So we are living in the post-Obergefell world wherein the Supreme Court of the United States has decreed that “marriage equality” is the law of the land.
This means, according to experts, there is no longer “marriage for some” but marriage for all—or “just marriage.” The analogies are as tempting as they are fallacious: democracy for all, liberty for all, fair distribution of justice for all—and in America, guns for all.
I say fallacious because democracy, freedom and justice describe the conditions under which most people—in the West anyway–would choose to live. They are not, as such “institutions.” They are mechanisms, implemented and extended differently from country to country, for achieving a society that operates in the pursuit of that elusive rogue, The Common Good.
Marriage is not a mechanism. It is an institution. It is older than all forms of government and exists in democratic and non-democratic, totalitarian, tribal, theocratic and socialist societies alike. It always has. In fact it can be argued that the mechanistic view of marriage—marriage as a thing limited to achieving an end, such as reproduction—is precisely what has changed with the recent Supreme Court decision, though some version of this mechanistic view will continue to dominate thinking in most religious traditions for a long time.
Marriage as the normative man-woman arrangement for population increase was there for the Romans. It was there in Palestine when, questioned about marriage, Jesus replied, “Why ask me: you know the routine. When you’re married, stay married.” His hard to cipher attitude toward divorce is one of the reasons Luther decided to take marriage off the list of seven sacraments and demoted it to an ‘ordinance’.
I am not especially fussed that same-sex marriage has been ruled legal by a sweeping and typically incoherent opinion of US judges. Having satisfied themselves that the petitioners were not trying “to change the institution of marriage,” the judges responded with same paternalistic resignation that caused your father to turn over the car keys when you were fifteen with the admonition, “As long as you don’t drive too fast.” Ennui had set in. Boredom had set in. The tide was full; the time as the writer of Ecclesiastes said, had come. Divorce had become easy. Marriage should not be different.
There is a theory that marriage equality has come at a time in human history when marriage itself has become, at least in the West, dogmatically empty and socially unsustainable. The reasons most often given for this grim assessment are changes in lifestyle corresponding to changed understandings of gender and social roles. –Ironically the same reasons given for opening the institution up to a larger clientele.
The campaign for same sex unions did not cause this impoverishment of the idea of marriage, the theory goes, it simply residuated from it. It did this by asserting that freedom, justice and liberty cannot be achieved if the “equal right” to marriage is not extended to gays and lesbians. Marriage, an institution formed in patriarchal contexts that depended on subordination of the sexes, eschewed romantic and sexual love as, at best, distractions, and was rooted in ideas of contract and financial benefit (usually though not always to the bride’s family) was now to be about equality, love, and justice.
Even though the battles for gay marriage was fought inside liberal Christian denominations before it was adjudicated in the courts, it was contested at the expense of squandering most of the orthodox ritual, tradition and doctrine concerning the sacrament in its full-blooded iteration: Poetically expressed in the 1559 Anglican Book of Common Prayer (which became the template for many shorter protestant versions of the service)
DEARELY beloved frendes, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of his congregacion, to joyne together this man and this woman in holy matrimony, which is an honorable state, instytuted of God in Paradise, in the time of manes innocencie, signiflyng unto us the mistical union that is betwixt Christ and his Churche: which holy state Christe adourned and beautified with his presence and firste myracle that he wrought in Cana of Galile, and is commended of sainct Paul to be honourable emong all men, and therfore is not to be enterprised, nor taken in hande unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly, to satisfye mennes carnall lustes and appetytes, lyke brute beastes that have no understandyng ; but reverently, discretely, advisedly, soberly, and in the feare of God, duely consideryng the causes for the which matrimony was ordeined. One was the procreation of children, to be brought up in the feare and nurtoure of the Lorde, and praise of God. Secondly, it was ordeined for a remedy agaynste sinne and to avoide fornication, that suche persones as have not the gifte of continencie might mary, and kepe themselves undefiled membres of Christes body. Thirdly, for the mutual societie, helpe, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, bothe in prosperity and adversitye, into the whiche holy state these two persones present, come nowe to be joyned. Therefore if any man can shewe any just cause, why thei may not lawfully be joyned together let hym now speake, or els hereafter for ever holde his peace
Matrimony (lit. the estate of ordaining motherhood) was a deadly serious thing, established by God for specific purposes, not to be entered into lightly. It was linked, in the Aristotelian calculus theologians used, to the consequent idea of family, and implicitly tied the inward reality of the ritual to the “mystery of creation” whereby God made two sexes to complete his work. Marriage was the final form of an act begun on the first day and realized in the Genesis 2 story of the creation of the man and woman.
“The man said, This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman’ ….. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2.23f)
It was, perhaps, the most powerful symbolism attached to any ritual of the Church with the exception of the Eucharist. So powerful that whoever wrote the Epistle to the Ephesians calls the Church the Bride of Christ admonishing it to be as pure and chaste as a virgin, fit to bring forth the fruits of grace.
