Nov 27, 2007

how the state coopted marriage

Stephanie Coontz, a local scholar, Evergreen prof, and perhaps the country's leading marriage (history) expert, explains:
WHY do people — gay or straight — need the state’s permission to marry? For most of Western history, they didn’t, because marriage was a private contract between two families. The parents’ agreement to the match, not the approval of church or state, was what confirmed its validity.

For 16 centuries, Christianity also defined the validity of a marriage on the basis of a couple’s wishes. If two people claimed they had exchanged marital vows — even out alone by the haystack — the Catholic Church accepted that they were validly married.

In 1215, the church decreed that a “licit” marriage must take place in church. But people who married illicitly had the same rights and obligations as a couple married in church: their children were legitimate; the wife had the same inheritance rights; the couple was subject to the same prohibitions against divorce.

Not until the 16th century did European states begin to require that marriages be performed under legal auspices.
The entire essay is a fascinating rundown of the social and political forces that conspired to turn marriage from a publicly recognized private contract to a state-sanctioned joint benefit agreement. All this is to argue:
Possession of a marriage license is no longer the chief determinant of which obligations a couple must keep, either to their children or to each other. But it still determines which obligations a couple can keep — who gets hospital visitation rights, family leave, health care and survivor’s benefits. This may serve the purpose of some moralists. But it doesn’t serve the public interest of helping individuals meet their care-giving commitments.
It's a point others have raised before. Gay marriage allows benefits to gay couples without cost to heterosexuals. It simply doesn't undermine traditional marriage, since traditional marriage is nothing like it used to be--and it's always been that way. Or, to borrow a phrase from one of the U.S.'s most astute cultural critics: "Modern marriage. It's been like that all down through the ages."

Update: My brother finds fault with Coontz's analysis and recommendations.

[via Jesse Walker]

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