What the Heck is Traditional Marriage?

In light of all the fuss over DOMA, Prop 8 and the Supreme Court, I have grown weary of the debates over same sex marriage.  Five years ago I rather unenthusiastically participated in supporting Prop 8 in California.  As an active member of my ward I participated as I was asked, but I find politics in general very unappealing.  I approached the subject from a largely uninformed theological perspective.

One idea that is frequently thrown around pretty loosely is the concept of traditional marriage.  Defending traditional marriage was the sacred cow among those of us who supported Prop 8 five years ago, and it is still the mantra today.  As Mormons, marriage is one of our most sacred subjects.  A Temple Marriage (or Sealing) is among the highest ordinances we have.  The family is at the heart of the Plan of Salvation.  I firmly believe that my Temple Marriage binds me to my wife for eternity, binds me to my Heavenly Father as part of his family, and binds me to my children and future posterity.

But in the course of modern dialogue, I have become very confused about what people mean when they talk about traditional marriage.  Outside of Mormonism, no one shares our beliefs regarding Temple Marriage.  I think when most people speak of traditional marriage, they envision two wonderfully loving parents, a gaggle of perfect, smiling children all secure in the love of their family, and the family pet.  Maybe they see a Mom and a Dad in their traditional roles of provider (male) and nurturer (female).  They see a house in the suburbs with a manicured lawn and a white picket fence and the suburban sprawl spreading out in every direction with perfect uniformity.  This is how it has always been, and this is how God has decreed it.

It sounds wonderful, uncomplicated and straight forward.  So where is my confusion you ask?  Well, in the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, “I do not think it (traditional marriage) means what you think it means?”  Here is a recent definition of traditional marriage I came across on an LDS blog:

“Marriage can be viewed, as it has since history began, as an exclusive commitment between a man and a woman, which forms a bodily and an emotional and a spiritual bond distinguished by its comprehensiveness and its fidelity. This is often called the conjugal view, or traditional marriage.”

From my point of view, marriage has changed dramatically in the past 100 years and only nominally resembles what traditional marriage was in the past.  People talk (especially in the Church) as if they are defending marriage as it has always been.  Well, my marriage is different from my parents and their marriage is significantly different from their parents.

In what ways you ask?  How about in the fundamental view of marriage as a partnership.  My parents are old school and their marriage resembles the traditional roles of men and women raised in the 40’s and 50’s.  They are parents the Beaver would be proud of (Iconic TV reference, please keep reading).  Another generation removed, and you are predating the feminist movement.  Family roles were more than just tradition, they were the law.  Women had no rights.  Women were not equal partners.  Women did not inherit property.   In just about every facet of life and law, women were seen as “less” than men.  We are only 2-3 generations removed from the ‘Good Old Days.’

For the majority of history, traditional marriage was a patriarchal order concerned more with survival and continuance of a family line.   Men were not so concerned with forming emotional and spiritual bonds.  Men were not in touch with their inner feelings and were confident that they were the dominant species.  The subservience of women was expected and the norm.  This idea is firmly established in the Bible (Speaking of traditional marriage.)  What we would term ‘unrighteous dominion’ by the patriarch of the home was ‘par for the course’ in those days.

To be fair, it was a different world back then.  With infant and childhood mortality rates substantially higher, it was an accomplishment just to reach adulthood.  A strong family was key to survival.  As we have become a wealthier society, we have evolved beyond basic concerns of survival and continuance of posterity to the luxury of being able to consider our emotional and spiritual bonding.  In the past, people were just happy to have a roof over their heads and food on the table.

I guess what I am trying to say is that the concept of traditional marriage has evolved radically over the past few generations.  Women have become increasingly liberated and these changes are for the better.  If we are being honest, Mormons have been at the forefront of that radical change.  From the earliest days of the Church, revelation was received redefining marriage.  Marriage was elevated to a status required to achieve the highest degrees of heavenly glory.  We believe in a Heavenly Mother and we believe that God is our Heavenly Father.  We believe in our potential to become like them. We believe that our earthly families link us to our Heavenly Parents elevating our own divine potential.  This is beautiful doctrine in which I whole heartedly believe.

