The Politics of Marriage

politics of marriageOur extended family organized my niece’s wedding last month on a remote lake in northern Wisconsin. Nearly 200 people watched Helen and Carl exchange vows they had written in a clearing in the woods, miles from the nearest gas station, store, or motel. The guests ate homemade granola, muffins and jars of jam, and partied until the wee hours under a giant tent.

Helen and Carl were delighted to have exchanged rings with each other. They were ecstatic that so many of their friends and relatives had made the long journey to tiny Springbrook (pop. 570). Their obvious happiness made their statements that every loving, committed adult couple should enjoy the right to marry seem perfectly in place.

Helen and Carl were not giving campaign speeches. They were just expressing joy at the way marriage brings a couple, their families and friends together, celebrating the transformation of love into lifelong commitment. It’s not their fault that marriage is now so publicly contentious that politicians try to win votes by explaining who should be able to get married and who shouldn’t.

Marriage inevitably involves government business. Tax rates, health care, inheritance, veterans’ benefits, Social Security survivor payments, and decisions about raising children all depend on the legal relationships of family members.

The Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 is currently the focus of political attention. It defines marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman, and gives the states the unusual right to ignore other states’ laws, if those states allow a gay couple to marry. President Obama’s 2008 political platform endorsed its repeal, while Republicans defend it.

But there is more to the issue of marriage than whether gay Americans can marry. Americans have changed our minds about marriage. What was wrong to even consider, what was disgraceful to do, and who could be one’s partner are no longer certainties.

In postwar America, heterosexual marriage was regarded as the norm for everyone. Over 80% of adults 25 to 34 years old were married. Divorce was a sign of failure or moral inadequacy, especially for a woman. Cheating was a sure sign of a gross character flaw. Except that important men could have mistresses, which nearly everyone winked at, but kept quiet about. Polygamy was bad, but inter-racial marriage was also a dangerous social and legal offense that might be met with violence.

These ideas of proper marriage were founded on unquestioned inequalities, regarded as natural laws – men should rule over women, whites should rule over blacks, homosexuals were sick and dangerous. That cultural understanding of marriage has been buried under the onslaught of cultural change. Polygamy has gone from an underground religious phenomenon to a piece of popular culture portrayed in a Broadway musical comedy (Book of Mormon), a reality show (Sister Wives), and a cable drama (Big Love). The proportion of adults 25 – 34 who are married has dropped to under 50%. More Americans support gay marriage than oppose it.

Despite this considerable shift, the new still struggles against the old. While it has become easy to vocally defend the previously indefensible, it is still hard to personify it. Megan Rapinoe, age 27, who scored three goals on the US women’s soccer team’s way to a gold medal, only last month announced that she has been dating an Australian female soccer star for 3 years. Newt Gingrich can present himself as the political and moral leader of conservative Americans after his two divorces and public infidelities, but it is hard to imagine a woman with that history as a viable candidate for national office. At least Newt keeps tying the legal knot. What if a person were unmarried, but in a committed relationship and cohabiting, like over 7.5 million other American couples – could they run for office?

The real issues are not our laws, but our ideas. Traditional beliefs about marriage were not based mainly on law; our laws reflected our beliefs. For example, identifying and preventing husbands’ physical abuse of their wives appeared to be an unwarranted intervention of government into private life until the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s brought wife-battering into the public eye. After another decade, the Family Violence Prevention Services Act of 1984 first gave federal help to victims of domestic violence and their children.

Some Orthodox Jewish families celebrate the marriage of a child to a non-Jew by holding a funeral service to mourn their familial death. These Jews break no American law, and so are free to continue, modify or abandon this behavior. The rest of us are free to disdain it. But we will continue to legislate against certain forms of marriage, even if their proponents cite Scripture in their defense, such as Warren Jeffs, former president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose version of polygamy included arranging marriages for underage girls and forcing his father’s many widows to marry him.

Steve HochstadtOur marriage debates show that electoral politics is not the only politics, that it reflects the broader and deeper, and much more interesting, politics of the whole American people. Think about your marriage politics when you vote in November.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives

Posted: Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Published by the LA Progressive on August 14, 2012
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."