Friday, August 3, 2012

What is Traditional Marriage?

A few months ago I was kicking it with my friend and her mom called. She grabbed the phone and started yapping, then she said, "OK go ahead and put Dad on before you hang up."  I felt an unidentifiable pang in my chest and later came to realize what it was. Envy. Her parents are married, live in the same house, and she can handle her parental duties in one phone call. Sadly, most of my peers and I cannot say the same.

My friends are for the most part, well-adjusted, intelligent adults and while they come from a variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds, most come from "mixed" families. For many, their parents were married and some portion of their childhood was colored by their parents' divorce. For some, they can't even remember their parents ever being together.  In 2012, this is the reality of the family unit in America. The idea of a man and woman marrying, having children and living happily ever after often seems to be more fantasy than reality

This shifting cultural norm is what I was thinking about when a few months ago, I heard an advocate for "traditional marriage" on NPR state that President Obama was attempting to "overturn 3000 years of recorded history by supporting same-sex marriage." I thought it was quite a statement, considering that I don't even think we have the same traditions we had 40 years ago as it pertains to marriage. With all the recent controversy surrounding Chic-Fil-A's CEO Dan Cathy's vocal, moral and financial support of traditional marriage, I wonder as a Christian, what it means to support traditional marriage.

Advocates for same sex marriage call it the equal marriage debate or a human rights and civil rights issue. Opponents to marriage rights for gays consider it a "traditional marriage" debate. These word choices are not small nuances to be ignored; they define the argument and help frame people's opinion on the issue. This post is not meant to illustrate why marriage between two men or two women is right or wrong; it's simply meant to point out the problem of the blanket term "traditional marriage."

What is Tradition?
the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation, especially by word of mouth or by practice; something that is handed down; a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting; a continuing pattern of culture beliefs or practices. a customary or characteristic method or manner. - Dictionary.com

So knowing that, what is traditional marriage?

The majority of the American crowd speaking out against same sex marriage happens to also be Christian, so I presume they are referring to Christian traditions. What makes something a Christian tradition? Something found throughout the Bible? Consider this:

These are not men that play minority roles in the Christian faith; Christ was a direct descendant of Abraham, David & Solomon. They are revered in Christianity, Judaism, and other religious faiths. If anyone represents Christian tradition, it is certainly these men.

  • Teenage girls married adult men in the Bible. It was common practice around Jesus' time and certainly before, for pre-adolescent girls around 9 to be betrothed to a man and to be married around 12 to 14 years old. The virgin Mary was thought to be around 12 to 14 years old when she married a very adult Joseph. Mary is revered by Christian women, particularly in the Catholic faith as the ultimate example of motherhood.
Some folks base their argument for traditional marriage in American history. In other words, "Marriage between one man and one woman is an American value." Considering America's youth -we're only 236 years old- I struggle to really think American traditions can trump any religious traditions, but I'll allow it for the sake of this argument. I won't outline all the varying policies, laws, and practices in America that were considered "tradition" that have since been abolished, (cough 3/5 a citizen cough) but as it relates to marriage, we'd have to include the following values as well:

  • Banning of Interracial Marriages. Anti-miscegenation laws or laws banning people of different races from marrying each other have been around for the majority of America's existence. They weren't struck down by the Supreme Court until 1967
  • Wives as Property. American wives were considered culturally and in many ways, legally, their husband's property. When America and her values were born, wives had to cede all of their property to their husbands upon marriage. In many cases, they had to secure written permission from their husbands to handle any major financial or business transactions. 

It seems that the definition of Christian or American traditional marriage is a transient one consistent with a society's current cultural traditions. There's no denying that same sex marriages would represent a shift in how marriage has been legally practiced. While homosexuality is certainly not a novel concept or new phenomenon, same sex marriage is still opposed by 44% of Americans

And as always, I support the freedom of speech and the right to have a word or three. I believe Dan Cathy and others on both sides of this debate certainly have the right to voice their opinions and make donations as they see fit. I simply have difficulty with the idea that the appropriate phrase is traditional marriage. Tradition it seems is in the eye of the beholder. 

What are your thoughts? Is heterosexual marriage appropriately called traditional marriage? Is tradition immovable or can it change over time?

The floor is yours.

P.S. There's one more group of folks I envy: Folks who can still enjoy Chic-Fil-A's yummy chicken nuggets and lemonade. It just doesn't sit right in my stomach anymore.