Thursday, May 10, 2012

Institution of Marriage

May 10, 2012, 8:15 a.m.

Who, What, Threatens "The Institution of Marriage"?

Two days ago this blog addressed the basic human decency and respect owed everyone with regard to those suffering from problems of overweight and obesity. "Speaking of Obesity."

Today [May 8], following on the culmination of President Obama's "evolving" thoughts on gay marriage, here are the long-ago-evolved thoughts of another heterosexual about the basic human decency and respect owed all of our fellow humans in the GLBT community.

Last evening PBS' Newshour, as a part of its coverage of the president's "personal" position on the issue, included a debate of sorts in its story "Obama Supports Same-Sex Marriage: Now What?" (with transcript and video). Judy Woodruff hosted the segment, interviewing author Kerry Eleveld, and then questioning Evan Wolfson, president and founder of Freedom to Marry, and the Rev. Harry Jackson (not the Rev. Jesse Jackson), senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland, and presiding bishop of the International Communion of Evangelical Churches -- an outspoken opponent of gay marriage.

Unfortunately, the two did not really join issue. Wolfson hammered away on his assertion (kind of self-evident on the surface) that individual straight couples suffer no harm as a result of the marriage of gay couples ("you're not able to point to a single, actual, real consequence"). Rev. Jackson was saying, "It [gay marriage] may change the institution [of marriage], though. That's the issue."

My point is that, with regard to "the institution of marriage" both are right. How can I say that?

There are many issues involving gay marriage. (1) Central, I think, given the role of religion in the arguments of many gay marriage opponents, is the fact that the legalization of gay marriage has no effect, none, on the ability of any given religious organization to refuse to perform, or recognize, gay marriage. There are two parallel tracks here: what the state can (and many, including myself, would argue, constitutionally must do) and what individual religious organizations can do with regard to "marriage." There is a significant body of constitutional law declaring, put most simplistically, that the state should stay out of our bedrooms. (2) However, the president and Mitt Romney both agree that states should be free to define civil (not religious) "marriage" as limited to a man and a woman -- and 30 states have decided to do just that (including North Carolina this week). (3) At the same time, polls seem to indicate that 50% of Americans, give or take, and especially younger persons, are totally untroubled by the idea.

I leave discussion of those, and other gay marriage issues, to another day.

What I want to address are Rev. Jackson's assertions regarding the changes in "the institution of marriage" brought about by permitting gays and lesbians to marry.

I think he's right. Gay marriage does change "the institution of marriage." It's just that the change it brings about is insignificant compared with other changes.

Title IX has changed "the institution of college athletics." Prohibitions on "sexual harassment" have changed "the institution of courtship."

The real and very, very significant changes in "the institution of marriage," however, have come from the heterosexual, not the homosexual, community.

At its inception, marriage in a patriarchal society treated women as chattels, "owned" (and certainly controlled) by their husbands (as they still are in some countries today). Children born of unmarried parents created a significant problem for a community. There were more than moral reasons to prohibit sex outside of marriage (still punished by death, at least of the woman, in some countries today). Children were necessary for the perpetuation of the species. (As late as 1600 the world's population was about 500 million, compared with today's 7, and soon to be 9, billion. World Population Estimates, As recently as the 19th and early 20th Century children were needed to do their share of the unending work involved in a married couple's operation of a farm. Infant mortality rates were such that a couple needed many births to be assured of enough survivors. Divorce was theoretically possible, but thoroughly discouraged socially, legally -- and economically (given the many ways in which women were oppressed, and economically dependent upon their husbands).

That "institution of marriage" has certainly changed.

Today's (at least potential) economic and other independence of women, coupled with multiple forms of birth control, means that their sexuality no longer either requires, nor is restrained by, marriage. (E.g., when I entered law school in 1956 there were but two women among the 700 or so students; today's UI Law School entering classes are roughly 50% women.) Access to abortion, an abhorrence to many Americans and unavailable in most of geographic America (of 3100-plus counties in the U.S., among non-metropolitan counties only 3% offer access to abortion) is another major change. There are good reasons for being married, and monogamous within marriage; but today those reasons are more self-discovered and lived by as a matter of choice than externally imposed. This has been an enormous "change in the institution of marriage" for both heterosexual men as well as women (as we are reminded daily by the media).

Divorce rates are up, in part, because (at least many) women are not economically compelled to stay in "bad marriages" (sometimes including domestic violence). Most people would consider that a net plus for society. But it also makes divorce possible for somewhat more frivolous reasons. In any case, the easier access to the termination of marriage has to have been the cause of significant "change in the institution of marriage."

Procreation is no longer a societal necessity, either to tame Planet Earth or to have access to an adequate workforce on the farm. Indeed, one of our species' most urgent needs is to curtail births, not increase them. We seem to be approaching (if not exceeding) the maximum number of humans our Planet can sustain. Infant mortality rates, still too high in many countries, are radically below what they were. Super-sized farms and farm equipment have reduced the farm population from roughly 80% of all Americans in 1800 to 3% today.

So, is Rev. Jackson correct? Yes, the legalization of gay marriage is "a change in the institution of marriage."
But to truly understand these changes, and keep them in perspective, we need to recall the observations of Edward R. Murrow and Walt Kelly.

In explaining the Senator Joseph McCarthy anti-communist phenomenon, Murrow concluded his famous "See It Now" McCarthy program with the line from Shakespeare, "'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'" "Edward R. Morrow," En*Cyclopedia, State Library of North Carolina; the quote is from Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene ii.

Walt Kelly, creator of the "Pogo" comic strip, is perhaps best remembered for his comparable line regarding environmental degradation on a 1971 Earth Day poster: "we have met the enemy and he is us." "Pogo (comics)," Wikipedia.

If Rev. Jackson, and other heterosexuals, are fearful of any "changes in the institution of marriage," and feel the necessity of a "Defense of Marriage Act," they should begin with a good long look in the mirror. It is not the gays they need fear, but themselves.

Rush Limbaugh, May 9, 2012
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1 comment:

Nick said...

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