Far from being a religious relic, marriage has enduring value

History shows that monogamous unions have stood the test of time, while polygamy has resulted in harm to women, children and society

By Daphne Bramham

Vancouver Sun

January 12, 2011

The common wisdom is that marriage is in decline, out of fashion and a religious relic in these secular, post-Christian times in the West.

None of that is true.

In Canada, marriage remains more popular than common-law relationships, according to the 2006 census. U.S.-based Pew Research Center reported in November that 67 per cent of people surveyed believe the institution will survive.

Counter-intuitively, the value of this enduring institution was highlighted by the fierce desire of homosexual couples to access it.

As for marriage being a religious relic, it’s not.

Its known genesis as a union of man and woman dates back 2,500 years to Greek and Roman times, according to John L. Witte, Jr., director of Emory University’s Center for Law and Religion and a specialist in legal history, marriage and family law.

As early as the 5th century BC, philosophers wrote about the necessity and also the virtue of a structure that would not only foster mutual love and support for the couple and their offspring, but would ensure the family name and property would be passed on to legitimate children.

Aristotle’s insights on monogamous marriage are “foundational to western tradition,” says Witte. He says Aristotle (384 -322 BC) described it as a “natural institution for most men and women … at once ‘useful,’ ‘pleasant,’ and ‘moral’ for their lives and that it serves for the fulfilment, happiness and lasting friendship of husband and wife and their children.”

In other eras, that notion of friendship and mutuality has been expressed as romantic love or “finding a soulmate”; the Bible talks about Adam only becoming complete after God creates Eve.

Even before the common era began with the birth of Christ, Roman law formalized monogamous marriage as “the union of a man and a woman, a partnership for life.” It was the only state-sanctioned sexual relationship and the only one that produced “legitimate children.”

In 258 AD, Rome outlawed polygamy, grouping it with incest and adultery, all of which were described as abominable, wicked, unnatural and execrable sexual offences that went against nature, God and the state.

By the 9th century, polygamy was a crime punishable by death and remained so in many western countries until the 19th century.

“For nearly two millennia … the West has declared polygamy to be a crime and has had little patience with occasional technological or legal arguments raised in its defence,” Witte wrote in an affidavit prepared for the attorney-general of Canada for use in the constitutional reference case to determine the validity of Canada’s polygamy law.

Over that same period, monogamous marriages that are dyadic (which means between two people) have remained the preferred status, weathering the storms of wars, revolutions, new religious teachings, religious schisms and secularism.

The reasons for monogamous, dyadic marriages survival have varied from Aristotle’s notion that it is “natural” to religious leaders’ contention that it echoes Jesus’s connection to his church to the utilitarian view that it works best for individuals and society.

Why the consensus? Human nature, says Witte, who has published 12 books related to marriage and the law.

Unlike other animals’ babies, human children are fragile, vulnerable and dependent for many years. To survive, they need protection.

And while much has been made over the centuries about “maternal instinct,” almost equal amounts have been written about men’s wandering nature.

Witte notes a recent study that found that 89 of 90 men walked past a vulnerable child on the street and Thomas Aquinas’s comments that male bonding with children is only assured if that child is perceived as “an extension of his being.”

Monogamous marriage assures that certainty as does polygamy.

However, unvaried from Roman times to the testimony in the current constitutional reference case that’s being heard in B.C. Supreme Court is the long list of polygamy’s consequent harms to women, children, men and society.

It’s worth noting — as Witte did — that exemplified even within the polygamous households of the biblical patriarchs, from whom fundamentalist Mormons take their cues, are some of the worst and most tragic consequences of murders, slavery and even civil war.

And it’s also worth repeating what Witte said during his cross-examination when asked whether there’s anything wrong with three consenting adults having a conjugal relationship.

No, was his answer. Not all polygamous marriages exhibit harms, even though most do.

But what he might have added is that the converse is true with monogamous, dyadic marriages.

Even in these worst of times, the majority of monogamous, dyadic marriages provide the “goods” that have been ascribed to them for the past 2,500 years.




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