On the Defining of Marriage, for Better or Worse

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If you happen to enjoy the first few years of marriage, someone will eventually claim that you simply don’t know any better yet. You’re just newlyweds.

If you cross the five year mark, someone will bitterly argue that you haven’t survived the seven-year itch. Give it a few more years. You’ll grow apart.

If you or your spouse are infertile, someone will ignorantly remind you on multiple occasions that your house is empty. Just wait until the kids come. Everything will change.

If you have just one child, someone will look to trump your parenting status; an insinuation that you’ll never truly understand the challenges of raising two, three, or four. One doesn’t make you a real parent.

My wife and I fit into the third category above, an emasculated burden that I brought to the marriage after a complicated, adolescent surgery at age nineteen. But of course, no one ever knows this when they meet us, so my wife and I frequently have little choice but to engage their inevitable question: When are you going to start having kids?

Most of the time, we find it easier to brush off the complexities of an honest answer. Already enough people bringing children into this world. No need for us to add anymore.

Other times, when the conversations are warm and trustworthy, we tell the truth, adding a touch of practical humor. Imagine the freedoms of intimacy when you have an everlasting supply of birth control.

But then there are moments of callous disregard.

Several weeks ago, as I was loading my car with a bird stand and a computer bag, a young father of two peered into the backseat and made a passive, yet completely unnecessary remark. “Your car is so clean,” he said. “Wow.”

Then he paused. “Oh wait. I forgot. You don’t have any kids.”

The unfair implication, of course, is that all parents have messy cars (simply because they have children) while bachelors and childless couples will invariably have spotless cars (simply because they have no children). The misnomer is obvious, since there are many parents who keep very clean cars, despite having children, and there are millions of car owners without children who, if we’re being honest, keep an atrocious looking vehicle.

Seeing as I battle with my own demons of infertility, the comment was understandably insulting to the pride of my damaged masculinity. But his words also brought to mind a rising tide of public opinion over the explicit definition of marriage, a term that has now reached the impending judgment of SCOTUS.

The connection I drew was fairly simple.

A large number of sincere and patriotic Americans have opposed gay marriage over the last decade on the sheer basis that two men or two women are incapable of traditional reproduction. Marriage, they say, must be the union of a man and a woman who were created, biologically, to produce children. And regardless of my own inadequacies in this department, the history supporting their argument is hard to ignore.

During the heights of the Roman Empire, one of the Italian provinces issued a collection of standards upon which to manage local elections. This guide, called the Charter of Malaca, exposed the credibility of biological fatherhood against the lesser status of biological infertility.

“If two or more candidates have the same number of votes, he shall prefer a married man or one with the rights of a married man to an unmarried man without children or without the rights of married men, a man with children to a man without children, and a man with more children to a man with fewer children.”

For those who are careful to read the distinctions above, marriage itself came with unique rights, but the authority to govern the affairs of a city were quietly reserved to those who had, through experience, learned to manage the affairs of their own household. And it’s difficult to argue that a marriage without children, even if it proves respectable, can compare to a marriage where multiple children have been raised, nurtured, and educated with even a modest level of success.

Throughout history, wives have always had to wrestle against the emotions of a barren womb or, conversely, husbands have had to suppress their egos in spite of a physical deficiency. And whichever side is to blame for this physical shortcoming, both parties within the marriage often struggle to satisfy their craving for parenthood; husbands seeking the coveted role of a disciplined father and wives seeking the precious role of a loving mother.

On rare occasions, as I learned within my own marriage, after coming to accept the reality of our human limitations, husbands and wives may choose to invest their energies into other mediums of worthwhile service. These range from education, adoption, and foster care (all aspects of parenting) to volunteer work, medicine, and financial support (alternative modes of grace and compassion).

The point being, marriage has a lengthy track record for biological reproduction as a leading part of the cultural status quo. But in our present culture, childbirth and childrearing often falls into the lap of single, divorced, or widowed parents. In essence, marriage has become less about the industry of sexual reproduction and more about the intangible qualities of a lifelong union.

As far back as 1913, Joseph Coffin, who agreed with the biological premise of marriage, made a well-reasoned case for looking at marriage through a larger lens.

“True marriage is the union of two personalities. And this means more than the force of emotional and instinctive attraction which of itself would soon be consumed in the heat of its own passion and leave the disillusioned ones uninteresting if not actually repellent to each other. On the contrary, true marriage means a union in which there are common interests and ideals, in which those systems of ends and purposes…are in harmony. The failure on the part of each to seriously consider the wisdom of marriage with the other, from the psychological, the economic, the ethical, the social, and the religious point-of-view, makes that marriage a sacrilege and a gamble.”

Up to this point and legally speaking, marriage has been traditionally established by the state through the signature of witnesses who can personally declare that a man and a woman have stated their vows and made a public commitment to one another. Religiously speaking, a marriage is only consummated when a man and a woman join together in sexual intimacy before the omnipresent eyes of God.

