New forms of marriage
And indeed, talk of "the end of marriage as we know it" disappeared for a generation. Now it's back, driven less by starry visionaries than by ugly statistics.
You know the drill: the roughly 50% divorce rate, the high rates of cheating and infidelity (depending on which surveys you trust), and see my last post about the news that 40% of American babies are now born to unwed mothers. This is very bad news for many of those babies (yes, I'm conservative about some things. So kick me.)
But the collapse of one social structure always drives the invention of new ones. Some of those 40% of babies will grow up in stable, happy un-marriages. Gay parents have always had to live this way, and of course much of the current attention to the role of marriage in society is driven by the gay-marriage debate.
One gay-marriage solution now getting a lot of notice is for the state to quit the marriage business and let churches do it however they want for their own members. As in France, you'd sign a civil contract at City Hall that makes you spouses under the law. Then, if you want, you could have a church wedding under the rules of the church of your choice. No church would have veto power over nonmembers' marriages.
See the argument for this idea by Stephanie Coontz, "Taking Marriage Private" (New York Times, Nov. 26, 2007). Coontz is author of the excellent books Marriage: a History and The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. Also see San Francisco attorney Colin P. A. Jones's article, "Marriage proposal: Why not privatize?" (San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 22, 2006).
The prospect of legalizing group marriage hovers in the background of these discussions, as conservatives point out with horrified glee. But as I've discussed, the legal frameworks for group marriage would have to be very complicated and worked up almost from scratch unlike same-sex marriage, which maps right onto existing marriage law. I suspect it will take generations for a good body of law to evolve to accomodate polyfamilies' needs. But already this future is getting noticed.
On The Colbert Report last Thursday, for instance, Steve Colbert brought on the Catholic legal scholar Douglas Kmiec. Kmiec argues for the state to stop trying to define marriage to exclude gays. In the Catholic Church, he noted, marriage is a sacrament, and
you don't go to the state to get baptized, you don't go to the state to get confirmed.... There's a role for every church to decide the terms on which marriage will be defined in their own tradition... [but] the state has an obligation to treat all of its citizens equally and to observe the principle of equality.
Later in the interview, Colbert challenged him about allowing relationship contracts among three people. Kmiec refered to "these kinds of arrangements" as if everyone knows they exist:
Colbert: If you're just establishing a contract between two people, what's to say the state can't establish a contract between three people?... Would you agree you could make a contract between three people to share property, and have visitation rights in hospitals?
Kmiek: Well you can share a contract among three people, you can share it among a large number of people, but the state has drawn a distinction between two people and a larger number for a very good reason, because these other arrangements have side effects, external effects, where [joking] a "storm" would come and we would have to worry about it.
Watch the segment (6 minutes).
Meanwhile, a petition for legal poly marriage has started in the Netherlands. Dutch poly activist Ageeth Veenemans writes to us:
There’s a wonderful new initiative in the Netherlands. The Columbian artist Francisco Camacho started a petition to collect signatures to allow group marriage. By the end of September 2009, the petition has to bring in 40,000 signatures [to put the topic on the agenda of Parliament]. The German TV news program ’Heute in Europa’ (ZDF) paid attention to this Dutch polygamists' Initiative.
Watch the TV report (German spoken).
Read the press release about the petition (Dutch and English).
Here's more discussion in the Netherlands (on a spirituality website): "Polyamory: Evolution or Decadence?", in Dutch and English. (The article's conclusion: "Time will tell.") See also the many recent poly-related news stories in Europe cited at www.polyamorie.nl.
Lastly, Christians often say they believe in sticking with marriage as defined in the Bible. No they don't. For the Bible to define what marriage should look like, our laws should be amended as follows, comments gladkov on the liberal political blog DailyKos (Dec. 10, 2008):
A. Marriage in the United States shall consist of a union between one man and one or more women. (Genesis 29:17-28, II Samuel 3:2-5)
B. Marriage shall not impede a man's right to take concubines in addition to his wife or wives. (II Samuel 5:13, I Kings 11:3, II Chronicles 11:21)
C. A marriage shall be considered valid only if the wife is a virgin. If the wife is not a virgin, she shall be executed. (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)
D. Marriage of a believer and a non-believer shall be forbidden. (Genesis 24:3; Numbers 25:1-9, Ezra 9:12, Nehemiah 10:30)
E. Since marriage is for life, neither this Constitution nor the constitution of any State, nor any state or federal law, shall be construed to permit divorce. (Deuteronomy 22:19, Mark 10:9)
F. If a married man dies without children, his brother shall marry the widow. If he refuses to marry his brother's widow or deliberately does not give her children, he shall pay a fine of one shoe and be otherwise punished in a manner to be determined by law. (Genesis 38:6-10, Deuteronomy 25:5-10)
G. In lieu of marriage, if there are no acceptable men in your town, it is required that you get your father drunk and have intercourse with him (even if he had previously offered you for sex to men young and old), tag-teaming with any sisters you may have. This rule applies only if you are female. (Genesis 19:31-36)
For reference: here is a much more thorough, scholarly, non-snarky list and analysis of the types of Biblical marriage. It says basically the same things.