Monday, May 21, 2007

The Changing Face of “Traditional Marriage”

Going through my computer files over the weekend, I came across the following from Stephanie Coontz (pictured below).

As you’ll see, this particular commentary is a very informative and level-headed look at how our understanding of marriage has changed over the centuries. What follows are excerpted highlights from this commentary - one that Coontz wrote for the Hartford Courant earlier this year. This commentary was originally entitled “‘Traditional Marriage’ Isn’t As Straightforward As All That.”

In light of my previous post on marriage, I thought it would be appropriate to share the perspective of Coontz, who teaches history at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and is the author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage (Penguin, 2005), which was selected as one of the “best books of 2005” by the Washington Post.


The Changing Face of “Traditional Marriage”
Excerpts from “‘Traditional Marriage’ Isn’t As Straightforward As All That”
By Stephanie Coontz
Hartford Courant
March 18, 2007

. . . Claims of historical fact about marriage can be proved true or false, and three of the historical claims made by opponents of same-sex marriage in Connecticut are demonstrably untrue.

First is the claim that the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman goes back thousands of years. Second is the claim that the Judeo-Christian heritage always has seen marriage as a sacred relationship that must be defended above all others. Third is the claim that marriage has endured for thousands of years without change.

The most commonly approved form of marriage in the past (and the one mentioned most often in the first five books of the Old Testament) was polygamy – one man, many women. Some societies also countenanced polyandry – one woman married to several men. In China and parts of the Sudan, when two families wished to make an alliance but didn't have an eligible daughter or son still alive, marriages were often arranged between one child and the ghost of another. And at least one society, the Na of China, existed for thousands of years without marriage.

The Judeo-Christian tradition does not speak with one voice on marriage. Polygamy, divorce and concubines are all part of the Old Testament tradition. Jesus broke with older religious traditions in prohibiting divorce for men as well as for women. But in doing so, he also challenged the traditional right of a man to take a second wife if the first wife was sterile. Ever since, the validity of a marriage in the Western tradition has not been dependent on ability to procreate.

And despite Jesus' rejection of divorce, Christianity did not sanctify marriage. (It wasn't made a sacrament until 1215). In fact, he urged his followers to remain unmarried or leave their families to go off and spread the Christian word.

His definition of family was based not on biological or legal ties but on the community of believers. When he was dying on the cross, he did not ask a disciple to help his mother. Instead, he called a disciple forward and said to his mother, "Dear woman, here is your son." And to the disciple, he said, "Here is your mother."

The claim that marriage existed unchanged for thousands of years is also false. Two hundred years ago, the generation that produced the Enlightenment and the American Revolution overturned thousands of years of tradition by insisting that the older generation must allow young people to choose their own mates on the basis of love rather than to further their parents' economic and political ambitions.

Even more radical and recent has been the innovation of giving wives and husbands equal rights in marriage. Until the late 19th century, a husband legally owned all his wife's property and earnings and could do with them what he pleased. He had the right to physically "correct" his wife and even imprison her in the home for disobedience.

When courts began to treat wives as separate legal entities with their own individual rights, defenders of "traditional" marriage predicted that such a radical social change would "destroy domestic tranquility" and subvert the "order of society."

Whether one is for or against legalizing same-sex marriage, we must understand that it is heterosexual couples who have been tampering with marriage for the past 200 years. Heterosexuals repealed the old laws mandating wives' subordination to husbands and prohibiting divorce. It was a lawsuit involving a heterosexual Connecticut couple that led the Supreme Court to overturn laws forbidding the sale of contraceptives, thus giving married people the right to decide not to have children.

. . . Once marriage came to be seen as an institution bringing together two individuals based on mutual affection and equality, without regard to rigidly defined gender roles or the ability to procreate, it's not surprising that gays and lesbians said, "That now describes our relationships too, so why can't we marry?" If you don't like these changes in the institution, blame your grandparents, not the gay and lesbian couples seeking entry into this new model of marriage.

Stephanie Coontz teaches history at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. She wrote this column for the Hartford Courant.

To read this article in its entirety, click here.

For more articles by Stephanie Coontz, click here.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Stephanie Coontz’s Official Website
Love Makes A Family

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Naming and Confronting Bigotry
The Real Gay Agenda
On Civil Unions and Christian Tradition
Gay Adoption: A Catholic Lawyer’s Perspective
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex


episcopalifem said...

Thanks for pointing this artcle out Michael. The author very clearly pointed out what I have semi-intuitively believed to be true: no institution is bereft of change, unless it is a dead/defunct institution. As we evolve as a society, and as people of all walks, faith, orientations gain great acceptance and recognition of their basic human rights, we will see change in institutions like marriage. And the world will not end. It's already changed.

I'm in total agreement with her.

To me, love is sacred, and can exist with or without marriage. God sees love for what it is.

In my opinion (for the little that is worth - :-), marriage is more of a legal institution. It's wonderful to have God's blessing, and to formalize a committment to one another in God's presence, but I feel this can be achieved without the formal ceremony. If the bond is true, and the love and committment are there, I think God already gives his blessing, as evidenced through the quality of the relationship, and the gift of love between partners. The ceremony is icing on the cake. The relationship is what is most important.

It's in the secular realm that marriage issues become a practical matter with which to contend. In today's litigious society, I think marriage for all should be a civil and legal right. People who build a life together, should be able to insure one another, and be able to share their real properties - in both life and death. The end.

Her point that marriage didin't become a sacrament until the 13th century suggests to me most strongly that marriage should be subject to change both inside and outside of the church.

Her points are clear, and she makes a good foundational arguement against the 'traditionalist" perspectives.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Eileen.