There are three things that, taken together, define marriage. The first is an anthropological fact. The other two are religion and the law. Of these three, the first is without question the most important. The other two merely attempt to guide those entering into marriage and ameliorate situations that are bound to arise (i.e., tidy up the ragged edges of human behavior).
The anthropological fact of marriage is that the pair-bonding of male and female to establish households in which children are born and can be raised to maturity is the ground of all human society. Marriage is older than the state, older certainly than civilization (= “living in cities”). As such, it is as close to hard-wired into our social DNA as anything could be.
This does not mean that homosexual relations did not exist in the mists of time. Nor does it imply that plural relationships, hook-ups, relationships that ended, or even childless marriages did not exist back in prehistory. All of these things are part of the broad range of human behavior, and no doubt have always existed. Yet the idea of marriage was never seriously in doubt until recent times, and plural marriage (polygamy or concubinage) was, for all intents and purposes, the only serious competitor to trying for monogamous heterosexual happy-ever-after.
When religion arose, it found marriage already there. It could not re-define it, so it just tried to nibble around the edges of it. It gave it a divine purpose, it hedged it about with taboos, it decreed rites. It also legislated a bit about consanguinity and such. Religion gave birth to the state, but law – as a separate sphere of activity – was slow to separate from religion. It really only did so in modern times, when it became possible to imagine that a group of people sitting in a meeting could make up a statute about, well, anything. The law (statute law) also kneaded the dough a bit, defining consent, making rules for divorce, and (especially) dealing with financial and property issues.
But neither religion nor law ever thought it could simply re-make marriage. Until now. The legalization of same-sex marriage is only the culmination of a long legal process by which marriage has become defined as a civil contract entered into by two consenting adults which entitle the partners to certain legal (mostly financial) benefits and which is endable by either partner without formal cause or prior notice. And that’s all it is, now, legally.
Anthropologically, of course, it is what it has always been, the ground of human society. Men and women will still fall in love, still have children, and still do their best to raise them, despite what the law says. But without the greater ideal of marriage to guide them, and without the support of others to tell them what they should strive for, many more will have trouble finding the happy-ever-after than might otherwise. And not only will those whose marriages fail and whose children have unhappy experiences suffer; all of society will suffer. There is no doubt that a whole host of social ills can be shown to be made worse by a decline in the number of successful heterosexual marriages whose children were raised in intact households.
Religion might be thought to offer some guidance on this issue. But traditional religion is suffering from many things these days, not least the assault it has sustained by those who have tried to marginalize traditional believers and their values in the name of a legally constituted “marriage equality.” How many couples/families will turn to us for advice in the years and decades ahead – when we have gone from quaint to despised – is an open question.
So, to what will they turn, when “legal” has come to be synonymous with “okay,” even “desirable?” They will turn to the law. And they’ll wonder what the big deal about marriage is, if all it is is as I have described it, above. A civil contract – easy to get into, easy to get out of, and of little benefit beyond tax relief and power of attorney. Big whoop. I think marriage, so defined, will slip even further in esteem, which will hurt those marriages made in the future.
And not just heterosexual ones, either, I might add. One of the consequences of trying to make of marriage something that law – and only law—can define is that we have reduced marriage (at least, on paper) to something far less than it used to be. Which means that the great thing that gay people have fought so long to gain access to has been returned to them in devalued form: the leprechaun’s gold turns to old leaves and dirt when the sunlight hits it. Nor have we reached the end of what some people want to do, legally, to marriage. Such a regime as we have closing down on us cannot endure, but it will inflict great damage on many people before it’s done, including those who now welcome it most eagerly.
I have never been a believer in numerology, but I understand why the number of humanity in the Bible is the number two. We are defined by our sexual complementarity. God made us male and female for each other. That doesn’t mean that everyone will, or should, get married, though it does mean that everyone has a mother and a father. Marriage – I suppose I must now qualify the previously unqualifiable and call it “traditional marriage” – is still the ground of all human society, and we do well when we invest in it, promote it, help people get the most out of it. Other relationships – and human ingenuity has invented a vast array of them – may be legalized or proscribed, favored or looked down on, lionized or hushed up, as you please; but redefining marriage by law means ending up with what only the law can provide you, and that is pretty poor stuff.