“Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will diethere I will be buried.” Ruth 1:16
Whom God hath joined: these words from the traditional Protestant marriage ceremony are familiar to almost everyone. Marriages are often celebrated in churches and synagogues, in mosques and temples. Ministers, priests, and imams officiate at wedding ceremonies, calling their communities to celebrate the coming together of two people in love and commitment. In this respect marriage is a religious institution. And in this respect the rules of different religions determine who can marry and whether and on what grounds married persons can divorce. An obvious consequence is that the shape of religious marriage varies considerably from one faith community to another.
But marriages are also celebrated in courthouses; justices of the peace send millions of couples off into married life with calm efficiency. But whether it is a priest or a JP who actually does the deed, marriage is crucially a civil institution. The ceremonies might vary, and religious ceremonies might imply extra rules and prescriptions, but the enforce able lawsthe civil laws that govern all marriages do not vary. It should not surprise us that this gets confused or that many people assume that the religious laws and religious values invoked in a wedding ceremony are decisive. After all, the officiating religious leader gets to say By the power vested in me… toward the climax of the service. But when that religious officiant signs the marriage license, it is a civil marriage license that she or he signs. In signing it, that religious leader is acting as an agent of the state. The clergy person is transforming the religious marriage he or she just solemnized into a civil marriage that is thereafter governed by the rules of the state.
We confuse religious and civil marriage at our peril. The danger is that we will enshrine one religious point of view in laws intended to govern and protect us all. That danger is more acute than ever because the United States has become the most religiously pluralistic society the earth has ever known. Americans today are not only Methodists but Mormons and Muslims and Sikhs; not only Baptists but Buddhists, Bahais, Jains, and Jews; not only believers but agnostics and atheists. Additionally, about a quarter of all Americans declare themselves to be unchurched.
The Christian Right argues that we are, or were meant to be, a Christian nation. If that were so, which of the many and varied Christian doctrines would we choose to be the ones governing civil law? The Roman Catholic Church is not only the largest Christian body, but, with some 67 million members, is the largest faith community of any kind in the United States. Catholic teaching does not permit divorce; nonetheless, millions of persons raised in the Catholic faith have sought and received civil divorces when their marriages became unsustainable. They could do this because civil marriage is governed not by religious laws but by civil laws. Should civil divorce be outlawed because the precepts of the Catholic Church reject divorce? Few would say yes to such a change. What about marriage for same-sex couples? Many religious communities disapprove of it. Does that mean the state cannot make it legal? Declaring this area absolutely off-limits forfeits the civil societys power to fashion laws that promote the general welfare and provide the greatest good for the greatest number.
Everyone knows that the definition of civilmarriage has become the hot-button issue in the culture war currently raging between the Christian Right and progressive forces in this country. On one side, the marriage-equality movement is pushing for the legalization of same-sex civil marriage and the extension of full civil benefits and protections to gay and lesbian families. On the other side, proponents of traditional family values warn of dire consequences if traditional definitions of marriage are changed by statute. They are doing everything they can to stop it: eleven states adopted so-called Defense of Marriage (DOMA) statutes in the last election. President Bush and his allies in Congress are pushing for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. In May of 2004, this issue exploded in Massachusetts. The previous fall, the states highest court had found no compelling reason to deny same-sex couples the rights and responsibilities of civil marriage. In response, the state legislature took up an amendment to the state constitution that would define marriage as only between one man and one woman. Demonstrators on both sides of the issue lined Beacon Street in front of the golden-domed Massachusetts State House.
The national headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association happen to be located right next door to the State House. As a faith community, we had a decision to make. We could either be quiet or we could express our values. We decided to be articulate: we hung a sixteen- by twenty-foot banner on our building, facing the State House, reading: Civil Marriage is a Civil Right. This ensured that state legislators, looking out their windows when they were in session, would see our message. And many of us stood out on Beacon Street as well. We stood there not in angry protest but as people of faith who believed that the religious and the civil institutions of marriage should not be confused and that our government should take seriously its charge to be evenhanded, favoring no religion or religious view over another. This not just an issue about constitutional rights; marriage equality touches the lives of real people. On May 17, 2004, I had the privilege of marrying Hillary and Julie Goodridge in the chapel of our Beacon Street headquarters. Hillary and Julie have been committed to one another now for eighteen years. They have for eighteen years cared for one another in sickness and in health. They are mothers to a wonderful daughter, Annie. They take her to soccer games; they attend PTA meetings. They love one another and threaten no one. All they wanted was for their relationship to be recognized as a legal marriage. Hillary and Julie were the lead named plaintiffs in the court case that finally made same-sex marriage legal in Massachusetts.
