Quodlibet: Of Gay and Plural Marriage

Does the irreversible trend toward legalizing same-sex marriage augur good tidings for proponents of polygamy, especially the reconstruction Mormons (Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints) and other groups who support the practice?

An article in the July 20 New York Times raises the question, and another by Joanna Brooks, who was raised a conservative Mormon, hints at how lively this discussion is going to be—or already is.

Or will the noise stop when the definition of marriage contained in the “Defense of Marriage Act,” which defines a legitimate marriage as a union of one man and one woman is repealed.

Until the twelfth century the Christian church was not very interested in marriage, and when it got interested in it it was mainly because there were financial implications for the Church.

Rome needed to ensure that estates and the financial holdings of lords and barons were legitimately passed on and that anything due to the church came to the church.  Some of these dues (called benefices) were paid to bishop-princes under the feudal regime, so it was to the Church’s advantage to have a trusted priest or bishop as the church’s official “witness” (the term still used in the Catholic protocol for matrimony) on the scene to seal the deal.

“Holy wedlock” was a church-approved contract; whatever else being a bastard meant, it meant primarily that the church did not recognize a boy as the rightful heir of his father’s property, money, or titles.

As for the common people, the Church took on marriage as a sacrament somewhat grudgingly after centuries of being happy to let the peasants do it the way they had done it for ages, on the ruins of the Roman empire: at home, in bed, with relatives drinking and cheering the couple on.

The glamification of marriage is a relatively modern affair.  Without the development of the “romantic theory” of matrimony, it’s hard to imagine anyone picketing for the right to take on the burden of a permanent opposite-sex relationship.

In Judaism and Christianity, and later in Islam, it had been primarily a contractual matter—easier to wriggle out of in Judaism and Islam than in Christianity because of some highly problematical words that were misappropriated to Jesus (Matt. 5:32 ; 19:9;  Luke 16:18; Mark 10:2-12) about divorce  in the Gospels.  Paul has no use for marriage, and the church fathers regarded it as a necessary evil for people who didn’t have the spiritual stamina for celibacy and virginity.  –If you were wondering about why the Catholic church has maintained its weird two-track system for ministers and ordinary folk, it goes back to the Church’s early contempt for the married state–a contempt that reaches exquisite spasms of intolerance in writers like Tertullian, the most hateful of all Christian writers, and  Augustine.

Wives should be veiled but not pregnant

True, marriage was popular among protestants from the 16th century onward, but it wasn’t a sacrament.  Luther defends it ( Estate of Marriage, 1522) as an “ordinance”—an arrangement—given by God for the production of families.  In fact, Luther’s famous treatise on the subject reminds the Church that for most of its history it regarded marriage as a second class ritual, useful for relieving aches, pains and passion and primarily good for populating the world with new Christians.  He also entertained three reasons for divorce: impotence, adultery, and refusal to fulfill conjugal duty.  In other words, whatever doesn’t lead “naturally” from sex to legitimate offspring.

Which brings me to the point.  A great deal of the same-sex marriage defense has been framed in romantic terms: Why should two people who love each other not be permitted the freedom to be together, sleep together, share lives and income and tragedies and life’s joys together?

The answer is (has to be in the modern, secular sense) No reason at all.  The state has no reason and probably no justification for impeding the pursuit of happiness. To arrive at this answer, however, the state is obliged to redefine marriage in strictly secular terms, and to reject most of the symbolism and above all the “properties” that have been part of the popular understanding of marriage, an understanding heavily tinctured by theological canons and legal thought.

What has been going on in the legislatures of New England, New York and elsewhere is as much a process of rethinking as insisting, but rethinking the definition in historical context needs to be done if we want to avoid the impression that being pro-same sex marriage is simply being iconoclastic towards the “institution” itself.  If something goes, does everything go?

The old, legalistic and Aristotelian thinking behind the “sacrament” of marriage dies hard.  So does its biblical sanction, or justification.   A lot of conservatives will point to the Adam and Eve story as  a tale of the first marriage.  That’s hogwash of course.  God does not marry them, he just “makes” them (in two very different tales) and they do the rest, according to command (Gen 1.28).

But “the rest” is probably what matters most in the biblical context: they have children, lots of children.  When God gets tired of their habits and floods the world, he starts out with a “good family”, Noah and company, whose proficiency at carpentry is only exceeded by a commitment to repopulating the devastated earth.

