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Prop 8, Judge Walker and the Biblical View of Marriage Equality

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Judge Vaughn Walker's decision to allow resumption of legal same-sex weddings in California has right-wing Christians claiming his ruling against Proposition 8 threatens "Bible believing Christians." I've read the Bible pretty carefully myself (I read it cover to cover when I was in high school) and even taught it as a college professor. It is not a source I'd turn to in order to defend traditional marriage, but I think it does offer ways to think about ethical marriage.

The Bible presents multiple views of marriage, and most actual marriages it depicts are terrible by modern standards. "Traditional marriages" in ancient biblical times were arranged as transfers of the ownership of daughters. The tenth commandment lists wives among properties like houses and slaves: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor" (Exodus 20:17, also found in Deuteronomy 5:21). Marriages occurred via deception, kidnapping, adulterous seductions, theft, rape, and murder, and were often in multiples so that the pater familias could amass land, flocks, and progeny and cement political alliances. Abraham, David, and Solomon had marriages that would be illegal today. The book of Hosea likens the mercy of God to a husband who has the right to beat or kill his adulterous wife, but spares her -- for this, she was supposed to be grateful. When women seek marriages, such as Naomi arranged for Ruth, it was to avoid an even worse fate such as destitution.

The ideal of a housewife that Diana Butler Bass recently lifted up in Proverbs 31 suggests that a decent married life for women might have been possible in biblical times, but actual examples are rare. It's a telling fact that at Christian weddings today, passages of scripture used in the service mostly avoid marriage texts. They extol love between two women ("[M]y people shall be your people" [Ruth 1]) or communitarian values ("The greatest of these is love" [I Corinthians 13]) or erotic passion between unmarried lovers ("[S]et me as a seal upon your heart" [Song of Songs]). (Some people are shocked to find Song of Songs in the Bible at all.)

In the Christian section of the Bible, Jesus and Paul disagreed about what marriage was supposed to be. The difference between them is striking: Jesus thinks of marriage as divinely sanctified while Paul thinks of it as an option for the morally weak who need to avoid fornicating. They lived around the same time, and both were Jews, so it's a bit puzzling why they differ so radically, perhaps as puzzling as why, today, some Christians vehemently oppose marriage equality while others like myself support it. Even evangelicals differ; poll data show that in 2008, 84 percent of those under age 30 supported same-sex civil unions or outright marriage equality while only 54 percent of their elders did.

So let's at least get clear about one important fact: there is no Christian view of marriage; there are different Christian views, even if you follow the Bible. For over a millennium, the Christian church in Europe leaned toward Paul. It did not sanctify marriage but regarded it as a civil ceremony instead.

Paul, a citizen of the Roman Empire, spent time in jail for opposing that Empire, and his negative view of marriage was probably another form or resistance. Other celibate religious movements of his time also saw avoidance of marriage and procreation as a form of resistance to the Empire and a sign of a new kind of religious society. Why was marriage such a huge political issue during Paul's time?

During the two decades before Jesus was born, the Roman Empire passed a slew of marriage laws that forced marriage on all Roman citizens. To have enough tax revenues and soldiers for its military legions, the empire needed an expanding citizen population, but the population was shrinking. The situation was dire because average life expectancy was only 25 years, and two thirds of all infants died. Just to stay even, the state required a five-child birthrate per woman. Many elite Roman families resented military conscription of their sons and found the tax burdens excessive. Hence, refusing to marry was a way to resist imperial exploitation.

In addition to such political pressures, Paul may also have rejected marriage because it separated sex and love. Under Roman marriage laws and customs, sex was a function of male domination and aggression. Princeton historian Peter Brown, in his study of this period, The Body and Society, wryly remarks that the Romans viewed male adolescents as "human espresso machines"; they were always near a sexual boil, ready to erupt. In her careful study of documents from this period, Bernadette Brooten, in Love Between Women, notes that a pater familias could have sex with anyone under his authority and economic control, which mean virtually any female, as well as boys and male slaves. The only people a head of household could not have sex with were his equals or superiors, including female superiors, like goddesses or his mother. E. J. Graff in her book, What is Marriage For?, notes that rape of the bride was commonly expected, and in wedding ceremonies, the groom and father-in-law exchanged the vows, since women were exchanged as property and could not take vows. While marriages might have love in them, this was not expected.

