Do Proponents of ‘Traditional’ Marriage Understand Marriage ‘Tradition’?


The tide of marriage equality is moving forward, with Hawaii set to become the 15th state to allow gay and lesbian couples the same marital rights as heterosexual couples.  While this is being celebrated in the gay community, many proponents of “traditional” marriage are lamenting the decline of what they consider to be Biblically based values in American society.  However, when one reads such articles as those on the Christian Post, the question arises as to whether these traditional marriage champions realize the full history, including the Biblical history, behind this institution.

The romantic notion that marriage is about love is a fairly recent one, barely registering a blip on the historical radar.  Marriage, throughout the ages, has been traditionally about alliances, power, wealth and social status, with “love” considered the worst reason for two people to marry.  During Biblical times, it was not uncommon for men to marry their cousins, and in some cases, such as with Abraham, a half-sister.  These unions were thought to strengthen bonds within a family or tribe, and to keep the bloodlines within the tribes pure.  Also, women were not given much say in who they were to marry; marriage was often determined by the oldest men of the tribe, and according to Louis Rushmore in Marriage Ages in the Bible (2005) a woman could be betrothed as early as age 12 years and one day.

Many traditional marriage arguments focus on the idea that marriage is ordained by God; however, marriage has predated all known religions, and has been found in all societies, regardless of that society’s religious foundation, and, as found in the Bible, served purposes other than love.  In Roman, Greek and Egyptian societies, marriages were about political gain; according to Psychology Today‘s article, Marriage, A History (2005,) Roman Statesman Marcus Porcius Cato divorced his wife and marries her off to his political ally Hortensius to strengthen family bonds.  Love in Greek society was mainly between men, and a Greek woman whose father died without a male heir could be forced to divorce her husband and marry her nearest male relative.

Another common thread is that marriage throughout history has been one man with one woman; but this is also an inaccurate assumption.  Monogamy as the prevailing standard for marriage did not become established until somewhere between the 6th and 9th centuries.  Prior to that, polygamy was still practiced and accepted, especially among higher status men.  Even in the Bible, polygamy is well documented, from Jacob with his two wives and two concubines; to David and Solomon, with their many hundreds.  Many traditional marriage proponents point to the 6th commandment: “thou shalt not commit adultery” as the basis for the one man, one woman argument.  However, adultery in antiquity had a much different meaning than it does today.  In ancient times, adultery only applied to the woman in the marriage, or to a man who had sex with a married woman, who was the property of her husband.  A woman’s primary purpose in a marriage was to produce an heir; if she was suspected of being involved with anyone but her husband, then the inheritance rights of any heirs she produced could be questioned.  Even after monogamy became the established norm, men still had wide latitudes in terms of marital fidelity.  As per Stephanie Coontz in her book, Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage (Penguin Books, 2006,) fidelity for men in a marriage did not become the social more until sometime in the 19th century.

Procreation has also been central to the case for preserving traditional marriage, but again, this has not been truly the case…at least not in the sense they present.  In ancient times, women were thought to not only control the fertility of the marriage, but also the sex of the child.  Women who could not produce a male heir were constantly under the threat of divorce, as a man could divorce his wife for any reason he deemed her “unfit.”  Many proponents cite Matthew 19 as proof that God intended for marriage to be between one man and one woman for life, but the actual context of the passage points to a man’s ability to divorce his wife without much of a reason, and, in context, was actually a admonishment to protect an already married woman from the insult and damage of a divorce.  In fact, the Christian religion played the biggest role in not requiring procreation as a condition of marriage, refusing to annul marriages if one or both partners were sterile.

The truth about “traditional” marriage is that those who champion for it are basing their views on what has been the standard in Western Civilization for only the past 100-150 years; not on the true historical aspect of marriage itself.  Just as Biblical views and interpretations and social mores have evolved over the centuries, the entity of marriage has also evolved and become more encompassing to the society it represents, and in that consideration, arguments against marriage equality simply do not withstand evidence from the real history of marriage.

An Editorial By: Heather Pilkinton

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