Noah’s Family: Time for multiplying

When the Hebrews first become aware of their minority status in a hostile environment, they looked to  a patriarch whose preoccupation is with having descendants—the story of Abraham and Sarah and Haggar and Sarah, again, is all about developing the critical mass of Hebrews needed to make God’s name strong among his enemies (Genesis 26.4ff). Increase is everything in threatened or endangered groups.  Ask any anthropologist.

The paradigms of reproductive success, however, are the kings: David with his wives and lovers, and Solomon with his international harem of 1000 women.  No self-respecting Jew aspired to such bounty, but (like Tevye) he could admire it.

Reverence for large families as a symbol of doing your duty for “the people of Israel” emerges as the primary justification for marriage.  It also explains why stories about barrenness and impotence feature so proiminently in Hebrew lore: what could be worse than a father who can’t do his bit for the tribe? What can be more humiliating (think Job) than losing your spawn?  What is more disgraceful than a barren woman, like (at least temporarily) Rebecca or Sarah? The fear of childlessness even sneaks into the New Testament in the pilfered story of Elizabeth (Luke 1.36), mother of John the Baptist.

It’s well known that religious minorities, especially tribal minorities, have always followed similar logic, though not always in clear cut ways.  If Jesus said anything about marriage it was probably forgotten in the eschatological fervor of the early community.  That’s why Paul make so little (or inconsistent) sense when he talks about it.

But by the time the second century rolls around, a man writing in Paul’s name, and against the “heresy” of radical anti-marriage sects like the gnostics and Marcionites, is teaching that”a woman is saved by childbearing” (1 Timothy 2.15). Marriage becomes important, in other words, because the church recognized that its future (almost tribally construed) depended on a stable supply of cradle Christians— something the more puritanitical and perfectionist bishops didn’t provide.  Interestingly, the non-celibate writer of 1 Timothy thinks bishops should be married–to one woman.

In every place where Christianity flourished centuries later, especially in colonial and missionary cultures, the ideal of a large family had everything to do with the “sanctity” of marriage: this was its primary definition. Love had nothing to do with it.

Which explains a great deal about Mormonism.  As an old “new religion,” Mormonism could draw on its own desert and exodus experiences: Ohio, Missouri, Illinois (where Joseph Smith was killed),  Utah.  The myth of a persecuted remnant drove them on; they created their own class of martyrs ( just like the ancient Hebrews and early Christians) and took care of keeping the numbers up through “plural marriages.”

Before it was finally repudiated in 1904, the practice was an “open secret” in the denomination. But there was nothing un-Biblical about it.  We have no idea whether all early Christians were monogamous and some reason to think some weren’t.  What we do know is that when monogamy has become a norm in religion—as in most parts of Islam–it is attached to financial rather than moral considerations.

What we also know is that from Genesis onward, and from the religious traditions that correspond with it, marriage is a fertility covenant. Adam does not love Eve, and we have no idea how Solomon felt about his 700 wives and 300 concubines—in fact, only one, Naamah the Ammonite is given a name. David gets Bathsheva pregnant after arranging her husband’s death, and receives as punishment not forty lashes but this: “Before your very eyes I the Lord will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight (2 Samuel 2.10ff.).


Personally, I think history tells us a lot about human nature but very little about how “institutions” and the definitions that describe them can be transformed.  I doubt there is any logical argument within the current thinking about same-sex marriage that entitles us to think that what’s good for gays is good for Mormons, or others who espouse plural marriage.

The rationale for plural marriage belongs to the sociology of the practice at a time when threatened minorities considered procreation a method of survival.  That rationale is no longer persuasive, no longer needed: religions that are losing members will end with a whimper and will almost certainly not be able to sustain themselves by reformulating their marriage codes.

Having said this, it is no accident that the religion that still extols marriage primarily as a fertility covenant (and has stressed this doctrine in its Gospel of Life theology) is also the one most viciously opposed to same-sex marriage.

The defense of gay marriage is something else: it reflects the development, over time, of love and emotional attachment as the primary criteria for the right [sic] of marriage and at least implicitly rules out fertility and procreation—the old biblical and ecclesiastic rationales—as defining properties or necessary ends.  That is where we are in history.

Michele Bachmann’s Antichrist Problem

You saw it, right?  Michele Bachmann, God’s little darling, quit her Church. Her gay-hating, anti-Jew, anti-Catholic, anti-Black, anti-choice, anti-science Church.

