October 18, 2012

MAINE COMPASS: Marriage has been redefined through the ages

The Very Rev. Stephen Foote of Bremen

Although I largely ignore the flood of political lawn signs at every corner this time of year, one sign recently caught my attention.

The effort of Protect Marriage Maine, set on defeating Question 1, admonishes voters, "Don't Redefine Marriage, Vote No on One."

While the sign had no influence on my vote, it did inspire the historian in me to reread Stephanie Coontz' scholarly book, "Marriage, a History, 2005."

Coontz' knowledge and scholarship make this book a key resource for anyone who is married, was married, prepares to marry, or has a picture of marriage as a long-held traditional American institution.

The fact is, there is perhaps no institution in our culture that has been more "redefined" or interpreted than what we call "marriage."

Coontz discusses many of the ways marriage has been adjusted to changing social norms and values in order to survive to be what we think it is today.

Marriage in the old days was not based on love, sexual attraction or equality between husbands and wives. It was about setting political alliances and business deals, combining family wealth and power, and assuring the rights of male children to inherit property.

Marrying for love was a Victorian notion and, almost immediately, ended family-arranged marriages. For most of history, however, marriage was not between loving, bread-winning husbands and stay-at-home moms but an institution devoted to protect wealth, power and property.

Only in the last 200 years did love and attraction play a part in selection of one's mate. Although it did not become a sacrament until the 12th century, marriage was controlled by the Church as an extension of the State.

Divorce was not allowed in this country until the 17th century. Sexual intercourse was strictly forbidden before marriage -- virginity was required -- and procreation a stated intent. Couples not intending to have children were not allowed to marry.

Marriage was a privilege and not a right and did not include servants, slaves or paupers. People with tuberculosis or mental disability were prevented from marrying before 1950.

Interracial marriages were first allowed in 1967 and, prison inmates were not allowed to marry until 1987.

If by "traditional marriage" we have an "Ozzie and Harriet" ideal in mind, we have only to look around to realize how time and experience has given new meaning to the institution. Add to that the religious traditions of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. -- not to mention the practice of polygamy (a current major candidate's great-grandfather had five wives), and what we call marriage requires even broader interpretation.

In November, as we each do some important thinking about the "institution" of marriage, may we disavow ourselves from thinking that it is an age-old "estate" handed down unchanged for generations.

As with every tradition, past generations have added to or redefined its meaning, so that what we have today hardly resembles what it once was. Over time, what we call "traditional" has been redefined through the lens of new experience long before it ever got to us.

Perhaps the "Vote No on One" lawn sign might better read: "Don't Redefine Our Redefinition of Marriage."

The Very Rev. Stephen Foote of Bremen is rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Augusta.

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