Friday, October 31, 2008

Putting Same-Sex Marriage in Historical Perspective

As voters in California consider a ballot initiative that would define marriage as between one man and one woman, I would advise everyone to read this article from Stephanie Coontz. Coontz, who wrote the most definitive history of marriage as an institution to date, which accurately points out that the whole notion of a monogamous marriage between a man and a woman is a historically new phenomenon.

Historically, marriage has tended toward polygamy, and the emphasis hinged more on reproduction so that families could ensure the retention of property more than anything else. A man could take a new wife or concubine if his first wife proved to be infertile. Additionally, she notes that the church’s involvement in marriage is also fairly new, “For the first 16 centuries of its existence, Christianity held that the validity of a match was determined by a couple’s stated intention to be married, rather than by any formal ceremony or licensing process,” Coontz writes.

Recently, the government and religious institutions have increased involvement in what has traditionally been considered a family or private affair, Coontz notes. After freeing individuals from needing parental approval to get married, the courts also struck down regulations that banned marriage with someone of another race, a “drunk,” or someone with a venereal disease. All of those have been systematically struck down by the courts.

Coontz astutely points out:

These two innovations—channeling more benefits through marriage than in the past while also repealing the denial of individual choice to most groups—have given gays and lesbians a strong socioeconomic incentive to demand access to marriage and a strong moral argument to press their case on the basis of equal justice. And contrary to “Conventional Wisdom,” their case is also supported by the Western legal and religious tradition, which has never made ability to procreate a precondition for marriage and which traditionally accorded legal rights to many unions that religious leaders considered illicit or immoral.

In other words, Coontz finds it something of a historical paradox that even as laws have tended to increase the autonomy of the individual when it comes to marriage, there are simultaneous attempts to rob certain groups of that automony. Overall, people tend to be happier with a more or less monogamous relationships and increased autonomy. But it’s important not to be selective about that autonomy and understandable that groups would resent that exclusion.

Cross posted at Pushback.

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