So, after some thinking on the subject, and after some more reading, I think that I’ve reached a place from which to understand the concept of marriage and its role in society a little more fully. First of all, I read a really great blog post here that helps clarify the Christian position towards gay marriage. I found myself agreeing with most of what that author said. He does a good job of separating the concept of marriage as a sacrament and marriage as a social institution. This ties in nicely with what I previously said about the meaning of marriage for me as an individual.
Anyone who fails to realize how important the sacrament of marriage is to Christians (assigning hate and bigotry as their only motivation) does violence to the discussion of marriage that is rippling through our national discourse—that is my first point. But it’s a minor one and I’ve already half-made it in a previous post.
Moving on then, let’s see if we can nail down marriage as a social institution. Logan pointed out that one of the great outcomes of marriage is that it encourages monogamy, and this is a generally recognized social benefit. Monogamy, by which I mean commitment to a relationship, is seen as a virtue by almost all Americans. It’s the ending of all our favorite romantic comedies. The guy and the girl overcome all the obstacles and commit to each other. We think it’s great.
Part of this ideal, though, of monogamy and marriage is the creation of a shared identity, and this is what I would like to focus on. Marriage (and I believe sex in general) is the process of creating a shared identity between two people that extends further when they have children. We call this shared identity a family. The shared last name signifies a genetic, monetary, residential, and psychological unity that is important—maybe the most important thing in the fabric of society.
Family is vital. I don’t think we realize it enough because we take a lot of it for granted, but a person’s family is the most defining force upon his or her life. And when it goes bad it can be devastating. Broken families make ripples that spread for generations.
[I’m tangenting here a bit (yes, I can make up words—it’s in my degree). The threat to the family in America is not gay marriage, it’s the cultural idea that sex is a mere expression of love and pleasure that is just as appropriate on the third date as it is in on the wedding night. It’s the idea that two people should live and sleep together before they marry, “just to make sure it will work.” It’s the idea that men and women are perfectly within their rights to sleep around as long as they aren’t cheating on an established relationship.
How bizarre! Let’s take the physical process by which human beings create life and use it to test our “compatibility.” Let’s look for Mr. or Mrs right by fragmenting our identity with everyone who happens to share three consecutive meals with us at a restaurant. There’s a common situation on TV shows where an individual in a sexual relationship freaks out about using the phrase “I love you” that just blows my mind. Maybe I’m a prude, but I’ve seen the psychological devastation that is caused by the opposite attitude.]
Well. I’ve lost sight of the social and political again. I’m too easily distracted by the moral questions. To return to the original purpose, marriage is important because it is the process of creating families and shared identities so that people can support each other and reproduce in society. The government’s recognition and support of this is important through things like shared tax filing and other benefits.
So, the idea is not finished yet, but for now I’ll leave it with the idea that marriage is important because it creates and maintains one of the functioning units of society: the family. I think it’s safe to say this is its primary value, socially and politically speaking. The interesting direction that I feel this discussion needs to take is how marriage protects and nourishes other values and ideals—think of some good examples for me.