Without that legal status, more than a thousand legal rights had been denied to Hillary, Julie, and Annie at the federal level, and many whom god hath joined together more under Massachusetts law: these include tax benefits, health insurance benefits, the right to hospital visitation and to make medical decisions for one another, inheritance and Social Security benefits, family-leave benefits, rules that would protect both partners interests if the relationship were to end, housing and immigration benefits, and hundreds more. Even with meticulous planning and the payment of hefty legal fees, Hillary and Julie would never have been able to replicate these rights no matter how many proxies and papers they signed. In the words of author and activist E.J. Graff in What Is Marriage For? The difference between powers of attorney or domestic partnership, for that matterand marriage is the difference between a skateboard and a jet.
Just under the surface of the debate about marriage equality lie funda- mental questions. What is marriage for? What is a family? The answers to these questions have been evolving for centuries and never without generating controversy.
Families have functioned as economic entities as units of production (think of the family farm) and a means of controlling property and wealth. Families have also been social and cultural entities: they have for thousands of years been the nexus where children are raised and socialized. Families are so different from culture to culture that in 1974, when the United Nations proclaimed the International Year of the Family, the organizing committee began by acknowledging not just that no one definition of family works across cultures but also that, in point of fact, thefamily does not exist.
So what is a family? Clearly, it depends on whom you ask. But for more than two thousand years, religious communities have seen families as a microcosm and fundamental life-form within their particular faith tradition. The family is thus an institution freighted with an awful lot of baggage.
To conservative and fundamentalist Christians, a family must fit the blueprint laid out by their religious authorities, based on what they find in the Bible, or it cannot be a family. But which biblical families are we to emulate? In her article The Right Is Wrong about Biblical Family Values, my colleague Meg Barnhouse contemplated whether the term biblical family values refers to Josephs brothers selling him into slavery, or to King David sending Bathshebas husband off to the front to be killed so that he could bed her himself? Or perhaps to King Solomons family with his seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines? I cant see the biblical-family-values people wanting to know about actual biblical families, Barnhouse writes. I cant see them wanting those families in their neighborhoods or their churches. In his book Why Marriage Matters, Evan Wolfson of the group Freedom to Marry asks us to imagine that the U.S. Constitution were amended to embody a literal interpretation of what the Bible says about marriage. Here are several options, taken from an e-mail that was widely circulated a couple of years ago and later entered into the Congressional Record by Congressman Jim McDermott of Washington:
1. Marriage shall consist of a union between one man and one or more women.
2. Marriage shall not impede a mans right to take concubines in addi- tion to his wife or wives.
3. If a married man dies, his brother has to marry his widow.
This, obviously, is not what the religious Right has in mind. To con- servative Christians, the traditional family is headed by a breadwinner husband with a subservient homemaker wife; they marry for the pur- pose of having and raising children.
If anything, however, this conception of the family is modern, not traditional, since it was invented in the 1950s. Moreover, white middleor upper-class family would be a more accurate descriptor for this idealized family unit. Prior to the middle of the twentieth century, multiple generations of a family tended to live together; labor in agriculturally based societies was shared more equally between men and women and whom god hath joined together across generations. It was the automobile, the Second World War, and rising urbanization that created the nuclear family while pulling people away from the settled communities in which extended families predominated.
Crucially, the newly fledged nuclear family of the 1950s enjoyed a rising standard of living. There was a postwar economic boom taking place, and our government was providing substantial subsidies for education and home financing. Flourishing businesses rewarded loyal employees with raises and retirement benefits, and people often spent their entire working lives with one employer. Corporations and wealthy individuals paid high taxes, in turn helping to finance the government subsidies. And wages rose enough to make it possible for many men to remain the sole breadwinners in their families.
Things have changed. The booming economy and the public subsidies are gone; companies now downsize and relocate to where labor is cheaper instead of rewarding employee loyalty; conservatives in the White House and Congress are working to dismantle most of the safety net that was put in place over the past forty years to protect the nations most vulnerable families. Many women who might prefer to stay home to raise their children can no longer afford to do so; and in the wake of the womens movement, many women whocould afford to stay at home no longer want to do so.
Families have changed, too which is not altogether a bad thing. The 1950s were hardly golden years for families if you were black or gay or female. I am African American. My father was born into a family of relative comfort. He was the son of a successful funeral home owner in Bluefield, West Virginia; he was educated at Harvard and spoke seven languages with some fluency. But he was driving a cab on the streets of Detroit in his early forties when he met my mother. The jobs for which his training had prepared him were simply not available to persons of color at that time.