What the 1559 ordinance does not mention, of course, is the word love except in a chain of verbs that includes honoring, serving and obeying. Conversely, what gay couples roundly rejected was the word “contract” (as in “civil contract”) as being a sufficient equivalent to “marriage. “ Marriage equality was the first specifically rights-based ruling rooted in the logic that to deny people of a particular sexual orientation a status given by the state to people of a different sexual orientation was discriminatory. Since the Reformation the state had progressively usurped the role of the church (in the form of civil magistracies that recorded and certified marriages), at the same time returning to priests and pastors the right to serve as official state-authorized ministers of vows and recorders of deed. Only the Catholic and Eastern churches doggedly withstood this encroachment by saying that the state lacked the power to finalize a sacrament, so that marriages conducted in a judge’s office were no more than expressions of intent until ratified by the Church. That little theological river remains to be crossed and won’t be anytime soon. To do so would undermine about 1500 years of Catholic theological reflection on the nature of marriage. By the same token, the liberal protestant traditions will fare much better with the decision, since for them marriage lacks sacramental authenticity. While this makes marriage equality easier for the liberal Protestants, it makes it easier only because the definition of marriage is theologically chaotic in those traditions.
From a strictly historical perspective, the understanding of both “traditional” and “same sex” marriage in the late twentieth century had become so heavily suffused with the Hollywood teleology of the wedding- as-happy-ending that a deeper understanding of its significance in human culture was almost totally ignored in the polarization of slogans: Marriage was either “between a man and a woman,” or it was a “loving relationship between two people regardless of sex or sexual orientation.” The old view emanated from a theological position based in natural law as interpreted through sacred texts; the new view was thought to be based on human social values like equality and freedom to choose. One view was teleological (marriage must be defined in terms of its purpose, utility or final form), the other in terms of entitlements and rights.
The post-Renaissance development of love relationships in the West had led finally to the unavoidable question of whether the thinking of the Church had become outmoded: institutions like marriage are subject to social change and pressure. Thus, if society changes, can institutions designed to accommodate the assumptions and beliefs of earlier times continue to govern our understanding of the institution? Conservative Christians and many Catholics and orthodox Jews said yes. Their certainty was rooted in an assortment of biblical texts, assumed to be authoritative, composed millennia before these social changes occurred. Their defense of traditional marriage was not so much rooted in history as simply tethered to the past. The gay community—or the small part that was actually interested in having a discussion about the sacramental nature of marriage as opposed to its legal recognition–said No. If the Church is a living voice intended to speak to people in the modern world, it must speak to be understood and in a language people can understand. Yet this position could easily be challenged as amounting to a rejection of the normativity which the Church often uses as an entitlement to speak on a range of other moral issues where precedent, texts, the words of the founder, or centuries of teaching and practice are used to alter and reform existing norms. It is one of the reasons it has become increasingly easy to bypass the opinion of liberal protestant churches with their comparatively skeptical attitude toward the use of “”orthodox” authority from the past while listening in rapt attention to any “modern” or liberalizing word spoken by a pope, who claims to represent the living voice of unbroken tradition.
Writing in this week’s Time magazine, the editor of the American Conservative (a publication I regret to say I don’t read very often) had this to say:
“…the Court majority wrote that gays and lesbians do not want to change the institution of marriage, but rather want to benefit from it. This is hard to believe, given more recent writing from gay activists like Dan Savage expressing a desire to loosen the strictures of monogamy in all marriages. Besides, if marriage can be redefined according to what we desire — that is, if there is no essential nature to marriage, or to gender — then there are no boundaries on marriage. Marriage inevitably loses its power.
In that sense, social and religious conservatives must recognize that the Obergefell decision did not come from nowhere. It is the logical result of the Sexual Revolution, which valorized erotic liberty. It has been widely and correctly observed that heterosexuals began to devalue marriage long before same-sex marriage became an issue. The individualism at the heart of contemporary American culture is at the core of Obergefell — and at the core of modern American life.”
The first of these two paragraphs contains both a truism and a cheat: It is undeniable that marriage equality has come at a time when marriage itself is socially weak. But the attack on monogamy is not specific to gay marriage. The sexual revolution was largely a heterosexual revolution dampened by epidemics of HIV AIDS and STDs and only coextensively a feature of the gay revolution. Gay marriage is not the final act in a drama that begins with gay promiscuity. Promiscuity, adultery, or what the Book of Common Prayer calls “fornication” is not unique to 2015; it existed in 1559 and 1776 and 1943. Whatever the restraining power of chastity or monogamy as a perquisite of the marriage union, this aspect of the institution has been weakening for two centuries or more, if indeed it ever was really definitive. There is nothing to be said for the idea that marriage equality is related, in any way, to loosening the bond of monogamy.
The second paragraph is more sober. Marriage equality may well be an expression of erotic liberty, if by that we mean the right to have pleasure with persons of the same sex in the same way heterosexuals enjoy pleasure with people of the opposite sex. The question in this case goes back to the question of purpose as opposed to the question of rights: Is the purpose of marriage the legitimation of sexual pleasure, or does it have some deeper and more fundamental purpose. Eschewing the teleological, what is the meaning, the essence of marriage?
But underlying both paragraphs is a more troubling message: If marriage is now defined strictly in terms of conjugal rights by extending those rights to same sex as well as heterosexual partners, it is very difficult to see what the battle was about: The need for legitimation? The need to express love on paper? The blessing of the state? The push for final sacramental legitimacy within religious traditions? My guess is that compared to achieving this final goal, winning over five justices of America’s highest court will be a piece of cake.