Saturday, November 22, 2008

Politics & Religion & Marriage

I’m often surprised by the response people give when I ask them whether they agree or disagree with the following statement:
"Historically, there is not much of a relationship between politics and religion."
(Do you agree with this statement? Just for fun, write down your response before reading the rest of this post.)

Even after the last 8 years in U.S. politics, even after the Presidential campaigns of 2000, 2004, and 2008, most people I ask say this statement is true. I wonder if they neglected to read some essential history texts, such as those about the Inquisition, or World War II– or even the Bible. I try to give them a break and assume that they are interpreting the statement to mean that there shouldn’t be a relationship (rather than that there isn’t) between politics and religion – but really, that’s a stretch, isn’t it?

When I was a child, my parents told me it was impolite to discuss politics, religion, or sex at social - particularly family - gatherings. My guess is this "rule" has pretty much fallen by the wayside in the ensuing years, but in case it’s still supposed to be observed at your get-togethers, maybe you’ll read something in this post that will come in handy for etiquette-breaking at holiday gatherings this season.

It is very clear from even a casual look at world history, especially in Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East, that politics and religion go hand in glove from as far back as we can go – the Neolithic where the evidence is mostly archeological – to the present day. Evidence from the Neolithic shows that the most likely socio-political structure was something approaching egalitarian councils of consensus, while religion was centered around female deities (sometimes ancestors) and a high value was placed on peaceful solutions to problems. (See books by Marija Gimbutas and Riane Eisler for starters.) Although there have been some recent writings attempting to discredit these findings, such books appear to be based largely on misconceptions and are far from convincing when submitted to thorough scholarly scrutiny

In many early societies that have been investigated, this time of peace, cooperation, and Goddess worship is followed by the imposition, usually through violence, of socio-political systems that diminished the rights of women, setting men to rule over them in their families, and replacing cooperative councils with hierarchical rulers (e.g., kings on Earth, and a King/Father God in Heaven).

As the centuries slid by, just a few of the instances of the strong linking of religion and politics included the Christian Crusades against Islam; the European Inquisition, which targeted non-Christians, including those who claimed to have converted to Christianity (usually Roman Catholicism) and during which those accused of being "witches" (regardless of whether they themselves claimed they were witches) were killed if they (inevitably) failed to pass no-win tests to prove they weren’t; the conflict between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots; the the quest for "religious freedom" that played a large part in driving the European invasion of North America; and World War II, in which Germanic ruler committed genocide against anyone he considered "non-Aryan," or otherwise different. These included, but were not limited to Jews, Roma ("Gypsies"), homosexuals, and any persons accused of supporting or sympathizing with them.

Books and other materials on feminism and religion since the 1970s in the U.S, (see especially those by Starhawk, Mary Daly and Riane Eisler) point out the difference between two sociopolitical-religious models sometimes called "power-over" and "power-with." The "power-over" paradigm is hierarchical, settles disputes by fear or force, and is usually accompanied by misogyny, male-only or male-dominant deities, and the glorification of war. It is this paradigm that has been dominant (!) through much of written history in Europe, Middle East, Asia, and, after the European invasion, the Americas. The "power-with" paradigm was, as far as we can tell, present in the Neolithic and possibly survived in some areas of the Middle East until 5000 - 3500 BCE, and may have survived in a few indigenous cultures elsewhere to the present day.

It seems to me that the three U.S Presidential elections in the 21st Century exhibit the contemporary conflict between these two paradigms. The power-over paradigm resulted in the victory, (either by actual votes or by voting "irregularities," a type of force – choose your interpretation) in 2000 and 2004. Note the significant role that religion, especially fundamentalist Christianity, and religion-related social issues such as abortion and gay rights, played in those elections. "Power-over" came into even sharper focus during the Dubya administration, a time marked by glorification of war and backlash against feminism and science (including the environmental "Earth" sciences), and btw, the near disappearance of degendered "god" language in public discourse (for example, as far as I can remember, President Bill Clinton never used a gendered pronoun or noun when talking about "God." But with Dubya and eventually others, including many Democrats speaking during the Bush fils administration, it was always God "he" and "Lord" and "Father.") With the election of Barack Obama, it appears the people have chosen the shared-power paradigm, as the President Elect’s sociopolitical approach appears to be more of what Eisler would call a "partnership" model than a power-over model. Though he is careful to be gender inclusive when talking about humans, it remains to be seen whether Obama will catch on about the god language....

Now what about that vote for Proposition 8 in California revoking the right of gays to marry? How does that fit in?

