God and Marriage in the United States

A day before President Obama’s political coming out, North Carolina became the 31th state to enshrine a definition of marriage within its state constitution.  Its residents voted to recognize heterosexual, monogamous marriage as the only legal union, effectively barring common-law marriage, domestic and civil partnerships for straight and gays alike.

Photo by: Ken Blevins/Wilmington Star News, via Associated Press

As one of the organizers for the new proposition, Tami Fitzgerald of Vote For Marriage NC, was quoted by the NYTimes as saying “we’re pro-marriage” and “the whole point is simply that you don’t rewrite the nature of God’s design for marriage based on the demands of a group of adults.”

Ignoring for a moment the fact that there are many versions of God and gods currently venerated in the United States, if one was to stick with a strict Judeo-Christian interpretation of God, we run into the troubled reality that the definitions of correct human behavior have changed with our own changing beliefs and ideas about God. On top of that, each side of this ongoing evolution is able to defend their actions with passages from scripture, seemingly “proving” that their way is the “Godly” way.

It is important to remember that many in the United States felt that they were following the teachings in the Bible when they decided to hunt witches or defend their neighbors against bogus claims; support the right to enslave others or oppose it;  “teach” Native Americans children the correct ways by forcibly moving them to state institutions and suppressing their culture, language, and American identity; legally discriminate against women based upon their sex or fight for the right for equal work and representation; defend the Biblical practice of polygamy, and so on.  If anything, those who ended up “losing” in the long run did so not because their position was not in some way justified by the Bible, but because our interpretation of the Bible and religious dogma changed.

A brief History of Shifting Attitudes towards “traditional” Marriage and Marital Behavior in the United States

But what brings about this change?  After all, each group of believers strongly believes that their interpretation is the correct one, yet within each group there are changes from one generation to the next.  This ongoing change must therefore be caused by other factors outside of religion; otherwise there would (presumably) be a completely unchanged original, a guide preserved with all its parts that, when examined by many different viewers, would always read the same and yield the same result.

We know that change happens naturally across all levels of life and species.  Human beings, being both a type of life and a species, are therefore susceptible to change.  What appears to bring about this change appears to come from outside our realm of control, namely the behaviors of others.  When we someone doing something different from how we do, it opens up a whole new way of thinking about ourselves, our actions, and the field of possibility.  In short, we learn that our interpretation is not the only one, much less the default.

Needless to say, this can be particularly troublesome.  How does one contextualize a new action or behavior within their own understanding of the world?  Is it something that could harm me and threaten my well-being, safety, and ability to survive?  Or is it something that is friendly, that can exist separate from me and my ideas?

In addition to “gay marriage” we might also have to redefine other previously decided upon nomenclature.

This type of judgement is at the heart of every animal, creature, virus, bacteria, and cell.  It’s one that we make reflexively, often processing information and acting long before we can articulate what it is we did and why.  We do this hundreds, if not thousands of times, each day, rarely thinking twice about it.  Do that enough times and it becomes what we like to call “instinct.”

But then, of course, there are new judgements that need to be made.  When we encounter something that strikes us as being so completely different from everything we ever imagined to be possible, the process takes a longer time. We not only have to familiarize ourselves with this new thing or idea, but we need to look at everything we ever thought about and ask “is what I believe true?  If so, how can I tell?”

This is what we’re now doing with the question of marriage and the reliance on scripture.  We are using (or not using) the Bible as a means of determining whether or not other types of partnerships should:

  1. Be formally recognized with the rights and privileges of marriage; and
  2. Whether or not “marriage” is a term used to describe solely one type of union or if it can be applied more broadly to others.

As Vote For Marriage NC says on “Why Marriage Matters“:

What is at stake in this debate are two competing definitions of marriage. One definition – advocated by same-sex “marriage” activists – would define marriage as the union of any two people regardless of gender, with the law treating the parties’ genders as irrelevant to the meaning of marriage. The other definition, contained in the proposed constitutional amendment and reflective of North Carolina’s current law and the collective understanding of virtually every nation throughout recorded history, is that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.

The problem is, as I pointed out at the beginning, is that there are many interpretations of what the Bible says, and each of these depend largely upon the groups doing the interpretation.  Catholics, Protestants, and Jews can read the same passage and each come to different interpretations, never mind the fact that within each group there can be a difference of opinion.  The recent divide between Catholic Bishops and Catholic women on the place of birth control within the faith is just one example of this division.