For women in marriage, sex was for procreation -- a dangerous destiny at a time without reliable birth control or adequate maternal medical care. That women had sexual desires and enjoyed sex was not doubted, but respectable women confined these to the marriage bed. Brooten found that while homosexual orientations were regarded as immutably determined by astrological influences, lesbianism was regarded as a medical disorder because sex as domination and subordination were crucial. Women's sexual relationships lacked a dominant inserter and subordinate receiver and were, thus, an unnatural disorder. The construction of sex as male dominance may be why conservatives obsess over rare biblical texts against homosexual practices, while, like the C Street "Family," they think of male heterosexual adultery, condemned in their beloved 10 commandments, as a lesser sin, since so many biblical patriarchs were adulterers. The sin more frequently condemned is usury, but I digress...

Paul believed love was the highest value, whereas sex was a problem. Paul advocated abstinence, though this suggestion has led some to regard him as psychologically disturbed. Ironically, current condemnations of his version of ascetic Christianity exist side-by-side with great admiration for monastic figures such as the Dalai Lama. But religious abstinence is another discussion.

Jesus' view of marriage in Matthew 19 was not the Roman version. He turned to the Jewish scriptures in Genesis 2. Conservatives like to use Genesis 2 to defend marriage as between one man and one woman for procreative purposes only (i.e., as authorizing sex between one dominant inserter and one subordinate receiver). However, I don't think this is what Jesus meant.

A careful look at Genesis, provided by scholar Phyllis Trible, offers an interesting alternative to the conservative view. She notes that God creates an earthling, adam (i.e., a being made of earth, ha'adama; adam in the Hebrew is not a proper name until later in the story), and breathes divine spirit into him to make him come alive. All the animals are insufficient to satisfy the adam's needs for a helper. Ezer kenegdo, translated "help meet," literally means an equal helper. Help, by itself, referred to a superior, such as God. Hence, the addition of kenegdo, surrounding, modified ezer to suggest an equal. So God divides adam into ish, male, and issha, female. Made of the flesh of adam, Eve is neither superior nor subordinate to Adam. Given that the woman's subordination to the man and painful childbirth were a punishment for the two having sinned in Genesis 3, I think the decision goes against "traditional marriage" as divinely ordained. Inside paradise, God intended relationships based on equality.

Jesus had to go back to the paradise garden to find a model of what he thought marriage ought to be. Given that model, he observed that Moses created divorce because men behaved badly (he calls them hard-hearted, which suggests unloving), which might be understood as a condemnation of traditional marriage. He also conceded that the demands of marriage were not for everyone, and remaining unmarried was OK.

Arguments for California's Prop 8, which Judge Walker overturned, narrowed the purpose of marriage to procreation. Neither Paul nor Jesus explicitly mentioned procreation as a reason for marriage. While I don't think Jesus was talking about same-sex marriages, his reference to Genesis 2 grounded marriage in equality and companionship. While Jesus and Paul differ on marriage, they differ for the same reason. They uphold love as the highest divine good, not women's subordination. In fact, because of the nasty history of institutional marriage in the Bible and heterosexist civil laws that are built on male dominance and female subordination, I think marriage equality means such gender inequality will no longer be inscribed as a necessary basis of marriage.

In his carefully written decision, Judge Walker remarked on changes that have eliminated most of the values and reasons for traditional marriage. He noted that marriage had recently been transformed "from a male-dominated institution into an institution recognizing men and women as equals" (p. 112). The changes also reflect cultural ideas that marriage is a union of sex with love. They do not nullify marriage per se:

The evidence shows that the movement of marriage away from a gendered institution and toward an institution free from state-mandated gender roles reflects an evolution in the understanding of gender rather than a change in marriage. The evidence did not show any historical purpose for excluding same-sex couples from marriage, as states have never required spouses to have an ability or willingness to procreate in order to marry. Rather, the exclusion exists as an artifact of a time when the genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and in marriage. That time has passed. (p. 113)

Judge Walker ruled that the state's interest in marriage is guided by the rights of equal protection, not by religion, and that religious ideas should not determine marriage law. He has, for the time being, restored legal same-sex weddings as a right than cannot be decided by majority vote.

A number of Christian groups in California, as well as Reformed Jews and Unitarian Universalists, would agree. Prop 8 denied us our religious freedom by prohibiting us from authorizing same-sex marriages, but, even worse, it denied the basic human right of marriage to a group of people based on unfounded biases about their sexual orientation. Same-sex couples, like heterosexual couples, offer each other love, companionship, and a stable family environment for raising children. If marriage is good for society, and equality is the ethical basis for marriage, then gender difference is irrelevant. Marriage equality is good for everyone, including Bible-believing Christians.