Dumb And DOMA

Gaz Morris
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On Wednesday 26th June 2013, the US Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) was dealt a finishing blow by the Supreme Court when its third section, defining marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife”, was declared unconstitutional. In layman terms, this means that the US Supreme Court found that the act was in direct contradiction with the principles and values enshrined within the American Constitution. Quite what took them so long, however, is beyond me – the declaration of independence, which presaged the constitution itself, says in no uncertain terms, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (emphasis is my own).

Although I have massively simplified the arguments surrounding the issue which have been circulating since 1996 and the bill’s adoption in Congress,  and despite the fact that American political pundits will now be passing out the pitchforks and torches at my constitutional clichés, I shall continue. Ultimately, I consider the bottom line here to be the problems with literal interpretations of antiquated documents.

The US constitution dates from 1787 (that’s 226 years ago for any non-rainman readers) and sets out various bits and bobs that were considered when founding the country. I can only presume that the difficulty of wielding a quill, an exorbitant price of paper and something of a sense of urgency prevented the founding fathers from listing every single nuance of legislation as they had to update it two years later with the Bill of Rights. And herein, dear reader, lies the problem: the Constitution of the United States is not exhaustive and does not plan for every eventuality that would arise over the next two centuries of its nation’s history.

Accordingly, one cannot read for explicit wording on every point but must take the generalist assumption of a liberal and secular approach by the founding fathers given by the text that we have. My point? To say that ‘gay marriage is not in the constitution’ is about as ludicrous as saying ‘owning cats is not in the constitution’, with the primary difference between the two being that only one of these elements is down to an individual’s choice. If the ‘murcans must insist on being bound by a two-hundred-and-some-year-old document then they have to be prepared to look at the spirit in which it was written and not the words used or else boatloads of other problems will emerge in the coming years and decades (such as gun control, though that’s a different kettle of fish).

Fortunately for the proponents of same sex marriage in the UK, no codified document of law stands in the way of equal rights – right? Enter: the Bible.

Before I proceed, I must get one thing straight – I like the Bible. It’s a wonderful story and makes for some excellent bedtime reading. However, so does The Da Vinci Code. (Incidentally, both books are on my ‘fiction’ shelf at home.) Mercifully, no one has yet seen fit to base a system of laws around Dan Brown’s writing (though this may only be a matter of time, admittedly) or else the legislature would revolve around an aging professor that spouts faintly-plausible sounding gibberish. Like Dan Brown’s assorted waffling, though, the Bible is fairly long with some bits making more sense than others. No wonder, then, that people turn to the Good Book for solace and guidance as there’s undoubtedly something in there, dressed up in enough liturgical sesquipedalianism, which either confirms or denies (and probably both) pretty much any given point.

I don’t wish to derail this article by instantiating the arguments thrown about when considering the Bible in conjunction with same sex marriage, though I shall suffice to say that I cannot find a single mention in the New Testament (that is, the new covenant between man and God, effectively nullifying the laws of the Old Testament) wherein marriage is explicitly defined as the union of one man and one woman. I would love for someone to point me to one if they can, as I’d like to go back and look at the Latin vulgate and original Greek versions and see if the problem is with translation or if I am genuinely going to hell (it’s always nice to be prepared, after all). Sure, there are a few flaky comments on homosexuality that are blown wide out of context in the debate (and none of these are uttered by Jesus, incidentally) but I can’t find anything sure-fire and consistent on marriage per se.

And yet the Bible is inevitably dragged into any debate concerning the passage of same-sex marriage legislation by people who don’t have a lot more to say on the topic. As when reading the Constitution, one must be careful to preserve the original intention of the text (love one another, do unto others, live a good life) and not the actual words of men (for the books of the New Testament are the work of men and not God) that lived almost two millennia ago. People (quite rightly) no longer assume male dominance over women and yet there is more explicit mention of women holding an inferior role in the New Testament than same sex marriage (1 Corinth. 11:3; 14:34; Ephesians 5:22 versus nothing). Yet still, the ‘traditionalists’ do not come out with wildly sexist slogans in the same way that they make homophobic slurs – of course they don’t. They accept that the Bible’s sentiment is the important thing and not the physical wording.

So, what, you might ask, is the point of all this? I guess my point is that institutions on both sides of the Atlantic (including France and Uruguay, whom I have not had chance to mention) are starting to look to the future and not to the past when considering what to do. George Santayana was right when he wrote that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”– remember the past, but do not be bound by it or else you risk repeating it, follies and all. As an ancient historian, I don’t spend my time dressing in a toga and endlessly chatting about Plato, Caesar and Cicero (alas), but I do try and take some of their words of wisdom on board in a modern context. So too should lawmakers in the US adapt their beloved notions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to the modern age, whilst ardent Christians and defenders of ‘traditional’ marriage ought to do unto others as they would have done to them.

About Gaz Morris

Based in and around Manchester, Gaz has studied a BA and MA in various types of history at the University of Manchester. When not embracing his love for all things historical, Gaz can be found indulging his other interests of cooking, travelling and languages to whatever degree his current bank balance permits.

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