In regards to the question of marriage, let’s remember that there has been a tremendous shift in partnership and sexual norms within the past 50 years across all social and religious levels in the United States. It’s worth repeating that approximately half of all marriages will end in divorce; a number of individuals, in particular those lower down the income line and education lines, will not marry before having children or may never marry at all; and in 2003’s Lawrence vs Texas, sex between individuals of the same biological sex has been decriminalized on the grounds of violating a person’s right to individual liberty.

As a corollary to all this, a 2011 Pew Research Study found that at least half the members of generations X and Y think that marriage and all the legal rights bestowed upon the participants should be open and available to all, in contrast to 42% of Baby Boomers and less than 35% of the Silent Generation.

Findings from a 2011 Pew Research Center report on shifting social attitudes among generations of Americans.

In short, all of these changes are influencing our behavior; the 2010 census reported that only 48% of American households were listed as “married,” a tremendous change from 40 years ago when less than 15% of American households fit that description.

Change in marriage patterns as reported by the Pew Research Center, 2011

Yet its also worth noting that the increased visibility of these new behaviors are making many nervous.  Faced with such statistics, there is a sense that one needs to “hurry up and define correct norms of behavior” before someone else does.  This is what we’re seeing with all these constitutional amendments and their supporters like Vote For Marriage NC; a decision made by some that labels behavior and unions outside of a narrow definition as a “threat”.  There’s a reason why it’s called “The Defense of Marriage Act”, not “The How to Get Marriage in the United States Act”.  As a means of explaining one’s decision –again, something that often comes along well after said decision has been made–supporters of these amendments fall back upon past actions and rules generally accepted as valid, namely, the Bible.

Since the vast majority of Americans accept the Bible as a valid text and guide, one can’t discredit it the way one could do to another, say Mein Kampf.  It makes sense on social, cultural, and moral grounds to many, therefore allowing supporters of discriminatory legislation to get the votes needed for its passage.  Although Vote For Marriage NC does not directly cite the Bible in regards to their stance on this issue, they do cite the benefits of a “traditional” marriage and family, noting that a union between a man and a woman is how it’s been done for centuries.

It is also clear that this “traditional” marriage espoused by Vote For Marriage NC has its roots in Judeo-Christian scripture, as they prominently note the support of Reverend Billy Graham and his son and daughter, each of whom have cited the Bible and/or religion in explaining their position on this amendment.

Protestant Pastor Billy Graham even weighted in on the amendment with his interpretation of the Bible’s definition of marriage.

At the same time, since there are many different interpretations of the Bible –including ones that emphasize its “love thy neighbor as thy own” aspects–, one ultimately falls into the trap of never being able to concretely “prove” one side or the other.  The only way to actually move away from this is to switch from one validation (the Bible) to another completely independent from the first, such as The Declaration of Independence and past civil rights legislation.  Of course, this can produce its own issues– like the erroneous claims of “religious persecution”–but since we’ve also agreed as a society that these new sources promise and guarantee the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, (and that, more importantly, actually form the basis of our system of government and civic freedoms) we then can actually make a decision on how marriage, partnerships and civil unions will be recognized.

While North Carolina –and indeed any state– can certainly vote on which amendments they want to add to their state constitution and justify their reasons according to what they see as Biblical teachings, they can’t decide that these laws act independently of and ultimately supersede federal discrimination laws.  When federal law dictates that, based upon a conflict with the country’s foundational legislation and practices, a state law or amendment is discriminatory, that state must strike down that provision or face the consequences of federal force.  This is what ultimately happen to slavery and segregation, two practices that were formerly justified by Biblical teachings and interpretation but only later modified due to external societal changes regarding discrimination.

Ultimately, the goal of the US government is to allow its citizens the right to peruse life, liberty, and happiness.  It is doubtful that the ability to marry or form partnership with who one wants will hinder one’s ability to do any of that, including marry according to their religious traditions.  By that same token, if you feel that the Bible only permits the marriage between a man and a woman, then you are entitled to think so and get married according to those beliefs as well. Again, states and their citizens are all united under the principle that grants us the liberty to do so.  What states the federal government do not allow is the ability to use those beliefs in a discriminatory manner, and it is doubtful that North Carolina’s new amendment–or any other such amendment or ballot measure– will pass that test in the long run.

Ultimately, all amendments must go before the Law