The American Redefinition of French Marriage (3 of 3)


In the first couple of posts I pointed out that Marriage was previously a financial institution that the CHurch decided to make use of. St Paul subverted this cultural tradition by urging the couple trapped in this financial bind to grow love towards each other in spite of the situation. In the 12 Century, French artists subverted the (now) religious institution by crafting the idea that “love” was something that happened outside of marriage and creating “romance”. We’ve turned that on its head, insisting that “romance” is the only reason to get married in the first place.

When romance becomes the foundation for marriage, marriage ceases to be the foundation of society and becomes, instead, a way to express something very personal, something that may be good or bad, or even salvific or evil, but it is no longer about the financial and contractual arrangements that hold society together. It is no longer about the alliances of families and the merger of lands and increase of wealth.

This is not a moral judgement against romantic love. I can make choices and you can as well. Almost all Christians raised in the cultural West (Europe, the Americas, etc) – Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Evangelical, Conservative, Liberal – all assume that marriage is about this, exactly, the Sanctification of Romantic Love; or, if you will, the permission to have sex. Marriage is no longer a cultural, financial institution into which we much ensure some Christian morality is injected, but rather it is seen as the Church or families or community saying, “Ok, you two. Have at it.” As if the Having At It, qua inside marriage or outside marriage, was the issue. The sex may be a sin, but inside versus outside marriage is not the problem: if a girl had sex outside of marriage she was damaged property. The immorality could be covered up, or confessed at church and absolved. Yet her dowry would be worthless, her financial value diminished. Permission to have sex has nothing to do with the finances.

Of course no one in the culture waits for “permission to have sex” any more. I’m not even sure my heterosexual Christian brothers and sisters are doing so: especially the folks dating non-Christians. The folks outside of the church/other religious communities who do not have this particular moral issue of sex before marriage are not looking for permission to have sex, either. No one is really waiting for permission to have sex any more. Sex has nothing to do with marriage: everyone is assuming that it is romantic love that is the real content of marriage and therefore all romantic love should be included in the content of marriage. But what really happens at the state level (not the religious level) is still a financial contract.

The current move to redefine marriage must be understood as part of the long process of marriage devolving from that financial contract between Parents (ok, Fathers) to a contract infused with religious import and goals, to, now, a cultural contract, devoid of religious or ethical content, between two individuals who likely have been having sex and possibly even living together for some time. They may or may not seek be “married” in any traditional, religious or ethical sense of the word. The new tradition of the “unity candle” in many religious or “spiritual” marriage ceremonies highlights this: in the 40 years this event has been around, it’s gone from two candles used to light a third – and then the two candles are extinguished; to leaving the two candles lit together with the third. Our individuality is preserved, not lost in the marriage. One might even say that our individuality is furthered in the marriage. Marriage is thus devalued.

With possibly two exceptions, known to me, and a handful of other relationships located by an ad hoc poll of my friends (and, admittedly we are biased toward SF, with connections in other major cities only) the reality is no gay couple wants to be “married” in the Ozzie and Harriet sense: they just want a legal right to share cell phone contracts or a mortgage. Most (nearly all) of the gay male couples I know have open relationships including those classified as legal marriages in various jurisdictions. There are Polyamorous relationships, non-sexual couples in one-room flats, same-sex couples with opposite-sex partners in, essentially, polygamous families, all looking to find a way to designate their life insurance beneficiaries. One legally married couple simply moved apart when the relationship ended. They did not file separation papers or divorce notices: they simply went on with their lives as if a dating couple had “broken up”.

The current move to redefine marriage is about one person’s right to designate who is his or her “partner” for the purposes of legal contracts, employment benefits, hospital visitations, cell phone discount plans, taxes, adoption, etc. We all understand that, some of us support that and some of us do not. But what most of us are not discussing is that some portion of persons seeking the right to classify their relationships as equal to marriage are not willing, in any way, to limit their emotional or sexual lives in ways that traditional marriage was seen to do.

The reality of the secular marriage now is of a contract as a fiscal arrangement between two individuals – that must be honored by all of society “because we say so, at least right now” – is a new thing, unheard of previously. This is not only about “two men or two women have as much right as any straight couple to be live happily ever after.” Apart from any religious objection to gay sex qua sex, or society’s approval thereof, this is an admission of a new type of “not permanent permanence”. It has nothing to do with society’s welcoming of a new “unit” of stability in a cultural edifice and everything to do with “we say our relationship is valuable therefore you must value it.” This is a complete reversal of the historic meaning of marriage: which was “Society says your relationship is valuable therefore society shall have a party.” It becomes a serious issue because my definition of what is valuable may not be the same as your definition. If our values conflict, who should get to win? If I am a landlord, why should your values exceed mine? If you are in a marriage I don’t value, why should my values exceed yours?

This “post-modern” redefinition of marriage is only riding, if you will, on the same-sex marriage horse. It is disguised as a gay-rights issue so that it meshes with the values of a vast majority of Americans: we’re all about rights. If something can be couched as a “question of rights” then it will pass, eventually. Thing is: marriage was never about personal rights but rather about societal and familial obligations.

I don’t know anyone wanting to engage in that form of Traditional marriage anymore. That form is alien to our cultural mindset. Even the folks I know who married young and see for “the man to be in charge” in a traditional way, are starting from the idea of Romantic Love as the source for this.

When we talk about same-sex marriage (you knew I’d get there) the only question we are discussing is the value of same-sex relationships: we are not discussing the redefinition of marriage as that has already happened. The best that can be said is that the secular and American idea of Marriage is a legal right to make choices as a couple and there’s no reason to deny that to anyone who wants it. When American Christians opt out of the American Cultural idea of Marriage – as they did in ancient Rome – then perhaps their objections might be believable. But, likewise, when modern Americans stop dressing up their short-term financial arrangements with the label “Marriage” we might move this conversation along.

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