Monday, October 04, 2004

Marriage, a sacred institution

Over the past year, a furious opposition to gay marriage has been voiced by many who claim to know how God feels about this issue. President Bush even went so far as to propose an amendment to the Constitution to make same-sex marriage a federal offense. According to recent polls, a majority of Americans believe that marriage should remain a union that is strictly between a man and a woman. We hear that same-sex unions would threaten and undermine holy matrimony, although not a single concrete example of how that would happen has been offered. Gay marriage is legal in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Ontario, Canada, and thus far it has neither impaired traditional marriage nor subverted civil society in those places.

Putting gay marriage aside, what do we have to say about heterosexual marriage. In all the recent controversy, no one seems to have noticed how heterosexuals have devalued and defiled the sanctity of this purportedly God-given institution. Consider the following:

For millennia, straight-sex marriage consisted of a bond not between a man and a woman but between a man and any number of women. Polygamy is a recognized practice in the Holy Bible itself. King Solomon had 700 wives (not to mention 300 concubines) yet suffered not the mildest rebuke from either God or man. Other estimable figures in Scripture and throughout history have had large retinues of wives. Women in these kinds of overpopulated unions have been treated as little better than concubines, usually facing a dismal existence of enforced confinement.

Marriage has historically been more closely linked to property than to love, and the property arrangements tended to benefit the male spouse. For generations in the United States and other western countries a married woman usually could not even own property. She had to forfeit all her family inheritance to her husband, thereby being reduced to an appendage of the paterfamilias. And rarely could a married woman pursue an advanced education or professional career.

These days, arraigned marriages are relatively rare in the United States except on Reality TV, where young and attractive women-—selected by television producers---openly vie for the opportunity to marry a millionaire whom they have never before met. They put themselves on display, usually a dozen at a time, while some wealthy hunk takes torturous weeks to eliminate all but one. Then he and his final selection are married on screen before millions of viewers. Here surely is a heartwarming benediction of a sacred institution.

In the United States today, heterosexual wedlock is not a particularly uplifting or even safe institution for millions of women. Consider some statistics: An estimated two million females are repeatedly battered. Most of these victims are married to their attackers. Domestic violence is the single largest cause of injury and second largest cause of death to U.S. women. An uncounted number of wives are raped by abusive husbands. Every year, upwards of a million women seek medical treatment for serious domestic abuse injuries. Almost three million children reportedly are subjected to serious neglect or physical or sexual abuse. Each year tens of thousands of kids run away from home to escape mistreatment.

There is the additional problem of abandonment. Millions of spouses---including many white middle-class professionals---desert their families and fail to provide sustenance for their own children. Often they do not even acknowledge or stay in contact with their offspring. If heterosexual matrimony is so sacred, you would think it might produce less horrific results.

Speaking of results, the phenomenon of divorce comes to mind. To be sure, millions of heterosexual couples find lifelong happiness in marriage; still, the most predictable outcome of straight marriage is divorce: 51 percent to be exact. That is an extraordinary statistic not matched by too many others. If we said there was a 51 percent murder rate or suicide rate or student drop-out rate, a 51 percent vehicular accident rate, a 51 percent rate for alcoholism or deaths from drug abuse, this would be great cause for alarm. In fact, society would probably be uninhabitable with such rates. Perhaps, then, marriage is not all that important. Fifty-one percent of all marriages fall apart, yet society has not fallen apart. If anything, in the more abusive households, divorce is actually a blessing.

Nor do the more traditional marriages that take place in conservative circles show any greater rate of happiness or survival than those that deviate from the conventional norm. The man may be the head of the household and the primary breadwinner, and the wife may be the dutiful homemaker, and the entire family may pray together---but they do not stay together at any greater rate than the more secular unions. A 2001 study found that born-again Christians are just as likely to get divorced as non-born-again adults and other less confirmed believers, with 90 percent of these divorces happening "after they accepted Christ, not before." So those who claim that marriage is best fortified by religion have yet to prove their case.

Of course, fundamentalist keepers of the public morals do bemoan the high divorce rate, but they don’t get exercised about it the way they do about gay wedlock. The point is, if millions of heterosexual divorces every year have not hopelessly denigrated the institution of marriage, why would some thousands of same-sex marriages do so? If straights like reactionary radio commentator and drug-head Rush Limbaugh can get married again and again without undermining the institution, what is so threatening about a gay union? Does Limbaugh feel that gay marriage makes a mockery of all three of his past marriages---and his pending fourth? If anything, happy gays wanting to get into the institution might help make up for all those unhappy straights wanting to get out.

If same-sex unions do violate church teachings, then the church (or synagogue or mosque) should refuse to perform gay marriages, and most do refuse. The gays I saw getting married in San Francisco’s City Hall were engaged in civil marriages, with no clergy presiding over the ceremonies. And what I saw opened my heart. Here were people, many in longstanding relationships, who were experiencing their humanity, happy at last to have a right to marry the one they loved, happy at last to exercise their full citizenship and be treated as persons equal under the law.

To sum up, here are some of the things that straight-sex marriage has wrought through the ages: polygamy, child-brides, loveless arrangements, trafficked women, bartered wives, battered wives, raped wives, sexual slavery, child abuse and abandonment, racist miscegenation laws, and astronomical divorce rates. If gays are unqualified for marriage, what can we say about straights? If George Bush and his homophobic worshippers really want to defend the institution of marriage, they can begin by taking an honest look at the ugly situations within so many heterosexual unions in this country and throughout the world.

This was written by Michael Parenti. His most recent books are The Assassination of Julius Caesar (New Press) and Superpatriotism (City Lights). He’s been married and divorced only twice.

Thanks for reading this.
No, I'm not coming out– I'm speaking up.
I feel it is deplorable that our "great uniter" president has stooped to such a low level as to divide the nation–even families by choosing Gay Marriage and Abortion as planks in his platform. Before we all go vote on November 2, lets really understand the issues.