Recently there's been an uptick in the level of discussion regarding gay marriage. The Supreme Court is currently deliberating whether same-sex marriage will be federally recognized and DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act), which does not grant to same-sex marriages the federal benefits that opposite-sex marriages are eligible for, will be overturned.
As we anticipate the Court's ruling in the coming months, there are some aspects of the arguments, affirmative and negative, that I'd like to draw your attention to.
Tuning in to the AM political chatter last week, I heard multiple callers attack the "traditional marriage" view espoused by the show host and demand instead that "marriage equality" be established by the courts. It occurred to me how remarkably narrow each of these counterpoints were. Unable to escape a quick mental dip into anthropology, I considered how marriage has been defined in different societies and cultural environments around the world.
Any position that refuses to be situated in a global and historical context deserves particular scrutiny and skepticism. From the discourse on marriage I've heard so far, the two dominant stances ironically argue for a universal definition, but at the same time refuse to consider how the universe really does define it.
• Advocates of "marriage equality" appeal to our Western concepts of love and fidelity, and use them as a fairly solid foundation for their campaign. Even Obama appears to subscribe to this reasoning, as you may have noticed from his last inaugural speech; he argued that, "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."
This is undeniably a convincing argument. Gay marriage lines up perfectly with our romantic ideals; restricting marriage to be between a man and a woman prohibits the legal expression of their love for one another, and that is unjust.
• Defenders of "traditional marriage" often declare that "marriage is between a man and a woman."
In advocating this blanket definition of "traditional marriage" they commonly commit a fallacy called ad antiquitatem--meaning that they appeal to tradition, to the customs and cultural sensitivities ingrained in the mind of natural born American citizens since birth. Marriage has been between a man and a woman, therefore it must continue to be.
Unfortunately this idea is only appealing to those who are already convinced of the rightness of traditional marriage. The ad antiquitatem is really only a poor argument advanced because an appeal to morality would be an utter failure in contemporary popular culture and politics.
Both the affirmative and negative arguments have this in common: they take something that is true or right in one case to be true or right in all cases.
"Marriage equality" makes a great deal of sense to us who believe in love and would like to love one person for the rest of our lives. It justly grants gay couples legal marital status. However, beneath the emotional and ideological appeal of marriage equality lies an ignorance of what marriage means, and has meant, to thousands of people groups across the planet and throughout history.
From an historical and cultural perspective, “marriage equality” and “gay rights” are not synonyms, as our pop culture understands them. Polygamy has been fairly common at different points in history--even Biblical history--and if you include the keeping of concubines, it is even more common. The Quran allows up to four wives; an ESL student where I work once related to his class that he had two wives back home. Can both his legal wives apply for immigration to the U.S on the grounds of spouse-hood if this man were a U.S. citizen?
My question to the affirmative is: why are you not also defending the rights of thousands of Muslims to marry multiple wives, according to the permissions of their religious teaching? Is that not marriage equality? This is an honest question that deserves and honest answer. By not picking up the torch for polygamous rights, the mainstream marriage equality movement runs the risk of exposure as hypocritical and narrow-minded. It demonstrates to the public that you are not, in fact, championing equality for all kinds of marriage, only your own.
Although no true and just universal definition exists, marriage is not all about love. Marriage has been a social and political tool for thousands of years--they've been used strategically for anything from securing peace and economic relations between clans to expanding power and land wealth among royalty. Not everyone marries whom they love, or loves whom they marry. Nor is it always their choice. Marriage is as much a social and economic institution as it is an expression of romantic love and mutual commitment. This very fact, ironically, is at the heart of the above mentioned Supreme Court Case--it involves benefits. Tangible benefits, things that put money in your pocket and let you bypass red-tape, not just a right to equal expression of love.
As for the guardians of traditional marriage, namely Christians, Jews, and Mormons, they should be ready and willing to give an answer that makes sense to those who would ask them why God's favored people practiced polygyny in the Old Testament, and why it should not be considered legitimate in our era. The "traditional" argument for "traditional marriage" is already weak; more persuasive arguments, such as the fundamentally children-oriented nature of marriage, must be put forward.
My question to the negative is: What is your position on polygamy? Compared to gay marriage it has a much firmer foundation in history, even Biblical and Islamic history. Should a man and his wives, or woman and her husbands, receive the same recognition of their love and commitment and the same legal entitlements as a husband and a wife?
As the debates over the definition of marriage move forward, we must consider how other people have defined and used marriage as an institution, and in that broader context, how we as a people wish to restrict or expand our legal definition of marriage to the inclusion or exclusion of multiple kinds of arrangements, not just same-sex relationships.