Marriage? What’s That?

Any semblance of what marriage once was disappeared long ago, and the Supreme Court’s judgement has only rubber stamped what is already a reality.

Last week’s decision by the Supreme Court that same sex marriage should be legal in all fifty states says far more about contemporary American culture than it does about the particular issue of homosexuality. Obergefell v. Hodges is an acknowledgement that the American understanding of marriage has been radically transformed.

To get the big picture we should stop, look and listen for a moment. Fifty years ago virtually every American would have had the same understanding of what constituted marriage. In 1965, whether people were church-going Christians or not, almost no one questioned certain beliefs about marriage:

1. Marriage was between one man and one woman
2. Marriage was a lifetime, exclusive commitment
3. It was a scandal for the bride and groom to live together before marriage 
4. Pre-marital sex was wrong and virginity was valued
5. Even within marriage, artificial contraception was prohibited, or at least shameful. Intentional sterilization was unimaginable
6. Children were to be expected and welcomed joyfully
7. Divorce was a scandal and re-marriage after divorce was worse
8. Inter-racial and inter-faith marriage was frowned on
9. Marriage was part of religion and religion was part of marriage
10. A wedding was a solemn and joyful religious ceremony

Then along came the invention of the birth control pill. We think of the “sexual revolution” as free love, hippies and happy promiscuity, but we can now see that the sexual revolution was more fundamentally earth shattering than we could have imagined. The invention of easily available and effective contraception and abortion meant sex without babies. Complemented by the tools of artificial conception—in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination and surrogacy—we could, for the first time, turn the baby machine on and off at will. The sexual act was therefore separated from procreation, and to put it bluntly, sex became a very pleasurable past time, and at most a way to deepen a romantic and erotic attraction.

While artificial contraception and artificial conception became widespread other social changes took place. Since women no longer had to be “barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen” they jumped on the feminist bandwagon, accelerating the socio-economic aspects of the sexual revolution. Increased mobility brought about the breakdown of the extended ethnic family. Folks who were local now moved across the country and across the world. They married outside the clan. A new wave of immigrants brought new cultures and new religions to the United States. Once there were Protestants, Catholics and Jews. Now there were Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and the religious scene was livened up with a new wave of Protestant sects, New Age cults and a hodge podge of do it yourself religions. America became multi-cultural and multi-religious. Multi-culturalism made relativism seem right. “How could one religion claim to be more true than another?”

Then there were the philosophical rumblings. Modernism in the church de-mythologized the supernatural. Priests and nuns became social workers and political activists. Mainstream Protestantism and Kennedy Catholicism swapped supernatural realities for natural practicalities. Christianity became a religion of civil rights campaigning, tolerance and being nice to everyone. Universalism and semi-universalism preached that everyone was going to be saved because God was so kind and merciful. Consequently the concept of sin evaporated. If God forgave everything without asking, it became obvious that nothing was so terribly wrong as to need forgiving in the first place. “Sin? Fuhgeddaboudit.”

The one sin which disappeared most quickly and efficiently was sexual sin. If you disapproved of sex outside marriage you were a puritanical prude. If you disapproved of divorce you were judgmental and harsh. If you disapproved of re-marriage after divorce you lacked compassion and were not sufficiently understanding. If you found gay sex yucky you were told how nice and funny the boys were.

Suddenly it was a sexual free for all, and as long as two adults were consenting “who were we to judge?”

I say all that to say this: for many complicated reasons, in the last fifty years our idea of marriage has been radically overhauled and nobody seems to be aware of what has really happened. Marriage (and weddings) today have only a vestigial and symbolic connection with the understanding of marriage fifty years ago. Yes, brides still want a white dress. Do you remember when the white dress symbolized her virginity? Yes, the bride still wants a big wedding in a beautiful church, but do you remember when that was because she understood and believed that marriage was a sacrament? Yes, the happy couple say, “In sickness and in health, for better or for worse…till death do us part.” But if the going gets tough there is always the quickie divorce. Yes, the bride and her mother want a minister of some sort but Uncle Fred who has bought his ordination certificate online will do nicely. Yes, a church would be nice, but the beach, the mountain resort, the hot air balloon or the Las Vegas wedding chapel with an Elvis lookalike as pastor are also amusing and why not?

Any semblance of what marriage once was disappeared long ago, and the Supreme Court’s judgement has only rubber stamped what is already a reality. I wonder therefore why so many conservative Americans have got themselves so worked up by the decision. Perhaps it is because they’re not parish priests and therefore don’t have to devise marriage policies for their church, counsel sexually confused young couples, help pick up the pieces after a nasty divorce, struggle alongside people who experience same sex attraction or are dealing with a broken home, single loneliness and the modern marriage mess.

Commentators blame the Supreme Court justices for “redefining marriage”, but we began to redefine marriage fifty years ago when we accepted artificial contraception, when we gave the nod to no-fault divorce, when we shrugged our shoulders and went to the second and third marriages of our friends, when we encouraged our children and grandchildren to live together before marriage in order to “try it out.” We redefined marriage when we voted for pro abortion politicians or got sterilized, overlooked our kids’ promiscuity, endorsed homosexuality and gave our kids condoms and a wink on prom night. Whether one likes it or not, it was not the Supreme Court justices who redefined marriage. It was us. 

Where should we go from here? I don’t think Obergefell vs Hodges is the end of the world. It is simply the end of marriage as it has been understood by the vast majority of human beings in all cultures at all places and in all ages. It is not really a redefinition of marriage it is the non-definition of marriage. We’re the ones who destroyed the old definition of marriage because we didn’t bother to live it, love it and defend it.

On a societal level that model of marriage is now defunct, and because of this, I believe our state legislators should get real and produce new legislation for a new age. They should discard all language about “marriage” and instead simply register legal partnerships. This solution would give freedom to all and guarantee freedom of religion at the same time.

The solution is simple: If Randy and Andy want to get hitched they go to the judge or justice of the peace and present some minimal paperwork— a valid ID to prove they are not an illegal immigrant trying to find a way to stay here, a birth certificate to prove they are not underage and (if applicable) any previous marriage licenses and divorce papers. They register their partnership and then they can tootle off and have whatever sort of ceremony they desire. If they want a Christian ceremony they can go to any number of Protestant churches. If they want Aunt Patty to marry them on a mountaintop on horseback dressed as cowboys with their own made-up vows—let them do it the ride off into the sunset.

Likewise if Catholic John Paul and Maria want to marry they also go to the civil authority, register their partnership and then head off to church for a beautiful, sacred nuptial mass.

I am quite happy for legal eagles to either refine my suggestion or tear it to smithereens, but it seems to me to be a simple solution which would recognize the multifarious understanding of marriage in our society today, grant everyone the freedom to make a union according to their own understanding, while allowing religious people of all faiths to practice and perpetuate their own beliefs with full freedom.

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About Fr. Dwight Longenecker 5 Articles
Fr Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He is the author of several books, including More Christianity: Finding the Fullness of the Faith and The Mystery of the Magi. Read Fr Longenecker's blog, listen to his podcasts, and browse his books at