I begin my answer with another question: Have you noticed that when pressed to show how marriage between two people of the same sex hurts their heterosexual marriage those who oppose gay marriage seem stumped? They hem and haw a lot; sometimes they digress, maintaining that, according to the Bible, marriage is supposed to be between "one man and one woman." But even this argument won’t stand up – most marriages portrayed in the Bible are between one man and several women. That’s right – the patriarchs, from Abraham through at least Solomon were polygamists having multiple wives and sometimes wives and concubines. (So the original Mormons got this one right? How ironic is it that much of the opposition to Prop 8 is from Mormons....)

If people can’t come up with an example of how same-sex marriage threatens their heterosexual union, why are they nevertheless so bothered, so enraged, so scared by it?

Because it exposes the true nature of, the original reason for, marriage: to establish power-over, to assert ownership. Marriage originally had nothing to do with romantic love or sexual attraction. It had to do with forming alliances between families, tribes, and later nations. A dowry (usually money) was commonly transferred from the bride’s family to the groom’s. In addition, the marriage gave the groom and his family ownership rights to the bride’s property and in some cases, especially early on, to the bride herself. This history is partly why second-wave feminists in the 60s and 70s became disenchanted with the institution of marriage. Another other part is that practices and assumptions that began with the dowry/property model still persisted into the 20th century. To some extent, het marriage in the US has become more equal than it was 20-30 years ago – but for many, still not equal enough. For example, although most people drop the promise to "obey" from the wedding vows, in Christian weddings the bride is still led down the aisle on the arm of her father or other male family member and then "given away" (or "given in marriage') to the groom. This giving-away is a symbolic remnant of the earlier marriage property transfer.

Extending the right to marry to people of the same sex exposes marriage’s origins in the power-over model. In a het marriage, we know "who’s wearing the pants" and "who’s on top" (sometimes literally). It’s supposed to be the man, right? If two people of the same sex marry, who gets given away (represents the property)? Who has the power? I know this may be difficult to get your head around, but people who oppose gay marriage expect the man to be in charge. If there is no man in a marriage – or if there are two men in a marriage – gollygeewhillikers, who’s in charge?

With so much baggage associated with het marriage why model gay marriage on it? Why not take the opportunity to lessen its importance by establishing civil unions for everyone, both gay and straight, as the state-defined legal entity? Why not change marriage from a state-defined entity to one defined–and variable–according to the religion of those being joined?

One answer is that it probably would take a lot more work to make this change than to allow gays an equal right to marriage as it now exists. But I’ll put the question out there anyway as something to think about: Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to have civil unions for everyone and leave the definition of who can "marry" whom up to religious institutions? In this model, it would be the civil union that would confer the rights now allowed (in most states) only to het marriages. Marriage would be a religious formality. It would work something like this: A couple, straight or gay, who wanted to form a civil union, would go to the court house (or wherever that jurisdiction specifies) and get a "license" and be joined in civil union by a civil official (judge, justice of the peace, etc.,) Religions and denominations would define what "marriage" is according to their religion, and who they are willing to join in "marriage." If a couple also wanted a "marriage" in addition to their civil union, they would find clergy to perform the religious ceremony. That way, the churches can define who can "marry," but they have nothing to say about what rights a union provides. The legal joining would be the civil union, not the (religious) marriage. The religious/marriage ceremony would carry with it no legal rights for either straights or gays. This change, as I see it, would accomplish at least two things: (1) get rid of the baggage carried by "marriage" and free up the joining of two persons to be whatever power structure they (or they and their religion) agree on;(2) give everyone, both gay and straight, rights that are the same and equal.

And, btw, the separation of civil and religious ceremonies has been standard in some European countries for some time. Another irony–more separation of church and state in countries with official state religions than in the US, which supposedly has no official religion.


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At Monday, November 24, 2008 1:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just came across your page for the first time today. What a wonderfully clear annunciation of the way power works across the social structures in our lives. You are so right on in tracing how religion inflects our lives and the entire flow of history.

I look forward to exploring your blog further.


At Wednesday, November 26, 2008 5:38:00 PM, Blogger Idris said...

It puzzles me how anyone can fail to see how deeply - whether we consciously adhere to its precepts or not - patriarchal religious thought affects every aspect of our lives and how it is next to impossible to fully disentangle oneself from it.


At Wednesday, November 26, 2008 5:49:00 PM, Blogger Idris said...

PS to my first comment.

Have just discovered this link to a very good account of the history of the institution of marriage


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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.