My father died when I was young, and I grew up in Cincinnati. My mother, who had little formal education, could not stay at home; she took whatever work she could find, as a shop clerk and even selling en- cyclopedias door-to-door. Ozzie and Harriets family and Donna Reeds family may have been white and middle class, but poor white women and women of color worked throughout the 1950s.
And marriage in the 1950s could be a nightmare even for the welloff although no one talked publicly about abuse or alcoholism or in- cest. If you were a woman in an abusive marriage, you could not borrow money or even take out a credit card in your own name, so leaving a bad marriage was next to impossible.
So the conservatives one-size-fits-all notion of the traditional family is actually a modern inventionand a far from perfect invention at that. It would not have existed at all apart from a set of extraordinary socioeconomic factors. Considered historically, diversity in family patterns has been the rule, not the exception.
But to conservatives and fundamentalists, family diversity sounds the death knell of the family. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, warned just before same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts in 2004: Barring a miracle, the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself.
Marriage equalitythe freedom for any two people to marry according to the dictates of their hearts and regardless of genderis where political and religious conservatives now direct most of their firepower in the family wars. The Christian Right wants to protect traditional marriage, but like the traditional family, marriage as we know it today is a relatively modern phenomenon. Marriage used to be about economics, property, and politicsmore about in-laws, according to family historian Stephanie Coontz, than about love. Marriage was considered far too important an economic and political decision to leave to something as irrational as love, although the nineteenth century witnessed a profound change in that regard. By 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court was able, in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut, to call marriage intimate to the degree of being sacred.
The quality of the relationship between two people in a marriage whom god hath joined together has come to take precedence over marriages economic and political role. Sociologists point out that this development brought with it its own problems, particularly a sharp rise in divorce rates. People now expect love and happiness in their marriages, and they will more often end them if that happiness evaporates. But if it is an accepted fact that people should be able to marry whom they love, excluding gay and lesbian partners can no longer be justified except by those who believe that gays and lesbians do not deserve the same happiness as everyone else. Such an animus contradicts one of the first principles articulated in this nations Declaration of Independencean inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. The Supreme Court itself, in its 1967 landmark Loving v. Virginia decision, which invalidated state bans on interracial marriage, called marriage one of the basic civil rights of man, fundamental to our very existence and survival.
Of course, marriage is at least as much about shared responsibility as it is about shared rapture. Writer Jonathan Rauch expresses this beautifully in his book Gay Marriage: If I had to pare marriage to its essential core, I would say marriage is two peoples lifelong commitment, recognized by law and by society, to care for each other. To get married is to put yourself in another persons hands, and to promise to take that person into your hands, and to do so within a community which expects both of you to keep your word. The gay and lesbian couples who have been fighting for the right to get married have been fighting for the right to participate in that kind of shared responsibilityto be able to care for the person they love. Many of us are all too familiar with instances in which that right has been denied in appallingly unjust and inhumane ways. High on the list of most married couples responsibilities is caring for children. Conservatives insist that only traditional families should do this, repeating as a mantra that children should be raised by a mother and a father. Several states now have laws banning homosexuals from adopting children, and a new bill was recently proposed in Texas that would not only have made it illegal for a gay couple to adopt or take in a foster child but would actually have removed children from stable gay and lesbian families.
In fact there is a fair amount of evidence suggesting that while children may do better in families with two parentslargely because two adults have more financial and emotional resources to offer each other and their children, not because single parents are necessarily bad for childrenthe sex of the parents matters little. There is also some evidence suggesting that the children of single parents and gay and lesbian families may enjoy some advantages over those raised in more traditional families, as they are exposed to the modeling of more options than the traditional gender roles of mom as nurturer and dad as disciplinarian.
The American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in on this issue in 2002 in the journal Pediatrics, recognizing that a considerable body of professional literature provides evidence that children with parents who are homosexual can have the same advantages and the same expectations for health, adjustment, and development as can children whose parents are heterosexual. When two adults participate in parenting a child, they and the child deserve the serenity that comes with legal recognition. What counts, the experts agree, is the quality of the parenting and the relationship between the child and the parents.
There is also evidence that happy parents whether single or married, straight or gay raise happy children; and that being happily married or happily partnered helps adults stay healthier and live longer than those who are single or living with someone with whom they are miserable. Conversely, the experience of discrimination is toxic to mental health, according to members of the American Psychiatric Association. At their May 2005 convention they endorsed same-sex marriage on the grounds that same-sex couples experience several kinds of statesanctioned discrimination that can adversely affect the stability of their relationships and mental health.
