Marriage: Past And Present

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  Cana-bas-relief

While he gives up some ground, Poulos largely defends "traditional marriage":

Like Christmas, marriage is an institutionalized tradition. And like Christmas, marriage flourishes today in a variety of forms imbued with a range of meanings. But marriage is the more important test case for contemporary traditions because the practice of marriage which we recognize as “traditional marriage” is itself the product of an immensely complicated adjudication of traditions, moralities, and aspects of human personhood. Among them we can count the following: a natural capacity for monogamy; a cultural appreciation for the noble morality of “good matches” made over generations; a separate cultural appreciation for the moral dignity of love, and the democratic character of freely made romantic matches; and a Christian (and post-Christian) appreciation for the power of a spiritual union to transcend, fulfill, discipline, educate, and redeem all our natural capacities and our cultural particularities.

I agree with much of this, although "a natural capacity for monogamy" seems a bit of a stretch for homo sapiens. But the central question James addresses is whether an institution like civil marriage can both retain its connection to its inegalitarian, undemocratic, exclusive past and also be democratized so that everyone can participate (such as women on equal footing, couples of different races, gays).

As Poulos notes, Tocqueville believed this balancing act between tradition and modernity was possible (partly through Christianity). Nietzsche didn't. I'm with Tockers, as we used to call him at Oxford (yep, freshmen history majors were once required to read all of the Ancien Regime in the original, elegant French.) But I don't believe the radical differences between marital experiences today in the West - gay, lesbian and countless variations of straight - can be fully culturally reconciled in modernity.

But they can be lived with - and we do.

Legally, we accept voluntary arranged marriages as civil marriages in America; we accept self-consciously childless marriages; we embrace Mormon marriages and totally secular civil sexually open marriages; we accept second and third marriages as legit; and we accept Santorum-style marriages where reproduction is the core goal and divorce unthinkable. How do we do manage to include all these experiences as part of the same core institution? James has an expression that captures my view:

If our democratic age cannot abide such a closed system [of strictly traditional marriage], the alternative may be a tacit agreement to keep two sets of cultural books, so to speakwith official and unofficial spheres of life largely replacing the customary public and private.

This is the argument in the closing chapter of Virtually Normal - and also explains why I put that "virtually" in the title. Civil equality need not mean an erasure of cultural or religious difference. That is why, as a longtime activist for marriage equality for gays, I also strongly support and respect much more traditional marriages. And any civil attempt to delegitimize the truly traditional should be fought, in my view, by the marriage equality movement.

Modernity requires living with cultural contradictions. And the worst response to modernity is to try and stamp those contradictions out, rather than finding ways to live them, with mutual respect, and civility.

(Photo: a bas relief in Cana, Lebanon, where the famous marriage in the Gospels is believed to have taken place.)

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