This week’s Supreme Court debates about the definition of marriage echo the same debates that have been dominant in communities and states across the country for the past several years. Justice Kennedy, who appears conflicted about where he stands on this issue, expressed his concern about changing a conception of marriage that “has persisted for thousands of years.”
In truth, like most social institutions, the institution of marriage has shifted and changed over the years in ways that have strengthened it and made it both more accessible and more just.
Two hundred years ago we debated whether or not slaves should be allowed to marry. One-hundred and fifty years ago we debated whether married women should remain their husband’s property under the principle of coverture (the principle of two-becoming-one-flesh), or whether women should be regarded as their own persons, with full rights and responsibilities. Forty-seven years ago we debated whether or not interracial marriages should be legal.
In 1967, the Loving v. Virginia ruling eradicated states law prohibiting interracial marriage and thus transformed the institution of marriage yet again, in ways that struck down discriminatory state laws in much the same way that a ruling in the current case might do.
That ruling read, in part, “Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man [sic],” fundamental to our very existence and survival . . .To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes . . . is surely to deprive the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.”
Even more recently, we have debated no-fault divorce, marital rape laws, and now marriage equality. In each of these cases where we have debated about the nature of the institution of marriage, we have shifted and expanded our understanding in ways that moved us a little closer toward justice in our society.
But, so often in this debate it is Christianity and the Bible that is brought up as the ultimate weapon in defense of a marriage between one man and one woman. The Genesis text that states that man shall leave his parents and join with wife to become one flesh is trotted out as “proof” that God has defined marriage as between one man and one woman.
Unfortunately, these folks must have stopped reading their Bibles at the end of Genesis, chapter two. Even a cursory read of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament demonstrates that marriage was not understood or practiced this way at all.
Marriage in the Bible was much more about property rights, ensuring paternity of offspring, succession, political alliances and tribal stability than it was about companionship, mutual support and affection as we think of marriage today. The patriarchs of the Jewish and Christian tradition often had sex with multiple women, usually, but not always, for the purpose of procreation. Many of the women in the Bible who were slaves, or servants, or handmaids were reportedly “given” by the legal or primary wife to her husband for the purposes of securing children. The notion of consent, particularly for women, in matters of sexual intercourse is not a relevant moral norm in most of scripture.
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