Re: The “History” of Marriage

In the wake of President Barack Obama’s recent announcement that he supports same-sex marriages, quite a few reactions have flooded the opinion pages, cable networks and blog sites. Of course, people are entitled to their differing views on the subject; and President Obama’s announcement certainly can be seen as a divisive one. It angers not only many conservatives, but also groups that are considered at the base of the Democratic Party, specifically African-Americans and Latinos. However, at a time when Gallup polls report that 50% of all Americans support same-sex marriage, this public affirmation from the President of the United States marks an important moment in history.

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photo credit: msnbc.com

And yet, I almost refrain from using the word “history”, a term that opponents of same-sex marriage have so regularly abused and exploited. The word itself faces the threat of being rendered meaningless.

Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney declared in 2003, “I agree with 3,000 years of recorded history. I disagree with the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman.” Recently Romney spoke at Liberty University, where he reaffirmed his position of nine years ago. He spoke of the “enduring institution of marriage,” one that defines itself as “a relationship between one man and one woman.”

He has other conservative supporters, of course. In January, Newt Gingrich boldly associated gay marriage with Paganism. Gingrich said, “It’s pretty simple: marriage is between a man and a woman. This is a historic doctrine driven deep into the Bible, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament…the effort to create alternatives to marriage between a man and a woman are perfectly natural pagan behaviors, but they are a fundamental violation of our civilization.”

Conservative blogger, Erick Erickson writes, “In the past few decades, many people have decided that several thousand years of human history can be ignored in favor of unproven claims of happiness, fairness, progress, and an expanded notion of equality.”

It is imperative to do some fact checking of these ‘historical’ claims.

When Newt Gingrich invokes marriages from the Old and New Testament, is he counting the one where Jacob had two wives? Or where King David had eight wives? Or where King Solomon had 700 wives?

When Mitt Romney speaks about the “enduring institution” of marriage, does he mean the marriages of ancient Egypt where royal siblings would legally marry one another in order to keep their royal bloodlines pure? Or the marriages of the ancient Romans where daughters were human forms of currency, used to help form strategic alliances and strengthen the military position of the family?

Marriage is an evolving institution. It is both deceptive and manipulative to speak of the history of marriage as a stable, un-changing tradition. To be against gay-marriage is one thing; to depict marriage as a fixed institution is another.

Wedding vows, as we know them today certainly have not been around for “thousands” of years. The vows with the well known “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer” come from a man named Thomas Cranmer in 1549.

Society did not really even make the switch to marrying for love, a period known in sociology as “affective individualism”, until the Victorian Era. Prince Albert and Queen Victoria became the revered icons for a loving marriage. People began to grow distasteful of arranged marriages for economic purposes, and began to seek new meaning, namely love, in the institution of marriage.

When Erick Erickson argues that we’re ignoring “thousands of years of human history” I think the real question is which history is he referring to? Which marriage structure is he claiming we should fight to preserve? Arranged-marriages between a man and a woman? Polygamic marriages?

And if Erickson does mean marriages for love between a man and a woman—well, that is one of the most recent historical phenomena of them all.

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