You can almost always rely on conservative politicians to surrender their principles, even before the first shot is fired. Within a month of President Obama’s second inauguration, Republicans were already selling out on the marriage issue. When the GOP leadership contrived the Defense of Marriage Act (1996), I said at the time that in making marriage a national issue they were giving Democrats the power to redefine marriage. One does not have to be a libertarian to regard DOMA as a national-socialist attempt to solve moral problems by government action. If women are marrying women or killing their babies, the solution is to define life and marriage, rewrite the U.S. Constitution, and empower the very political class that has led the revolution against moral decency and human nature. It is as if the Soviets, realizing the need to privatize their economy, put Stalin and Trotsky in charge of the program.
Some good might have come out of this mistake, if only the conservative politicians were willing to maintain their supposed principles, show the flag, and rally the troops. That is the argument I often hear when I object to the dangerous pro-family legislation advocated by many Catholic bishops. Unfortunately, conservative Republicans—as we know from experience—only display courage when they are out of office. As soon as they are elected, they begin peace talks with the enemy. Now 17 years after the passage of their Defense of Marriage Act, Republican leaders are shifting to the left. They were remarkably reticent at the March CPAC meeting, but one by one they are coming out of the closet in defense of “gay marriage.” Some of them—Saxby Chambliss, for example—seem genuinely embarrassed by the new set of lies they are going to have to tell. Others are more brazen.
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman claims that his change of heart is the result of discovering that his son is homosexual. Senator, have you no shame? It is bad enough that you are trying to make political capital out of a family misfortune, but even more repellent is the self-serving assumption that underlies your tergiversation. It is all very well to oppose a legal revolution on moral grounds, you are telling us, until you discover it might affect you personally. A senator who advocates the death penalty for raping and murdering young children would then be justified in changing his mind if his brother were convicted of such crimes. No one expects integrity from a U.S. senator, but we do have a right to demand some decent stab at hypocrisy, and the new breed of Republican is not intelligent enough even to feign hypocrisy.
Conservatives will never win a debate or even make a forceful, if unsuccessful, defense of their positions until they can clear their heads of the propaganda they have imbibed from the family-values think tanks, which are all too often defenders of leftist revolutions. Scratch beneath the surface of most conservatives, and you are likely to find, at best, the principles of Rousseau and Robespierre and the politics of Franklin Roosevelt. This is true of all too many Christians, though they have better grounds to stand on. In opposing abortion and same-sex marriage, Christian conservatives, to take the most honorable example, think it is enough to cite Scripture or the authority of the Church, as if we would even be considering such nonsense as gay marriage if a significant minority of Republican politicians were any kind of Christian. When the appeal to authority fails them, Christians turn to the revolutionary-leftist language of international human rights. Babies have rights that must be protected, the right to be born and the right to live in a normal family. Why not throw in the right to parents with good looks, high incomes, and Ivy League educations?
Marriage is not just a Christian institution: It is a human institution. Look round the world from China to Peru, scan all written history and thumb through thousands of ethnological reports, and you will not find any viable society in which the union of a man and woman, whatever eccentricities of polygyny or adultery may be tolerated, is not the norm. Then, at the heart of the same-sex marriage debate is a misunderstanding of what marriage is. The revolutionaries take it for granted that marriage is an institution to facilitate companionship, joint bank accounts, home ownership, and regular copulation without fear. Christians and conservatives do not fundamentally dispute this description, though they do stipulate that marriage is between a man and a woman and throw in something about bearing and rearing children.
If marriage were an exclusively or even essentially Christian institution, there would be no point in holding this debate in a non-Christian country governed by an anti-Christian ruling class. Marriage in Christian societies was, like every other aspect of our culture, a compound of three ancient influences: Jewish, Greek, and Roman. Perhaps not surprisingly, Western marriage is more Greco-Roman than Judaic.
Ancient Jews were, after all, polygamists. The marital arrangements of Hebrew patriarchs and kings of Israel resemble more an Ottoman harem than a Christian household. As much as we might seek continuity from the Law to the Gospels, Christian marriage represents a breach in tradition, and that breach was opened by Jesus Himself, Who expressed His dissatisfaction with Jewish marriage customs.
In giving instructions on marriage, our Lord went well beyond Jewish law, not just in the matter of polygamy but also in the question of divorce, which had permitted husbands to divorce a wife when “it comes to pass that she find no favor in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her” (Deuteronomy 24:1).
“Some uncleanness,” translated also as “something obnoxious,” apparently refers more to a betrayal of trust than to moral or ritual defilement. More liberal rabbis were willing to grant divorce on the grounds that a man disliked his wife’s cooking or had found a more attractive woman to marry.
In the early Church, separation (or divorce) was permitted if one spouse deserted or betrayed the other or made a Christian life difficult. Jesus recognized both the difficulties of the situation and the bad faith of many husbands. Divorce, He said, was granted by Moses because of the hardness of the people’s heart, but (Mark 10:2-12)
from the beginning of creation God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother; and cleave to his wife; and they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
Asked by His disciples for clarification, He informed them, that “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her”—and vice versa.
Jesus is not simply commanding His followers not to divorce their wives: He is explaining the realities of sex and marriage. One Adam and one Eve in the Garden represent the proper model for all human marriage, while the law of Moses, permitting both synchronic and serial polygamy, represents a falling away, a concession to human weakness that is now being withdrawn. Jesus probably did not need to condemn Jewish polygamy, which the Romans frowned upon within the empire, though the practice apparently thrived in other places.