The religious components of marital consummation are ultimately the responsibility of individuals who believe they will stand before God and provide a testimony of their actions, for better or worse. Churches and other houses of worship must have the liberty to uphold their sacred values, admitting that these principles will almost always be at odds with the changing course of society. No government, no organization, and no individual should carelessly insult the traditions of faith any more than members of faith should carelessly insult the inevitable progress of a civilized society.

What we must now consider as a nation are not the religious responsibilities of individual couples, but the legal ramifications of altering a familiar definition of marriage, as it has been passed down through both secular and religious societies for the bulk of human history.

When the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was passed in 1996, a Republican Congress and a Democratic President agreed to a familiar, legal definition of marriage as follows:

“…the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”

Certainly there were those, prior to 1996, who believed in the strong possibility that gay marriage would eventually find its legal endorsement in the United States. However, most Americans were not prepared to embrace the notion that homosexuality would ever cross the line from being a “lifestyle of choice” to a “marriage with state or federal approval.”

I’ll concede that my use of the word “choice” may seem carelessly ignorant to certain readers, but therein lies a problem. As a society, Americans never quite finished the complex and necessary debate over the origins of individual homosexuality.

During the last two decades of the twentieth century, our discussion revolved around one very straightforward question: is homosexuality the result of nature or nurture? Are you born gay or do you become gay? But rather than solve that debate with an overall consensus, Americans moved themselves into a completely different exchange over the demeaning challenges of a legalized civil union for gay couples.

As it turned out, Americans gradually learned that civil unions and gay couples were not granted basic rights that most families would otherwise take for granted. Namely, what stuck out most was our concern that homosexual partners were not considered family members when it came to hospitalization and death, even if those partners had been together for several decades.

Swept up with emotion over equal rights, the nation latched onto a debate over gay marriage as the new alternative for civil unions. This, many believed, would solve the problem of basic inequalities. But dare to walk backwards into that unfinished conversation from the 20th Century and someone will gasp that you still question whether homosexuality is natural.

Media outlets helped to drown out the prior debate by making doubtful guests appear, on live television, as though they were foolish and hypocritical. Eventually, politicians had to walk a fine line between saying what they honestly thought about homosexuality and what was deemed to be more politically correct.

Several months before his untimely death in 2008, Tim Russert had a reasonable discussion with Governor Mike Huckabee, who was fighting for recognition within the Republican primaries. But when the topic of gay rights came up, the conversation grew awkward. Russert asked whether people were born gay or happened to choose homosexuality as a lifestyle.

“I don’t know whether people are born that way. People who are gay say that they’re born that way. But one thing I know, that the behavior one practices is a choice.”

For what it’s worth, Huckabee said what many Americans were thinking, regardless of their political leaning. I don’t know. Some say they are. But I just don’t know. Actions, however, are always a choice.

Few of us could honestly name the scientist or the doctor who clarified this argument with absolute and utter certainty. There have been competent scientists and academic scholars on both sides of the aisle who each counteract one another with valid arguments. At no point in the last twenty years has there ever been definitive closure for all Americans.

Certainly there are some who would argue, much like Coffin, that the results of this forgotten debate are somewhat irrelevant if marriage is ultimately about two “personalities” working to achieve harmony. And to that extent, their arguments are also valid. Just expand the definition of marriage and all is equal, they say, regardless of whether you prefer to be gay or have no choice on the matter.

English is, by its very nature, an evolving language and we seem to add new words to our lexicons every day. But the problem isn’t in our willingness to modify words that have no lasting consequence (one episode of Happy Days, and Fonzie taught us that “cool” was no longer just a temperature).

Our challenge as a nation has more to do with how quickly we are willing to modify words that do have lasting consequences. Just this past Thursday, Jon Stewart poked fun at CNN for attempting to redefine news. The urgency of his comical agenda was that news is a word with consequential expectations from the public. If someone says they have news, then we want news. To alter its meaning is to alter our entire society and, consequently, our understanding of an otherwise familiar concept.

Why, then, would Stewart or anyone else have such a difficult time with Americans who resist a change in the definition of marriage?  Americans on either side of any popular debate are always capable of modifying their own thinking on a matter. Persuasion is not a lost art of our culture; only a forgotten reality of our politics. We strive to persuade one another of our positions every single day.

Those who resist an expanded definition of marriage are not bigots, fanatics, or radicals. They are Americans who may or may not change their minds over time. Those who endorse an expanded definition of marriage are not the damning curse of an already imperfect nation. They are also Americans who may or may not change their minds over time.

As it stands right now, 53% percent of the population has said, anonymously, that they approve an expanded definition of marriage. Yet more than 50% of the states, constituting an equally solid majority, have legalized a more traditional definition of marriage as laid out through DOMA. Our views are almost evenly split between two very different schools of thought.

The Supreme Court has rarely been a branch of public opinion, but as they consider the legalities of marriage for present and future generations, each member of the court will be forced to deal with the long term results of defining marriage, for better or worse.