Thursday, February 05, 2004

The Sacredness of Marriage

George W. Bush, in hinting his willingness to back a constitutional amendment which would define marriage in the U.S. as a 'union between a man and a woman', called marriage sacred. Webster's Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (and boy, does it weigh on my lap!) gives the following definitions of 'sacred':

1. devoted or dedicated to a deity or to some religious purpose; consecrated.
2. entitled to veneration or religious respect by association with divinity or divine things; holy.
3. pertaining to or connected with religion.
4. reverently dedicated to some person, purpose, or object.
5. regarded with reverence.
6. secured against violation, infringement etc., as by reverence or sense of right.
7. properly immune from violence, interference etc., as a person or office.

What a handy little word 'sacred' is! It's possible to convey quite different messages in one word; it's even possible to convey all of them at the same time. And note that if you type quickly like goddesses do, 'sacred' so very easily becomes 'scared'. Marriage as a 'scared' institution? Probably.

The first four definitions of 'sacred' in my list are about religious associations, and as this is the majority of the definitions presented, I'm going to wager that Bush sees the marriage as a religiously based institution. If the separation of church and state is still in the constitutional books as well, the sacredness of marriage would seem to be a very bad reason for supporting a heterosexual monogamous legal interpretation of it. There might be other, better reasons, perhaps, but those are not the ones Bush is engaging in creating this new wedge issue for the election year.

So let's see what the religious connections of marriage might be in the president's own religious tradition, Protestant Christianity. (My source for this very rapid survey is Marilyn Yalom's A History of the Wife, an entertaining book, but also relatively well researched. Still, remember that this is kitchen-table theorizing, not an academic thesis, and my discussion will not be complete.)

The Bible is a problematic source for the interpretation of marriage as sacred. Though quotes can be found to support this view, the Bible is also rife with stories about the acceptability of incest, about men with hundreds of wives, and the New Testament, in particular, sets celibacy above the married state:

"The unmarried man cares for the Lord's business; his aim is to please the Lord. But the married man cares for worldly things; his aim is to please his wife, and he has a divided mind...The married woman cares for worldly things; her aim is to please her husband."(I Corinthians 7:32-34)

The early Christians were pretty much opposed to marrying, and deplored its necessity for the sake of procreation. This didn't change until the Middle Ages when the Catholic Church in Europe gradually took over the jurisdiction over marriage. Marriage was declared a sacrament (a ceremony through which one obtained God's grace) in the Council of Trent in 1563. As far as I know, it is still so regarded in the Catholic Church. But this didn't mean that marriage was regarded as 'sacred' in the sense of being revered. Celibacy was still the highest state humans could reach. Saint Jerome, for example, stated:

"Let married women take their pride in coming next after virgins."

Ok. But what about the Protestants? G.W. Bush is not a Catholic, he is a Methodist. This is what Yalom writes about Martin Luther's views on marriage:

[In 1520], in his "Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church" Luther argues that marriage is not a sacrament - a religious ceremony of sacred significance. He and like-minded reformers reduced the seven Catholic sacraments to three; only baptism, penance and the Eucharist remained, since they were mentioned in the Bible and considered necessary for salvation. But this did not mean that marriage was to be any less significant in the life of a Christian. On the basis of Scripture - always his ultimate test on the matters of faith - Luther recommended it to everyone, both priest and layman."

Everyone? Luther recommended marriage to everyone. Think about that in the current context.

Well, in any case, by the second quarter of the sixteenth century the nonsacramental nature of marriage had become a common Protestant doctrine. I don't think George has a leg to stand on here, if 'sacred' is defined as 'sacramental'.

But maybe he was using 'sacred' in the last three senses of Webster's definition: as 'regarded with reverence', 'secured against violation' and 'properly immune from interference'? Marriage is under assault, after all, from all sorts of unsuitable people who want to get married, too. In fact, I think that if marriage truly is 'sacred' in this sense, then we all should do our utmost to keep it that way. Nobody I have ever met is pure enough to get married. The sacredness of marriage requires a constitutional amendment that bans people from getting married at all. Only this way will the institution of marriage remain what it was intended to be: holy.