But this is not traditional marriage.  Men a thousand years ago didn’t sit down to consult with their wives or call a family council with their teenagers.  We may believe temple marriage is a restoration of past temple ordinances, but those practices have been few and far between.  Didn’t Traditional Marriage suffer as much during the apostasy as any other form of doctrine?  Didn’t the patriarchal order devolve into every man’s personal dictatorship and fiefdom?  It took a renaissance and hard won freedom to prepare the world for Joseph Smith and the Restoration of the Gospel.  And with it, the restoration of some radically new ideas about marriage.

Joseph Smith was a visionary finding inspiration from the Bible.  His greatest revelations were in response to sincere questions about the Bible.  Not only did he elevate the idea of marriage through temple marriages, but he reintroduced polygamy to the world.  As a Mormon with early roots in the Church, every family line I have goes through a polygamist family.  Put simply, I would not exist without polygamy.  That is a sobering perspective on a subject that is very controversial.  Polygamy was both introduced by prophecy into the Church and ended by prophecy.  As Mormons, we have been the radicals in regard to redefining traditional marriage.

So, I want to illustrate some points regarding our modern ideas about Temple Marriage and Traditional Marriage:

1) Temple Marriage is not traditional marriage.  Heavenly Father through his modern prophets has radically elevated the status of marriage.  It may have been that way before, but that was thousands of years ago.

2) Civil Marriage is not Temple Marriage.  Civil Marriages today are not even equivalent to traditional marriages of old.  The feminist movement, equality in marriage, interracial marriage, and a massive cultural shift have redefined marriage forever.  This ideology has changed, even in the Church.  Today, modern prophets speak of marriage as an eternal partnership.  This differs significantly with most Biblical teachings.  Eve was placed in a subservient role, even from the beginning.  Traditional marriage has never been a partnership.  It was dominated (dictator style) by the patriarch of the home.  This current evolution is only one or two generations old, so we need to stop pretending that the utopian ideals of traditional marriage have existed forever.

3)  Equality of marriage partners, while being a positive development, has degraded the stability of marriage overall.  A marriage between equal partners is a far more difficult thing to maintain than set familial roles with a clear distinct leader (men).  Meeting two people’s emotional and spiritual needs requires a selflessness and maturity that is frequently lacking.  Divorce rates are significantly higher today in part because expectations of the relationship itself are significantly higher.  Working in partnership is much more complicated.  In the past, if a woman sought divorce she could/would lose everything.  Social stigmas of divorce could ruin a family.  Survival was a much higher priority.

4)  The Church strives to make better fathers and husbands of its men.  I don’t think the natural man takes too naturally to this, but it creates better families.  One of the greatest works of the Church is how it takes average people and makes them good, and takes good people and makes them great.  I feel like I have been trained since I was young to be a good husband and father.  Despite divorce rates that are still far too high, I believe there is great quality in Mormon families.

5)  As the forerunners of radical marriage theology, we can ask the questions the Bible leaves unclear.  We can ask the questions the rest of Christianity can’t because they believe in a closed Bible with a firm cap on revelation.  We believe the heavens are open.

Having said all of the above, here is the great trial of our current generation:  Our homosexual brothers and sisters (some just children) are being thrown out of their homes.  They have been (and still are) killing themselves because of the severe rejection from their families and from our Church.  Their incidence of depression, alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness, and every other type of risk increases exponentially.  Can we agree that this shouldn’t be?  Can we agree that our Church should be the forerunner in coming to the aid of the LGBT community?

