Marriage in its many forms

Marriage in its many forms

'Traditional' marriage has evolved over millennia, BRETT GOODIN writes

Given the attention currently devoted to questioning or defending the notion of ''traditional marriage'', it pays to consider this: throughout most of written history, ''traditional marriage'' has involved non-monogamous relationships in which fathers sold their daughters and wives were considered property. Viewed in a historical context, a ''non-traditional'' marriage would involve a ceremony between two individuals who chose each other, followed by a life of monogamy. Calling our contemporary idea of heterosexual marriage ''traditional'' is like calling blogging a traditional form of literature.

ACT Opposition Leader Zed Seselja cited his commitment to a ''traditional definition'' of marriage at a recent pre-election forum hosted by the Australian Christian Lobby. Seselja and others with a similar commitment may wish to know that what they consider a ''traditional definition'' is merely the latest adaptation for an institution that is more easily defined by its perpetual evolution than its static ''tradition''.

Traditional marriage has evolved over millennia.

Traditional marriage has evolved over millennia.Credit:Wolter Peeters

The practice of marriage is older than the Christian faith itself and has evolved to such an extent that its early incarnations would not be legally recognised in today's Western nations. In the late 1700s, non-monogamous marital practices were widespread across the globe, while in America, premarital pregnancy was as high as 40 per cent. In many cultures, and as recently as the late 1800s, marriage was signified by jumping over a broom. And same-sex marriage, it seems, is as old as the Roman Empire.

The fuzzy idea of traditional marriage may be the source of the current same-sex marriage debate, but it is not the cause. The cause of the debate lies in the centuries-long creeping legal role that the state has had in marriage, imbuing the institution with civil as well as religious significance.


To the state, marriage is tied up with immigration, citizenship, taxes, property, social security, family obligations, hospital and prison visitation rights. It is primarily these civil attributes of marriage that are being contested in various legislatures, courts and election booths.

The idea that marriage was exclusively the domain of the Church was on its way out in Britain by the mid-1700s. Both the state and the Church pushed to meld the civil and religious aspects of marriage. Before the dawn of the welfare state, it was local parishes that were stuck with the economic burden of caring for unwed mothers and the poor. To unburden the Church and lift standards of morality, judges (like historians' favourite magistrate William Hunt) forced men to marry and support the destitute women they were accused of impregnating.

Changes to marriage in the 20th century also targeted the civil branch of the institution. In 1967, interracial marriage was still outlawed in 16 states in the United States when a Supreme Court decision deemed interracial marriage a constitutional right. At the time, public opinion polls showed that only 20 per cent of Americans approved of interracial marriage. Compare that to contemporary polls that put support for same-sex marriage at more than 50 per cent.

By historical standards, the pace of public support for same-sex marriage has been rapid. Unlike interracial marriage this support has preceded its legal endorsement. By comparison, it was not until the mid-1990s, 30 years after the Supreme Court decision, that interracial marriage reached the level of public support in America that same-sex marriage currently enjoys.

The civil rights and same-sex marriage movements dovetailed earlier this year when America's most prominent civil rights group, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People endorsed same-sex marriage on the grounds that ''marriage equality is deeply rooted in the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and equal protection of all people''. Importantly, the NAACP stressed that this view refers to civil, not religious, marriage. The right to religious freedom means that any Church may refuse to perform religious ceremonies sanctifying same-sex unions. In the words of former NAACP official Maxim Thorne, ''For certain people, it was a very long evolution and a very long process of reconciling their faith with this, and coming to a very civil rights understanding of marriage equality versus a theological understanding of marriage.''

Supporting the integrity of a tradition is admirable. However, like the NAACP has reasoned, marriage is a ''living'' institution with a civil definition that has evolved alongside an also evolving religious definition. Given the myriad forms which marriage has embraced over the millennia, it should be no surprise when same-sex marriage is brought to a legal district near you.

Brett Goodin is a PhD candidate at the ANU's School of History.

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