In what will certainly be viewed as a sign of the apocalypse, Canada became the fourth nation to legalize same-sex marriage.
Sarcasm aside, the news that Canada has joined the ranks of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain by granting full legal rights to same-sex couples will most certainly raise the hackles of America’s so-called moral majority. Canada’s legalization of same-sex marriage will likely rally America’s Christian soldiers to renew their call for a constitutional amendment to defend marriage against the onslaught of homosexuality. After all, as President Bush explained in his call for such an amendment, while America is a free society, the “commitment of freedom … does not require the redefinition of one of our most basic social institutions.”
Actually, Mr. President, it does.
Those who want to “protect” marriage frequently characterize marriage as a static institution, unchanged and unchangeable. Such a characterization, while politically convenient, is simply untrue. Beginning as early as the second century, Christian theology required that all marriages be blessed by a priest and solemnized in a church. With the passage of time, however, marriage became viewed more as a civil institution and was gradually unmoored from its strictly religious roots. As such, the modern view of marriage is as a legal contract, requiring the sanction of the state, not the church.
When marriage was originally viewed as a purely religious institution originating from God, divorce was prohibited and the wife was subject to the disabilities of coverture (i.e., she was the husband’s property). With the evolution of marriage into a civil institution, common-law disabilities of married women were abolished and the laws of divorce were, and continue to be, increasingly liberalized.
Clearly, the institution of marriage has been “redefined” repeatedly.
Self-described protectors of marriage also refer to its sanctity, particularly as set forth in the Bible. This Bible-based argument against same-sex marriage can be best summarized in the words of that Christ-like man of compassion, Jerry Falwell: “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” In other words, same-sex marriage is a sinful abomination, punishable by eternal damnation.
Without delving into the appropriateness of basing legal rights on a single faith’s religious doctrine, the because-the-Bible-says-so argument withers under scrutiny (as do so many other arguments based on selective readings of religious texts). For instance, except for some fundamentalist Mormon sects, polygamy is generally condemned by the Christian community and is illegal everywhere. Nevertheless, in Genesis 29-30, Jacob, although already married to Leah, took Rachel as his wife, and later took both wives’ maids as his concubines. The Bible also condemns interracial marriage, as evidenced by Genesis 24:3 and 28:1, Exodus 34:12-16, Deuteronomy 7:3,4, and Joshua 23:12. Nonetheless, ever since the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision in Loving v. Commonwealth of Virginia, laws against interracial marriage are unconstitutional in the U.S.
In other words, notions of marriage have progressed a bit since the Bible was written.
America’s history of anti-miscegenation is particularly relevant to the modern debate over same-sex marriage. As with modern laws against same-sex couples, anti-miscegenation laws criminalized interracial relationships on the basis of sexual conduct. Interracial relationships, like gay relationships, were presumed to be devoid of commitment and love and were condemned as sinful, sexually depraved, and pornographic. The very idea of a black man having sex with a white woman was repugnant to “civilized” society, while sex between a white man and a black woman was considered obscenely exciting. Similarly, sex between two men is depraved while sex between two women is sinfully erotic.
Like the modern argument for the protection of marriage from homosexuals, opponents of miscegenation based their arguments on notions of natural law and “tradition.” Interracial marriage, like same-sex marriage, was considered unnatural and would ultimately lead to the destruction of a sacred institution. After all, as a matter of “tradition,” members of different races simply did not marry. To permit interracial marriages would have, in the words of President Bush, “severed [marriage] from its cultural, religious and natural roots … weakening the good influence of society.” While Bush was arguing against same-sex marriage, he could have just as easily been arguing against interracial marriage 40 years ago.
There’s also the argument that gay couples cannot conceive children and, therefore, should not be permitted to marry. There are, of course, innumerable heterosexual couples incapable of conceiving children by natural means, if at all. Indeed, most marriage vows make no reference to procreation and focus instead on the couple’s love and devotion for one another. Thus, it is love and devotion, not procreation, that give marriage meaning. While the righteous might not want to admit it, gay couples are just as capable of love and devotion as straight couples.
Nonetheless, opponents of same-sex marriage still feign concern for children by arguing that homosexual couples are unsuitable parents. As in the context of interracial marriage, opponents of gay marriage use this argument to appear high-minded when in reality they’re concerned with purity, whether racial or sexual. Opponents of same-sex couples see gays as sexual deviants who prey upon innocent children. Likewise, gay parents will likely raise gay children, thereby tarnishing society’s heterosexual purity. Anti-miscegenation racists similarly feared that integration would turn their children into prey for black sexual predators and that interracial marriage would dilute the superiority of the white race.
The parallels between America’s war against interracial and same-sex marriage are extensive and compelling, and only briefly touched upon here. Perhaps if more Americans had an even passing familiarity with their own history, we wouldn’t be faced today with a President making arguments that were debunked 40 years ago.