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Marriage: Defined by the State or Religion?

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By Rebecca Koerselman

Almost everyone in American culture has been hearing and reading about marriage and its meanings in recent weeks.

Marriage is constantly changing. Marriage has changed and evolved over time just like any other social and religious institution. Although many cite the women’s movement or the push for gay rights as the beginning of the end of traditional marriage, are we really supposed to believe that marriage remained exactly the same for 2000+ years, only to take a sharp and sudden turn 50 years ago? Or 10 years ago?

For me, this is the real question: Does the recent Supreme Court ruling change the religious definition of marriage? Or does it change the state’s definition of marriage?

Recently I re-read historian George Chauncey’s chapter “How Marriage Changed,” from his book, Why Marriage? The History Shaping Today’s Debate over Gay Equality. His analysis helps to illuminate the differences between marriage as a contract under the state and marriage as a religious covenant under God (a distinction which is often missing in discussions of marriage and its meanings). Chauncey contends there are four key changes to marriage since the 19th century:

1. The ability to choose your marital partner has become a civil right. In the colonial era, Americans became quite interested in the idea of a contract involving two consenting parties. For most, this meant “consent of the governed” and thus chucking British rule. But Americans also connected the idea to marriage. Marriage should consist of a consensual contract between two parties. The rub, especially into the 19th century, was who had the right to marry? Slaves did not exist under the law, except as property. Thus slaves could not marry under the law. They could have a religious ceremony and be married in the eyes of God, but they had no standing to make contracts due to their obligations to their master. Many abolitionists denounced slavery’s degradation of marriage as one of its most significant moral failings. After the end of slavery, states banned interracial marriage—not just between whites and African Americans, but also Asian and American Indian marriages with whites. The tide began to turn against race-based marriage bans when Nazi laws forbidding Jews from marrying non-Jews became discredited. The 1948 General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that outlined the “right to marry” as a fundamental human right, not to be impinged upon by the state. The gradual repeal of laws outlawing interracial marriage in the US followed. Thus, while a religious group might object to interracial or interreligious marriages, the state does not.

2. Marriage Became More Gender-Neutral and Egalitarian. Two hundred years ago, a woman’s consent to marriage was the last time she consented to a legal agreement. The patriarchal system of coverture meant that a woman’s property became her husband’s. She could not sue or enter into a contract, and owed her husband labor, companionship, and obedience. In return, he had to provide for her. In other words, marriage institutionalized gender inequality. In the 19th century, women’s right activists argued legal coverture to be akin to slavery and worked to change laws to allow married women to keep their own property, sue, make legal contracts, etc. Gradually these limitations and legal differences between women and men under the law disappeared, even if ideas about the proper roles of men and women in marriage or in society have been slower to change. Inequalities between men and women still exist, but they are not mandated by law (most of the time, anyway).

3. Marriage as the center for allocation of state and private benefits. The United States, unlike most other industrialized countries, made access to health-care and old-age pensions contingent on employment or marriage. Other industrialized countries provide health care and social security as a right of citizenship. This is one of the key reasons why the debate over marriage equality has been particularly potent in the US. Beginning with veteran’s pensions and mother’s pensions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the US social insurance system was based on a male-headed household with a male breadwinner and female homemaker. For example, veteran pensions are available only to spouses. Legislation in 1948 introduced “joint returns” for married couples, allowing “normal” couples to pool income for tax purposes. Thus marriage provides monetary benefits to which non-married people do not have access. In addition, the use of marriage to determine eligibility for state and private benefits demonstrates the way that marriage provides state benefits to citizens, not just religious benefits.

4. The gradual decline of religious authority over marriage. Chauncey notes that much opposition of same sex marriage claims that marriage was originally a religious matter, a sacrament of the church, and so religion should continue to govern marriage. In ancient Rome, marriage happened when men and women regarded each other as husband and wife. They could end marriage through separation or desertion. The early Christians believed marriage should not be so easily dissolvable, but had a difficult time convincing the state that marriage was anything but personal and secular matter. After centuries of debate over the character of marriage, it wasn’t until the 16th century that the Catholic Church required a public ceremony and the presence of a priest for a marriage to be valid. Secular and religious authorities fought long and hard for the control of marriage and thus control over everyday life. Then, it was Martin Luther and the Protestants that insisted marriage was a civil contract, not a sacrament. This raises interesting questions. When are you married? When the legal paperwork is completed and submitted? Or when a member of the clergy announces it? Which matters more?

Historically, churches have disagreed about the sacramental character of marriage. Some religious groups encourage clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings. Some are allowed to choose whether or not to officiate, and other denominations forbid clergy from officiating same-sex marriage ceremonies. In a similar vein, religious groups have had varied approaches to marriages between people of “different” (such as Catholic and Protestant) religious faiths. There is no official Christian consensus when it comes to marriage.

As the debate continues and the political wrangling leading up the presidential election of 2016 heats up, I would appreciate a civil discourse about marriage—especially by those who call themselves Christians. This includes some understanding of how marriage has changed over time. It also includes some understanding of the difference between marriage as a contract under the state and marriage as a religious covenant under God.

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

5 Comments

  • Rebecca, thanks for addressing these important questions.

  • […] First, my colleague Rebecca Koerselman, a professor of American historian at Northwestern College, notes some of the changes in marriage in the U.S. in last few centuries, and points to the tension between marriage as a religious covenant and marriage as a civil contract: Marriage: Defined by the State or by Religion? […]

  • Kim Van Es says:

    Thank you for this reminder that “traditional marriage” is a vague term and not necessarily desirable.

  • Karl Van Harn says:

    Thanks, Rebecca, for summing up some of the history that has shaped the debate in the US regarding same-sex marriage and marriage itself. We now have two definitions of marriage in the US. I like your focus on the difference between a religious definition of marriage and a state definition of marriage, and the distinction between a covenant and legal contract seems to be one difference, although Christians seem to enjoy the legal contract benefits as well as the covenant commitment. Thanks, too, for inviting a civil discussion on this question.

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