Those of you who thought that Southern Baptists and the Assembly of God had the monopoly on Weird Religion, think again.  America is multi-cultural, after all–like Bill Murray (as John Winger) reminds us in Stripes,

“We’re all very different people. We’re not Watusi. We’re not Spartans. We’re Americans, with a capital ‘A’, huh? You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse.”

If that doesn’t quite compute with what you thought the Pilgrim Fathers brought to these shores–all that beeswax about freedom of worship and conscience–then you didn’t deserve your B- in American history.  Come to think of it, you wouldn’t have learned this in American history because the schools actually don’t teach it.  Nobody (in America anyway) wants to think of America as Europe’s dumping ground for religious misfits and zealots.  It spoils all our stories about grandparents, forty acres and a mule and Ellis Island.  And it’s only when their crazy descendants surface in modern political debates that we’re reminded of what it means to be wretched refuse.

The fact is, most of multidenominational America was monocultural at the start.  America was a big enough country to make room for Dunkards and Mennonites and Amish farmers, apple-butter-making, wine tippling German Benedictines in Missouri and tight-lipped Presbyterians in North Carolina.  No one in 1850 would have been surprised at the repetitious ethnicity of the surnames on church rolls.  Just like no one cared much about what the pols were doing in Washington as long as it didn’t reach into the hills of Tennessee or the woods of Maine. Churches weren’t melting pots or even pots to melt thinks in: they were mechanisms for preserving ethnic difference, family custom, ancestral languages, inherited prejudices. –Special ways of loving the God who died on the cross for your sins and invented the shotgun so’s you could protect your special interpretation of what that meant and sing the songs your grandpa sang.

A midwestern Benedictine of Conception Abbey

Their apartheid from each other was taken for granted. Their separateness from the federal government, on the other hand, had to be guaranteed by Constitutional authority, spelled out by a generation of pretty smart men whose influence did not last much into the following century except on the coinage.  Mark Twain’s famous experiment  in ecumenism says it all.

Which brings me to the latest example of cultural atavism: Michele Marie Bachmann, née Amble, of Iowa-Norwegian-Lutheran stock.  (Where did you think those cute, semi-round vowels and troubled, vacant blue eyes come from?).

The stock went down when it was reported that the particular branch of Lutheranism that MB and her Christian counselor-husband Marcus belonged to, the Wisconsin Evangelical Synod of the Lutheran Church, was a sect caught in a time-warp of seventeenth century religious polemic.  Rumour has it that German sociologists were convinced that the last traces of their kind were wiped out in the Thirty Years War, which ended in 1648.  But no, they survived and swam all the way to Stillwater, Minnesota to form the  Salem Lutheran Church, a retail outlet of the Wisconsin Synod consisting of 800 smiling, toothy, salvation-confident members.

In the main, they believe in all the things other Lutherans believed four hundred years ago before there was a United States, or a Charles Darwin or a Hubble Telescope. Among these things they believe that Christians should be “obedient” to governing authorities–not because the Constitution recommends it, but because the Bible says so:

“We believe that not only the church but also the state, that is, all governmental authority, has been instituted by God. “The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1). Christians will, therefore, for conscience’s sake obey the government that rules over them (Romans 13:5) unless that government commands them to disobey God (Acts 5:29).”  Being a good citizen is a concession to the state, which insofar as it has any right to govern at all gets it from God.  This puts the citizen in the stressful condition of always needing to remind the state of its obligation to the Church, which is, of course, not something the First Amendment talks about.

Importantly, Luther was able to side with the divinely appointed authorities against the zealous, protestant German peasants because Luther thought the state represented God, just like Michele Bachmann thinks the Republican Party does today.

Luther also believed the Pope was the antichrist.  So does Michele Bachmann’s minister, er–ex-minister–and so does her Church.  Luther wore the plain brown robe of an Augustinian monk.  The pope got to dress up, drink better wine, and create new doctrines and sacraments.  In historical context, the contempt between Luther and the papacy was personal (the pope called him a goring German boar, though it sounds better in Latin), so a little hyperbole can be forgiven.  But something tells me that the use of the phrase in the Salem Lutheran Church doesn’t bother to mention this.  And even Lutheran theologians who aren’t Salemites end up spewing gibberish when they try to explain:

“Luther’s point was, that in his view, the pope was so obstructing the gospel of God’s free love in Jesus, even though he wore all the trappings of a leader in the church…He was functioning as the New Testament describes … the Antichrist.” (Valparaiso religion professor George Heider).  All clear?  Benedict XVI is not the antichrist.  He just plays one on TV.

