May 31, 2008

The Supreme Court of California provoked the usual howls of indignation and triumph with its decision mandating government recognition of same-sex marriage. As often happens, however, both sides of the controversy share assumptions that make their disagreement possible in the first place. That is, both opponents and advocates of same-sex marriage agree that marriage is the best possible loving relationship. As the justices put it, marriage is:

[T]he most socially productive and individually fulfilling relationship that one can enjoy in the course of a lifetime. The ability of an individual to join in a committed, long-term, officially recognized family relationship with the person of his or her choice is often of crucial significance to the individual’s happiness and well-being. The legal commitment to long-term mutual emotional and economic support that is an integral part of an officially recognized marriage relationship provides an individual with the ability to invest in and rely upon a loving relationship with another adult in a way that may be crucial to the individual’s development as a person and achievement of his or her full potential.

Few marriage “traditionalists” would question this sonorous apology for marriage. Yet the view that a “committed, long-term, officially recognized family relationship” with another is the highest sexual ideal is not only not traditional but is indeed quite novel. Consider by way of contrast the words of the English Book of Common Prayer, which gives the following three justifications for marriage:

First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.

Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.

Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.

Clearly, the good doctors who authored the BCP had nothing like California’s confidence that marriage is “the most socially productive and individually fulfilling” relationship possible.  On the contrary, the first reason they give for marriage is purely utilitarian, that it is the best way to deal with children coming into the world. The second reason is almost pejorative, namely, that marriage is a concession to those individuals who lack the self-control to do any better. The last reason the BCP gives for marriage”€”that it provides aid and comfort to both parties”€”is slightly more optimistic. Even this reason, however, is uninspiring, insofar as a couple’s mutual aid is a good way to relieve society of the burden of caring for each of them.

The BCP’s dim view of marriage might shock the pious justices of California’s Supreme Court. Yet the notion that marriage as an inferior state is far from an eccentricity of Anglican religion.  On the contrary, if any view of marriage is eccentric, it is the exalted view championed by the California justices.  Socrates found his most “individually fulfilling relationship” not in his wife Xanthippe but contemplating the form of the beauty. Augustine thought that marriage was only good for producing children; the “indecent because disobedient” motions of a man’s flesh he saw as a humiliating reminder of our depravity. Medieval troubadours once argued that love and marriage could not even coexist. The only true love as they saw it was adulterous love. 

For what it is worth, the only view of marriage I can think of that comes close to California’s is John Milton’s:

Hail, wedded Love, mysterious law, true source
Of human offspring, sole propriety
In Paradise, of all things common else!
By thee adult’rous love was driven from men
Among the bestial herds to range; by thee,
Founded in reason, loyal, just and pure,
Relations dear, and all the charities
Of father, son, and brother, first were known.

Yet even Milton’s view of “wedded Love,” though laudatory, differs little from the BCP’s.  Wedded love for Milton is antithetical to “bestial” desire and reflects only the rational need to procreate.  As with the BCP, marriage in Milton’s view does not so much consummate love as cure it.

We live today in a relentlessly earnest and humorless marriage culture.  Lovers often talk about taking their relationship “to the next level,” as if love were a long and arduous climb with marriage at the apex (or perhaps at the first of many apexes). When they do marry, they compose their own wedding vows in a grim determination to make it the most solemn utterance of their lives. Same-sex couples of one’s acquaintance take the gravity of marriage today to an astonishing extreme. When they talk about taking the “next step” in their relationships, they seem to really mean it, as if they really did seek nothing less than the most “socially productive and individually fulfilling relationship that one can enjoy in the course of a lifetime.” 

“Traditionalists” have it all backwards. Marriage isn’t in decline; it has instead been glorified beyond all recognition.  The only way back to traditional marriage may be to allow same-sex marriage without protest.  Let marriage first be deflated. Then perhaps it can it can be restored.


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