We are all familiar with the childhood chant used to embarrass kids who might like each other, in that stage of life where we considered the opposite gender to have cooties.
When I first heard the words that form a version of the ring exchange section of the Church of England wedding service, I was taken by the expressive romantic poetry of them. Variously those words are (in part):
"With my body I honour you,
all that I am I give to you,
and all that I have I share with you,"
another version uses the even more erotic wording:
"with my body, I thee worship".
In the proclamation phase of the wedding service, the Church of England takes the position that the clergy does not marry the husband and wife; they marry each other. The role of the clergy is to direct the process and then to announce and proclaim that it has been concluded properly.
I find this an interesting observation to keep in mind when contemplating the current social discussions on both same-sex marriage, and the privatization of marriage. Some who hold to either a fundamentalist or conservative perspective, admit only one version of marriage to be correct, to be permitted, in a civilized society, to the vehement exclusion of all other possibilities. God is often marshaled in support of their thinking; they feel qualified to speak on His behalf in telling those who think differently how this institution should exist as an absolute.
Daniel Kahneman is an Israeli psychologist currently a professor at Princeton, recognized for his work in behavioral finance and hedonic economics. He is the 2002 Nobel Prize laureate for economics. I admire Kahneman's work for not only its brilliance, but its honesty. Kahneman developed the concept of visceral certainty to describe how he could feel himself so adamantly correct in his thinking, when objective evidence and the opinions of others indicated he was wrong. Kahneman excels at identifying the gap between theory and ideal, and practice and objective reality.
In his spirit of examination, I decided to make my own attempt to rationally examine the subject of marriage. Taking a long range look in the sense of distance, at how marriages exist around the planet, and taking a long range look in the sense of time, at how marriages have existed in history, there seems to be a considerably larger range of relationships than the one embraced by conservatives and religious fundamentalists. While the existence of these differences is not in itself a guarantee that they are all equally correct, it does argue that we have as a species been very flexible in this context, and that there is no one single way for marriage to be defined to the exclusion of all possibilities.
While marriage can be entered into as a sacrament, we do accept as married those who do not solemnize their commitment through any religion. Even in the early Christian era, up until the mid-16th century with the edicts of the Council of Trent, clergy and religion were not a requirement. Prior to that, in Europe all that was required was the agreement, the verbum, for individuals to enter into the relationship. If the wording of the agreement was in the present tense, the individuals were married from that time forward; if in the future tense, they were engaged or betrothed only. Sometimes the agreement was recorded by the church, but it was not required to be either recorded by clergy or civil authority. In some versions of Judaism, the act of marrying another person means merging into one soul from two, a view of the necessity for marriage to achieve spiritual completeness that is shared with some other religions where there is very strong pressure to enter into marriage.
Over many centuries, in European culture and other cultures, marriage was neither a civil nor a religious agreement; it was purely a personal commitment and a kind of contract, which in large part regulated control of property. A form of this idea is currently advanced under the concept of privatization of marriage. In privatization, the roles of both the church and government would be minimalized, and the emphasis would shift to individual commitments and contracts. The recognition by some states of common law marriage, where the relationship is established by a couple living together as if they were married, would be an example of a marriage that was neither formalized by religious ceremony or by formal government license.
While marriage can be entered into for the purposes of having children, we do not require couples to reproduce, nor do we any longer penalize those who reproduce (or are born) without benefit of marriage the way we did at one time. Nor do we widely restrict the role of parent to heterosexual couples; in our society, parenting sometimes falls to grandparents, guardians, single individuals, and even same sex individuals and couples; they sometimes do a superior job over the heterosexual individuals in a monogamous relationship. Recognition is progressing that gender orientation or relationship status with another adult does not always equate to parenting ability or emotional or economic stability.
The argument is sometimes offered that marriage is recognized by society because it benefits it directly, providing stability and greater prosperity. The divorce rate and the resultant destabilizing effects of what amounts to serial monogamy would suggest that is not necessarily the case.
