It is widely claimed by the Religious Right that marriage is a "religious institution," not a civil matter. The facts, unfortunately, are not so simple. State control of marriage is much older than people think and Christianity never spoke with one voice regarding marriage.
The fourth century Christian emperor Theodosius, as part of what historian John Boswell called a campaign of "greater and greater totalitarian control over personal aspects of Romans' lives," decreed that only Christianity would be allowed to exist. He also banned gay marriage. Boswell wrote: "The increasingly theocratic despotism of the later Empire often led to intervention in matters such as personal religious convictions or private sexual expression which would have been considered entirely individual under the earlier emperors."
The Church got involved only after this intervention on its behalf. Christian law professor Daniel Crane wrote that, "as the power of the church grew, it gradually sought to establish control over marriage directly." But it was only in 1546 that the Roman Catholic Church declared that a marriage was only valid if performed by a priest, with two witnesses. Even this was more a slap at the Reformationists and a means of "wedding" believers to the Roman Church. The idea that marriage was a "sacrament" had more to do with the politics of the day than it did with theology.
The Protestants denied marriage as a sacrament entirely. Crane wrote that Reformationists saw the state, not the church, as the prime custodian "of matrimony as a civil institution." The authoritarian John Calvin passed the "Marriage Ordinance of Geneva" requiring a state permit to marry.
The other leading Protestant of the day, Martin Luther, wrote: "[S]ince marriage has existed from the beginning of the world and is still found among unbelievers, there is no reason why it should be called a sacrament of the New Law and of the church alone." Within a few decades, most of Christian Europe had laws regulating marriage as a state institution. Contrary to the claims of the religious right, the State did not take marriage away from the Church.
This cozy relationship between church and state remained undisturbed until the rise of classical liberalism, with its libertarian sentiments about individual rights. Evangelical author John Witte argues this began with John Locke's Two Treatises on Government (1698) where Locke "suggested that a natural and contractual perspective could be defended without necessary reference to spiritual or social perspectives on marriage. He had hypothesized that a law of marriage based on contract could be valid even if God were not viewed as the founder of the marriage contract, nor His Church engaged as an agent in its governance."
Classical liberalism became a major influence in Western culture, leading to the abolition of slavery, the rise in the status of women, demonopolizing of agriculture from landed elites, free trade and to the emergence of capitalism itself. It also brought new ideas about marriage into the legal system. Prof. Witte argues that the liberal reforms embedded two conflicting views of marriage into law, "one rooted in Christianity, a second in the Enlightenment. Each of these traditions has contributed a variety of familiar legal ideas and institutions--some overlapping, some conflicting."
Catholics saw marriage as a church sacrament. Protestants said it was a relationship between a couple and the wider community, and thus more a political concern than a religious one. Witte wrote, "Enlightenment exponents emphasize[d] the contractual (or private) perspective."
Marriage laws, he said, changed drastically as a result:
Exponents of the Enlightenment advocated the abolition of much that was considered sound and sacred in the Western legal tradition of marriage. They urged the abolition of the requirements of parental consent, church consecration, and formal witnesses for marriage. They questioned the exalted status of heterosexual monogamy, suggesting that such matters be left to private negotiation. They called for the absolute equality of husband and wife to receive, hold, and alienate property, to enter into contracts and commerce, to participate on equal terms in the workplace and public square. They castigated the state for leaving annulment practice to the church, and urged that the laws of annulment and divorce be both merged and expanded under exclusive state jurisdiction.
The rise of classical liberalism, with its companion, capitalism, meant that income was no longer a function of the family as whole. Sociologist Barry Adams, in Christopher Street, observed: "Capitalism laid the groundwork for voluntary relationships based on personal preference, the precondition for 'romantic love.' Capitalism did not cause romantic love, it allowed it to flourish." Historians John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman (Intimate Matters) wrote that these changes meant that marriages could be chosen "with less attention to property and family considerations" and that "some young people even disregarded parental opinion altogether. Operating within a political climate that decried tyranny and exulted the rights of the individual some children married over parental objections while others failed to inform their parents at all."
Of course, these shifts in the economic structure, and the emergence of a culture of individual rights, had dramatic impact on gay and lesbian people. Prof. Steve Horwitz wrote: "This created both the "singles culture" of the 20th century but also enabled homosexuals to adopt the full identity of being gay or lesbian, as opposed to just engaging in homosexual acts. It's no surprise that gay/lesbian culture thrived early on in urbanized environments (industrial jobs and anonymity were the keys). Having made modern gay identity possible and having caused marriage and family to be focused on love and consumption, rather than child-making and child-raising complementarities, is it any surprise that gays and lesbians would want 'in' to the institution of marriage?"
Oddly, modern conservatives see themselves as the heirs of the classical liberal/capitalist tradition. Yet that tradition is responsible for the evolution of marriage over the last few centuries. What modern conservatives are witnessing in the gay marriage revolution is just another logical step toward implementing the values of classical liberalism, with its emphasis on private contract and individual rights. Like it or not, it is the premises that they claim they share with classical liberals that have brought us to where we are today. I for one think that a good thing, even if conservatives don't.