Tuesday, April 14, 2015

All Together

Yesterday evening, I spent some time on the Internet reading about divorce. "Christian" attitudes on divorce, to be specific. I place "Christian" in quotes because Christians are not a single, monolithic group - Roman Catholicism is different from Easter Orthodoxy is different from Southern Baptist is different from Seventh-Day Adventist et cetera, et cetera. And just as the dizzying number of Christian denominations in the United States have different liturgies, congregational structures and the like, they also have different understandings of their god, and, accordingly, different dogmas. And so there are different understandings of the appropriateness of divorce.

Over at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, ever the optimistic bridge-builder between conservative and liberal elements of American society, made the point that conservatives should be happy with the way that the current debate over marriage equality is shaping up. Even if conservatives are unhappy that the liberal wing of American culture is pushing for same-sex couples to have access to the institution of marriage, Friedersdorf feels that the very fact that "marriage equality" means "marriage for all couples" rather than "civil unions for all" represents a victory. He reasons:

[The glass-half-full traditionalist] might reflect on the fact that attacks on "traditional marriage" date back to Plato; that there were 19th Century feminists who'd have loved to abolish the institution; that a long line of socialists has sought to undermine it; that the Free Love movement and other parts of 1960s counterculture saw no need for anyone to marry; and that gay-rights radicals of the 1990s had no use for marriage either. And recalling all that, they might imagine the many trajectories under which secularists would've abandoned marriage entirely by now.
Had that happened, it would be harder for the traditionalists who stuck with marriage to live out their vocation in a society organized around different arrangements.
This makes sense. But I think that it's also beside the point.

Which takes me back to ideas about divorce. Friedersdorf makes the point that "heterosexuals long ago changed the meaning of marriage to encompass (for example) a thrice-married, post-vasectomy male and a post-menopausal female joining together in a union that excludes, via prenuptial agreement, most of their assets." Or, to borrow a line from a Southern Baptist perspective that I came across yesterday: "Then, a (not so) funny thing happened.  Divorce swept through our nation and churches were filled with people who had been divorced.  As so often happens, the doctrines and convictions of the church conveniently changed to reflect the new culture of divorce."

While it's a convenient narrative, I'm not all that convinced of it's accuracy. Of course, I'm not a scholar on the practice of religion in the United States, and this prevents me from speaking to the issue with any real authority. But while it makes sense that churches, being made up of individuals, would reflect the opinions of their members (and thus would change over time as their membership changed) it also explains why there is such a wide range of difference between various churches in their attitudes concerning marriage and divorce. It wouldn't surprise me to find that is holding the line against the imagined "secular culture" of homosexual people and their various allies, there isn't an attempt to forge a common Christian identity. Evangelicals may consider even conservative Roman Catholics to be Christians in name only, but a shared stand against an understanding of marriage as something that exclusively serves the interests of the adults in question allows them to be allies in adversity.

Take away the various civil legal benefits that accrue to married couples, and what you're left with is mainly symbolism. It's fairly important symbolism, which is why so many people want it, but it's symbolism nevertheless. The fact that it's possible to become married in less time than it takes to eat a casual restaurant meal does a fairly good job of demonstrating that. But I suspect that it will never be a symbol of a singular "Christian" United States.

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