corrosive. Some of those opponents frame their arguments in nearly identical ways to opponents of mixed-race marriages who defended anti-miscengenation laws into the late 1960s (it's not traditional marriage; it will harm children; it's against God's law; chaos will reign if it allowed). 

In the end most of the opposition isn't about marriage at all. It's about staying with tradition because changing it makes some people uncomfortable. Our views as human beings can be very hard to change, especially when they are based more on fear and distance than rational thought and human interaction.

Also deep within the American psyche, and related to the penchant for expansion, is the drive to pursue a life of with meaningful liberty and genuine happiness. The Framers established the Constitution and basic legal structure of our country in a unique way. That structure in large part rests on the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, which itself is not a law. Think about how these words of Jefferson apply to the debate about gay marriage: 

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter ... it, ... as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness." 

If a law limiting the definition of marriage merely based on cultural tradition becomes destructive of the ends of equality, liberty, happiness and life, whether it be for gay people or any other people, the People of the United States have not only the right but the moral obligation to alter it, which in this case means to expand it. Credible evidence supports expansion. Fear supports limitation.

The laws of our land are the living bones around and within which the rest of the body of human experience in America exists. The two rely on each other, and both adapt and grow. Or at least they should. Gay marriage is an opportunity for Americans to grow up.


Addendum: The patriarchal "obey" and "serve" language isn't just outdated, it has always been wrong. Just in case anyone was wondering.

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