The element of time in connection with marriage is a particularly interesting one. While we, as a nation, nearly always enter into marriage with the intent of "til death us do part", we follow a variety of time tables in practice. It surprised me to discover that there are marriage rituals that do NOT define relationship in forever terms. For example, in some locations the Shi'ah form of Islam recognizes term marriages, as have other societies. Spouses agree to be temporarily husband and wife, an arrangement that is renewable; not so very different from those marriages where spouses elect to renew vows ceremonially, only more so.
An overview of marriage customs shows some interesting variations: so-called ghost or posthumous marriages, where a living person marries a dead person; levirate marriages, where a widow marries her husbands brother to perpetuate his bloodline, and the reverse, sororate marriage where the widower marries his late wife's sister, for the same purpose. There are so-called "walking marriages" where the spouses do not live together, but maintain separate residences. While this seems contrary to our notion of a typical nuclear family, in practice often one or both spouses may spend regular periods separated without any loss of commitment; it occurs regularly in military deployments, and often occurs in civilian life where one or both spouses routinely travel, such as over the road truck drivers, salesman, and our political representatives, with either one permanent and one temporary residence, or perhaps two permanent residences being maintained by fully committed married individuals.
Legally and officially, we do not treat all relationships or individuals fairly or equally. The concept of (anti) miscegenation laws is commonly understood to refer to laws which prohibit formalizing the mixing of different races, originating in part from a lack of understanding of the concept that whatever skin color we may present, we are the same species. What fewer people seem to know is that the first miscegenation laws in this country addressed not marriages of different races, but marriages between different classes. Indentured servants were prohibited from marrying their contract owners, because such marriages prematurely ended their labor service (at least, in theory). The current remaining restrictions prohibiting marriage tend to be age; consanguinity - too close a biological relationship, such as between siblings or in some but not all states, first cousins); plural marriage, either polygyny or polyandry, or group marriage (multiple of both husbands and wives); and gender, with a decreasing majority of states prohibiting same-sex marriages. The possibilities offered by genetic science to anticipate problems in offspring seem to be superseding at least some of the restrictions on how closely related parties can be in marriage; it is unlikely that closely incestuous relationships will ever be permitted. Given the variations in plural marriages around the world, and as advocated by a variety of religions, it would not surprise me to see the marriage limitation to two people eventually change, but not for a very long time.
There is the so-called marriage 'penalty', where the tax rate for married couples is higher than the tax rate for single individuals. We are having to examine how to make accommodation for the discrepancies where some states allow same-sex marriages but others do not - or in the case of California, did for a while, but do not now. Our federal government does not currently recognize the status of same sex marraiges. Even the District of Columbia, which has the unusual situation of not being a state, and not being the usual kind of municipality, is wrestling with how to deal with residents from the 50 different states having 50 different definitions of marriage. As much as some conservatives and liberals alike would like to accord the authority for marriage to state government, so long as we have federal issues, and conflicting state laws, this is problematic.
Given the difference in attitudes towards same sex marriage in younger adults compared to older adults, it seems a reasonable expectation that same sex marriage will eventually be fully accepted, and legally recognized. Even some religions are changing their position, arguing in response to the phrase "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve", that God made Steve as well. The only remaining question to a wider acceptance of same sex marriages appears to be when - and where - not if.
I would argue that the intention and commitment of the two parties involved logically should define their relationship of marriage, in the form of a contractual agreement between them. The limitations of age that govern entering into other contracts would provide adequate protection for children not to be exploited by adults. It would allow for the participants to be of opposite or same gender, and it could be required as a contractual condition, that children that are part of that relationship, whether biologically or adoptively occurring, would be provided for by those spouses, both for support and for inheritance. The participants could choose if they wished to follow the dictates of their conscience through the teachings of whatever religion they profess, or none at all, if that is their choice.
It would permit the government to opt out of what is a divisive controversy at best, and to institute fairer and more equitable standardized treatment of individuals, regardless of their marital status. The intrusion of the government in different ways into the bedrooms of our society has never been a comfortable one for either the government, or the people into whose bedroom they intrude. It would offer a more sane, humane, and objective approach to an age old, much varied institution. Those who have a visceral certainty that they are right and everyone else is wrong - and that everyone else must be compelled to their way of doing things - are unlikely to ever consider any other options. But those who are thoughtful, and who have the integrity to recognize that they might be wrong no matter how right they feel, could do far worse than consider this possibility.