Happiness, E.J. Graff observes, or even the simple security of being near someone who cares about you, of being responsible not just to whom god hath joined together yourself but to and for another is good for you. She concludes that without family without others we are responsible to and for we scarcely seem human. This view seems to resonate with most Americans: Three-quarters of people polled by News weekin 1990 defined family as a group of people who love and care for each other. The Right is correct about the importance of the family: families are, after all, where we raise and socialize the next generation of citizens. But families have changed across the millennia and they remain vastly different across cultures today. Generations of children raised in every type of family setting have grown up to become productive citizens. Thus it appears rather less than imperative that everyone squeeze their families into any one family mold. And whether the religious Right likes it or not, same-sex families are here to stay: a third of female and more than a fifth of male same-sex families today include children under the age of eighteen.
At the end of 2004, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld responded to a soldiers query about why U.S. troops stationed in Iraq were being asked to face down an increasingly violent insurgency without sufficient armor. You go to war with the army you have, was Rumsfelds pithy reply.
I propose that the administration and all of its religious Right allies who worry about nontraditional families take Rumsfelds maxim to heart and accept that we are bravely and quite successfully raising the next generation with the families we have. The traditional family enjoyed a very short run to very mixed reviews. Nostalgia for something so historically anomalous is inevitably a dangerous emotion. Families continue to improvise as they struggle to adapt to the new economic and social realities of the twenty-first century, in part because the United States provides less support for our most vulnerable families than any other affluent nation in the world. What today is called a family crisis is really a socialcrisis, and demonizing families who do not live up to someone elses moralistic values does little to help. As she writes in In the Name of the Family, sociologist Judith Stacey believes that the politics of gender, sexuality, reproduction, and family here are the most politicized, militant and socially divisive in the world, precisely because social structural responses to the decline of the modern family system have been so weak.
So where is the family headed? We are not yet where we are going, wherever that is. But this much is clear: we could learn much from families of color and from gay and lesbian families in this country. Judith Stacey observes that African American women and poor white women have always had to improvise family arrangements because of the necessity of working. Gay families, often shunned by their families of origin, have also had to invent new family forms. As lesbian activist and author Urvashi Vaid wrote (in the foreword to Hospital Timeby Amy Hoffman): For gay people, our friends form our nuclear families while our communities take on the role of an extended family system. During the height of the AIDS epidemic especially, these alternative family structures proved themselves to be as solid and formidable as traditional families are for heterosexual people.
There is no one perfect family form, but different families have strengths that others can learn from. All families are at risk when theyre left to face new challenges on their own, Stephanie Coontz reminds us in The Way We Really Are. All families have the potential to rise above their weaknesses when they get support and encouragement from others.
I believe the questions of what a marriage is and what constitutes a family will resolve themselves as people get used to a changed environment. And I am optimistic about the eventual success of the struggle for marriage equality for same-sex couples. Legal structures are catching up with evolving realities: there is a growing body of court decisions that treat long-term same-sex relationships as no different from any other marriage. Public opinion is shifting, too. Polls suggest that younger Americans our countrys future overwhelmingly support marriage equality for same-sex couples. It was not that long ago that opponents of interracial marriage predicted catastrophe when bans on such marriages were lifted. But the sun did not stop in its tracks, and public opinion came around. In 1968, a year after Loving v. Virginia, a Gallup poll whom god hath joined together found that more than 75 percent of people still disapproved of marriage across racial lines. Today, more than 75 percent tell pollsters that they approve.
The more people become aware that they know more gay people than they realized and also that many gay people are alreadyin families already married and raising childrenthe more people who formerly feared same-sex marriage will come to understand that a gay or lesbian family poses no threat to anyone elses commitments. Prejudice does not evaporate overnight, but I am optimistic. James Rauch would like to see same-sex marriage become a reality state by statepreferably through legislative rather than judicial action. Why? Because then everyone will see that The sky will not fall. Civilization will not tumble into the sea. The divorce and illegitimacy rates will not double. They will not even change noticeably. Other states will notice this. They will see married gay couples woven into the fabric of their communities…. Slowly at first and then with increasing enthusiasm, more states will embrace gay marriagenot because they have to, but because it works.
This country’s growing pluralism is a blessing, one that the founders of this country could never have imagined but for which they prepared fertile ground by writing their egalitarian ideals into our foundational documents. What we should be doing in this country is continuing to expand the circle of those we include in the promises made in our Constitution. And I believe that despite the backlash we see every time the circle is widened, it never really shrinks back to where it was before. People learn how much less there is to fear than they had feared. The arc of the universe is long, said Martin Luther King, quoting nineteenth-century abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker, but it bends toward justice. This insight is not mere dreaming; it describes our actual history as well as the history we have yet to create.