Defending Marriage?

September 23, 2004

I double-checked the text of the Louisiana marriage amendment and, according to the Lafayette Advertiser here it is:

Amendment No. 1, Regular Session, 2004, A JOINT RESOLUTION “Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Louisiana, to enact Article XII, Section 15, relative to marriage; to require that marriage in the state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman; to provide that the legal incidents of marriage shall be conferred only upon such union; to prohibit the validation or recognition of the legal status of any union of unmarried individuals; to prohibit the recognition of a marriage contracted in another jurisdiction which is not the union of one man and one woman; to provide for submission of the proposed amendment to the electors and provide a ballot proposition; and to provide for related matters.”
What struck me was that this amendment bans one false threat to marriage, ignores a real but rarely discussed threat to marriage, and barely touches on the largest threat to the institution.

I think of marriage as companionate marriage: two people promising to care for one another. This is a contrast to patriarchal marriage, where he promises to protect and she promises to obey. Over the 20th century companionate marriage has mostly replaced patriarchal marriage in most industrial societies.

What is the greatest threat to marriage? I believe that the biggest two threats are broken marriages and marriages never entered into. When teaching about colonial Virginia I ask my students how many of them have friends or neighbors in a broken or blended marriage. Almost everyone raises a hand - not surprising since about one marriage in three ends in divorce (statistics that are remarkably robust across religious, regional, and class lines.) I then use that to point out that colonial Virginia had a comparable number of broken and blended marriages, but that the culprit there was death and not divorce. I digress.

About one in three marriages ends in divorce, many of them after the couple has kids. This is a historically high level of broken marriages, comparable to conditions in colonial Virginia, and has important social ramifications. Divorce is the most obvious blow against marriage; it is clearly against New Testament teachings; and even 34% of Evangelicals believe that divorce without adultery is acceptable despite it being clearly condemned in the gospels. The pragmatics of being humans with a certain urge towards infidelity and serial monagamy outweigh religious teachings, and along the way they have created a nation with a lot of broken and blended families. This is the obvious but rarely discussed threat to marriage. It is obvious because of all the divorces - heck, politicians including conservative politicians appear to be prone to serial divorce - but we choose not to talk about it because, by and large, we prefer to escape unhappy marriages than to be trapped in them. As Kieran Heally of Crooked Timber pointed out a few months ago, even Ireland now has legalized divorce.

The largest threat to the institution is that it might become irrelevant. Why get married? You can provide for your kids, commit to your honey, and still know that you can walk away and do it again with another person. From this perspective it is striking that while the entertainment heroes of mid-century were notorious for their marriages and divorces, it is commonplace for the entertainment heros of today to have several children by several partners and never a wedding license in sight. They do not cause behavior, but I am struck by the change from being titillated by star divorces to being blase about stars making bastards. On a more prosaic level, conversations with young men about marriage often boil down to the fact that they want to have the benefits of polygamy combined with the lack of responsibility that comes with being single. This is a potential social time-bomb.

The Louisiana statute defines marriage as one man and one woman, and then provides "that the legal incidents of marriage shall be conferred only upon such union." If read strictly, this would mean that long term heterosexual partners, boyfriend and girlfriend raising a family and owning property together, would have the same lack of visitation, custody, and financial rights that same-sex couples now have. This would re-introduce a legal stigma to living together without wedlock and might, although it is doubtful, encourage some of these couples to head down to the county clerk and pick up the paperwork.

Marriage these days consists of three discrete moments. There is a bit of legal paperwork from the state or county - cheap and accessible for heterosexual couples, restricted for same-sex couples. There is a religious ceremony, optional for all, with some religious groups encouraging same-sex marriage, others banning it, and all applauding heterosexual marriage. Finally there is the kick-ass party. Some people don't do the first because they can't afford the third. (Disclaimer, we spent too much on our party because, well, J wanted a big party and I was in a manners phase.)

If we are serious about defending marriage we should do more to make getting hitched easy, the first part. This would involve re-thinking the "women and children first" logic of AFDC and reworking our social safety net to look more like the European dole, thus removing one economic disincentive for marriage. We could revise the tax code to increase the transfer payments from single people to married people. We might want to revise our public institutions so as to systematically shame those who have children out of wedlock, with the challenge being to blame the parents and not the child. I don't know how politically viable these proposals are, but they would "defend" the institution of marriage. Several of them would also offend the people who are most vocal about defending marriage from same-sex unions. So be it - we clearly distinguish between principle and rhetoric only when someone chooses an action because it conforms with their principles even tough it is against their other interests

We have already taken authority over marriages from religious groups and moved it to the state - part of the separation of church and state is that the government and not the church tells us which cousins can and can't get married, what age is too young, and so on. Religious groups are currently free to hold whatever ceremonies they desire for whatever couples they desire, knowing that the ceremony has no legal validity without the state paperwork. I know that the PC(USA) is currently debating same-sex marriage, that debate will continue in that and in other religious groups. I suspect that the Presbyterians will remain against same-sex marriage for another decade or longer.

The last is the social status of the kick-ass party. We have all heard the anecdotes about people who don't get married because they can't afford $10,000 for a reception. This is silly logic, but it grows out of the American bridal industry and our tendency to use coming of age rituals for rituals of conspicuous consumption. You don't have to have a big expensive party. Up until the mid 19th century Protestant weddings were small affairs held in the house with a few family members around. Only when American middle-class people began copying English middle-class people who were copying Queen Victoria did we start to see the big white dress, the reception, and the rituals of consumption and display. Even the folks who talk about the big expensive wedding they went to last weekend would probably be just as happy with a small intimate affair.

A marriage, in the end, is two people standing up before friends and family and, invoking the Divine for aid, pledging to build a lasting relationship. If we can remind ourselves of that, the party can also stop being a barrier to marriage.

We can make a good case that civil partnership is a threat to marriage, because it offers a sort of half-way marriage, with the economic benefits but not the public blessings and support of friends and community. A civil partnership coupled with a religious ceremony and a party would be better, and would strengthen the institution, but letting any two people march into city hall, show common residence and presto-chango get preferential legal treatment and transfer payments from single people might well threaten the institution.

Civil unions as a half-way marriage would threaten the institution if people got civil unions instead of a full marriage. They would strengthen the institution if people got civil unions instead of being long-time boyfriend and girlfriend. I have no idea which way it would go for heterosexual couples - it looks like a wonderful research agenda for someone in the humanities.

Based on what we have seen in San Francisco, Massachusetts, and Canada, same-sex couples are taking half-way marriage and combining it with religious ceremonies, the blessings of friends and families, and a public committment to a stable long-term relationship. For them, half-way marriage strengthens marriage, and if we want to protect the institution of marriage we should be encouraging more same-sex unions.

That Louisiana amendment does nothing about divorce, might do something about long-term relationships that fall short of marriage, and is an exercise of bigotry against same sex couples. It is a poor job of defending marriage, a good job of justifying discrimination.

Posted by Red Ted at September 23, 2004 09:53 AM | TrackBack

I think the real question isn't "what is a threat to marriage?" but "what is the purpose of marriage?", IE, what exactly is being threatened in the first place?

Posted by: DFH at September 28, 2004 12:19 AM
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