America has been blessed with a rich array of religious craziness, so why pick on this sect, numbering about 420,000 adherents nation-wide, with over 60,000 of those located in Bachmann’s homestate of Minnesota. After all, they can’t be as bad at the homophobic Westboro Baptist Church or the Dove World Outreach Center, storefront for the antics of the reverend Terry Jones.

At the risk of misstating the obvious, it’s because neither of those groups or their simian cousins has yet produced a viable presidential candidate.  One by the way who was permitted to slither away from her cultural-religious home and into a more mainsteam evangelical church (Eagle Brook Church) in Stillwater, one than openly opposes lynching.

Her erstwhile pastor “accepted” her resignation on June 27, 2011–within arm’s length of her announcement of wanting to be the next commander-in-chief of God’s armies.  The resignation is characterized by that free exercise of conscience and aspiration to go where God leads that typifies Ms. Bachmann’s commitment to the creation of a Christian republic.

I’m not sure I agree with Christopher Hitchens that religion poisons everything.  But it does make things rancid.  In fact, I’m not really interested in what Wisconsin Synod Lutherans believe because we have a document that protects us from it.

But a lot of what they believe is incarnate in Michele Bachmann: her positions on global warming (hoax, because not mentioned as a sign of the apocalypse in Mark 13); health care (interference with God’s schedule); same sex marriage (you’ve got to be kidding); abortion (your comment here), and the Constitution (the writ of Christian men, like John Quincy Adams [sic] not to be distinguished from the Pilgrims of Plymouth colony in their aspirations).  Bachmann’s entire social policy and cultural framework has been shaped by the Synod she’s just left behind.

What is even more repugnant however is that Bachmann calculated her move fairly skilfully, so as to preclude it being an issue in a political contest.  She knows that Minnesota is not all Lutherans.  Those wine-making German monks occupied land not otherwise reserved for protesant dairy cows–and Catholic faithful are a powerful electoral force.   Stillwater is a skip away from St Paul, the Catholic twin of Minneapolis, where every Sunday a priest will hold forth from the magnificently rennovated pulpit of the cathedral with a sermon about protecting unborn life being the first duty of a Christian.  Catholic politicians who vote otherwise and against the wisdom of Holy Mother Church?  Screw ’em, and don’t use a condom.

Michele Bachmann knows that she is toast within her own state without the Catholic vote, or more exactly that insofar as there is a Catholic vote any more it is an anti-abortion vote, an anti-gay vote–a “family values” vote.  That’s why when pressed at a forum about the pope being antichrist, Bachmann said passionately and completely mistakenly,

“Well that’s a false statement that was made, and I spoke with my pastor earlier today about that as well, and he was absolutely appalled that someone would put that out. It’s abhorrent, it’s religious bigotry. I love Catholics, I’m a Christian, and my church does not believe that the Pope is the Anti-Christ, that’s absolutely false.”

Much as Ms Bachmann’s bigotry flickers beneath this denial, it’s nothing compared to the Catholic traducers who are trying to rescue her for the cause.

In a recent statement on Bachmann’s religious views, The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights  said “It’s regrettable that there are still strains of anti-Catholicism in some Protestant circles… But we find no evidence of any bigotry on the part of Rep. Michele Bachmann. Indeed, she has condemned anti-Catholicism. Just as President Barack Obama is not responsible for the views of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Rep. Bachmann must be judged on the basis of her own record.”

Jeremiah Wright

The same Church that threw Ted Kennedy to the wolves and vowed to keep John Kerry from receiving communion in the Boston archdiocese has made Michele Bachmann an honorary Catholic.  And why?  Because she has become a champion for the moral and cultural backwardness that Catholic orthodoxy has come to symbolize.

But that’s not the most noxious part of the Catholic League’s endorsement. They want us to see a moral equivalence between the Jeremiah Wright crisis of 2008 and Bachmann’s potential religious liabilities in 2012.

There’s a problem with this “equivalence,” of course.  It’s that Barack Obama didn’t believe most of the things, at least most of the angriest things, Jeremiah Wright spouted in his sermons, and everyone knew it.     Michele Bachmann believes almost everything her church teaches about the Bible, sex, sexuality, evolution, creation, government–you name it.

In fact, she probably believes it more strongly and is in a position to do more about it than any pastor or member of her denomination.  The ancient virus of a regressive American protestantism flows in her blood and influences every part of her social agenda.

She can’t resign from that.