Marriage: It Ain’t a Religious Thing

Last year, I wrote a post on same-sex marriage, or rather, on Barack Obama’s evolving views on it. In that post, I handed out some unsolicited advice to the President, suggesting he view marriage in its social and economic context, and noting that there were too many similarities between the explicitly institutionalized racism of the past and the current strains of homophobic opposition to same-sex marriage to permit any vacillation on his part when it came to affirming support for it.

This week, as the Supreme Court debates the constitutionality of same-sex marriage I won’t repeat that same argument. (Besides, it seems to me, from my biased perspective, that the cases at hand are easy ones; the rulings are only a matter of suspense because the present Supreme Court contains ideologues like Scalia.)  Rather, I want to briefly note that marriage as a social institution opened itself up to the kind of abuse we see perpetrated by opponents to same-sex marriage the moment it sought divine sanction. Or rather, once a pair of human beings decided that the best way to signal to society that they were in a committed, enduring, sexual relationship, entailing extensive companionship, home-building and the rearing of children was to seek permission from a religious body, book, and ritual, the game was up. The path had been cleared for abuse of that social institution, and the means prepared for its ideological distortion.

Once marriage became a religious ritual, once marriages were made in heaven, much of the nonsense that has underwritten opposition to same-sex marriage became possible. But not just that; it also allowed the abuse perpetrated on women in ‘traditional marriage’–much of which was the target of feminists’ ire in days gone by (and today). Once marriage ceased to be a human, social institution, it ceased to find its grounding in particular social, economic and romantic contexts and became associated with things not of this earth, with transcendent realities. Those unsurprisingly, provided ample, powerful, cover for marriage’s utilization in a host of repressive political strategies: that the divinely ordained roles for women were procreation, child-bearing and housekeeping or that only certain kinds of people could marry.

The proper place for marriage is the secular; the religious sanctification so beloved of many should have been a supererogatory choice; those that were religious and were not reassured by the promises of the here and now, who didn’t feel their own emotional, financial and temporal commitment was enough, who doubted the resilience of human pacts which depend only on the profane, could have sought a religious ritual if they wanted one. The separation we have now, so that those who want to marry have the choice between a religious ceremony and one that is exclusively secular should always have been possible, should always have been built into the notion of a marriage. The move to make marriage into an institution requiring sanction by the state was a partially correct, albeit problematic move; it injects the state into the personal and institutionalizes marriage as the only kind of social signal for the commitments mentioned above. But it did move marriage out of an exclusively religious sphere.

The legal recognition of same-sex marriage is correct for moral reasons; it also moves marriage closer to its true secular place.

One comment on “Marriage: It Ain’t a Religious Thing

  1. […] Those debates are fascinating–most of us will have engaged in them at some time or other. (I’ve done so on this blog.) On Saturday, I sidestepped the debates, but I still remained engaged by the […]

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