Since early Christians could not base their marriage law and customs exclusively on Judaism, they turned to the most obvious alternative: the marriage customs of the Greeks and Romans. It has been said quite truly that early Christian weddings were simply pagan weddings stripped of pagan practices (such as the taking of auguries). The essence of the marriage did not lie in any prescribed religious rituals, much less in a government-issued certificate, but in the capacity of the man and woman (unmarried citizens not within proscribed degree of consanguinity) and consent of the parties, including relevant parents and guardians. Over the centuries Christians made their weddings more religious, but until fairly late (especially in Tuscany) they could take place at home without the participation of a priest.
The continuity from Greco-Roman to Christian marriage is not confined to external resemblances. The Christian insistence that the couple became one in the flesh has pagan parallels. In his “Advice to Bride and Groom,” Plutarch (more litterateur than philosopher) supplies some poetically expressed common sense. The couple is one flesh through their children: “For nature mixes us through our bodies, that take a part of each partner and blending them in common, she produces an offspring that is common to both, so that it is not possible to distinguish one’s own part from the spouse’s contribution.” Plutarch was an eclectic Platonist, but his down-to-earth appreciation of biological facts was shared by Lucretius the Epicurean and by Aristotle himself, who wrote of marriage as a biological union that is fully realized in the production of children.
Such a view would seem to militate against divorce (to say nothing of the scientific and logical absurdity of “gay marriage”). In fact, both Greeks and Romans had strongly discouraged divorce. We do not hear of such a thing in Homer or in the mythical tales of the old poets. At Athens, the Greek city about which we know the most, divorces must have been extremely uncommon. Apart from a handful of legal cases, there are few references. A man was supposed to repudiate an adulterous wife or an alien that had been fobbed off on him as a citizen, and the problem of divorce was considered in Athenian law, which stipulated that a wife seeking divorce had to denounce her husband in a public tribunal. This offered the husband an opportunity for him to persuade or, as in the case of Alcibiades, to coerce his wife to return.
The rarity of Athenian divorce is not surprising, since the most common cause—a wife’s adultery—could not have been an easy matter in a city where the chastity of women before and during marriage was rigorously supervised. When vigilance failed, the cuckold could take matters into his own hands and kill the adulterer. Besides, the marital union was an arrangement between families, sealed by a dowry that few husbands could afford to lose and cemented by a social and political alliance with the in-laws, one that was valuable if preserved and perilous if dissolved.
Since the Renaissance, Christians may have made a bit too much of the spiritual and sacramental aspects of a union whose basic reality is rather more earthy than ethereal. Postmoderns have even further etherealized marriage into an impossible dream of libidinous delight and emotional bliss. Couples now start out married life with a $50,000 debt, staged wedding photos taken not at church or at home but in a rented facility, and commercially implanted memories of a honeymoon week spent on a floating Vegas casino in the Caribbean. Small wonder they are so disenchanted by reality that they break up, quarreling over who will pay for the honeymoon.
For the ancients, marriage was a practical matter—an alliance of kindreds to ensure the passage of property and status to the next generation. For the classes unspoiled by luxury and indolence, marriage remained a serious business, even under the empire, when upper-class Romans could divorce at will. Such behavior was simply not relevant for the vast majority of citizens, and Roman divorce rates were overall probably lower than they are today among professing Christians, and even in the elite class the documentary evidence reveals that Roman husbands and wives expected to love each other in a committed and lifelong union.
For the most part, family-values conservatives, in their defense of marriage, have accomplished nothing—indeed, less than nothing, since all their efforts have only strengthened the hand of the national government by increasing the power of Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Sonia Sotomayor to regulate the institution. Only a Christian government ruling a Christian people could enforce Christian marriage law: Even Constantine and Theodosius, as powerful and religious as they were, did not dare to impose the fullness of Christian morality on their non-Christian and semi-Christian subjects. What in the world do conservatives hope to accomplish by appealing to the collective conscience of the Congress and the federal courts?
This problem was not created in the Clinton years or even in the 1960’s. The American people, viewed as a whole, began their retreat from Christian marriage not long after our Revolution, and the revolt against marriage was virtually complete before 1900, by which time divorces were granted on such frivolous grounds as the husband was a saloon keeper, or the wife was tired of hearing her husband quote Scriptures on the wife’s duty. In ignoring the biological and practical realities, in celebrating the perfect companionship of an ideal marriage, and in reducing marriage to a legal arrangement between individuals, conservatives and liberals alike have uprooted this sturdy institution and left it to shrivel, like a clump of flowers torn out of the ground and waiting vainly on the pavement to be transplanted.
We have turned our back on the ancient roots not just of marriage, but of our entire civilization. Boys no longer study Latin, much less Greek. The heroes and villains of our literary classics—Achilles and Odysseus, Aeneas and Ajax—have turned to stone. Our philosophers are mute. In rejecting the ancient classics, we have made it impossible to read Shakespeare or Milton, and in spurning Aristotle and Cicero, we make Adams and Jefferson unintelligible.
This culture of ours was woven in thousands of ways into the fabric of Christianity, which incorporated Vergil as a pagan prophet, beat the philosophers into theologians, and converted pagan temples into Christian churches. The greatest surviving architectural monuments of antiquity were preserved in this way—the Parthenon and “Theseum” in Athens, the Temple of Athena in Syracuse and the Temple of “Concord” in Agrigento, and, perhaps most stunningly, the Roman Pantheon, converted into the Church of Santa Maria ad Martyres in the early seventh century. It is still the most beautiful and harmonious building in Rome and the chapel of Italy’s royal family. It is also quite literally a concrete symbol of the enduring power and beauty of our classical inheritance.
In questions of marriage, education, and literature, the way back to sanity does not lie with legislation or the courts, but with young couples who are willing to bring their children up in the classical tradition and, by their example, teach them what marriage is, really and truly. And that is the practical nuts-and-bolts union of families and kinfolk practiced by ancient pagans and raised to the moral and spiritual plane by our Lord and His Apostles.