Only recently have Church leaders acknowledged that being homosexual is not a choice.  That single acknowledgment changes the discussion from all previous policies and statements.  Mormonsandgays.org changes the whole trajectory of the discussion of how we should interact with our gay brothers and sisters.  We are encouraged to hold onto them tightly and keep our gay family members firmly within our families.

I know this conversation makes the majority of members uncomfortable and they would rather avoid it, but there are gay members in every ward.  Statistically, every one of us has a gay family member whether it is your child, your sibling, your aunt or your uncle.  Someone you love is gay and the current dialogue in the Church is crushing the hope and life out of him or her.  The Lord is working in the Church today to make a better place for him.  Are you on board?

6 comments for “What the Heck is Traditional Marriage?

  1. Erik
    July 29, 2013 at 8:09 am

    One small comment. I don’t think you can use the argument that “because it has changed” that there is no “traditional marriage”. Religious history, due to its limited amount of text, gives us little to go on about how they viewed marriage as a social and religious institution, but we do know that it has been going on since Adam and Eve. According to the LDS Church, marriage is so important that they are performing marriages for the dead: the Lord probably didn’t just make marriage that important now. As the family is one of the basics of the Plan of Salvation for the LDS church, I’m sure that the understanding of God that they have has always had this “traditional view” of marriage, but in today’s society it seems “elevated”. I mean, Lehi commanded Nephi and his brothers to return all the way to Jerusalem for wives, yes?

    In any case, I agree that the dialog surrounding gay members in the church needs to change as it is driving many to exile or suicide or other negative consequences. There have been few “revelations” on the issue of homosexuality in the church and it seems most policies are based on social stigmas rather than revelation or doctrine. I would like to see the Church tackle the issue head on and see that Church leaders are really taking the issue seriously rather than letting tradition or normative religious ideals dictate the doctrine.

    • Thomas Montgomery
      July 29, 2013 at 10:44 am

      Great comment Erik. I think Temple Marriage is tremendously inspired and eteranl families is one of the most distinguishing doctrines of the Church. However, as you noted there is very little historical record of Temple Marriage being practiced in earlier dispensations, although I believe it was. Irregardless, it has not been practiced for thousands of years. It may or may not have been practiced in the Book of Mormon times as their is no discussion of it. Lehi’s family going back for wives is actually more a story of necessity to continuing a family line.

      More to the point, when we as Mormons say we are defending traditional marriage, are we saying the same thing as the rest of country is saying? When other religions are saying they are defending traditional marriage, what are they actually saying?

      What I do know is that when I talk with my gay friends who are not LDS, they have no idea what I am saying when I say “I was defending traditional marriage” during Prop 8. If our purpose was to defend marriage, we certainly did not effectively communicate to the masses what traditional marriage or temple marriage means to us. Most dialogue died during Prop 8 and the only thing communicated was hate.

  2. Dazz
    July 29, 2013 at 4:58 pm

    Thank you. I enjoyed this post immensely. In addition to contrasting generational differences in the definition of “traditional”, here is something else to consider when people refer simply to “biblical marriage” while defending “traditional marriage” –as thought here has always only been ONE particular version of what constitutes marriage… food for thought!

    http://www.religioustolerance.org/mar_bibl0.htm

  3. Whitney Weddell
    July 29, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    I very much appreciate your perspective, Tom. It is interesting to me how people of different faiths all speak of defending “traditional marriage,” and yet they all speak of entirely different faith traditions regarding how marriage was and is practiced. They think they’re all on the same page, but I imagine if confronted, they’d have quite a battle amongst themselves about just what that definition is.

    And, all seriousness aside, I totally love the Inigo Montoya reference. We reach, man!

  4. Jay
    July 29, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    This article points out some facts which Mormons often forget. If you look at “marriage” within ALL the human race, marriage traditions vary widely from place to place and from one time to another, even among the same community. The only true statement that can be drawn is that the majority of humans seek a partner during their life, with or without children. That’s it. We tend to confuse the word tradition with truth. Most people practice the tradition they are most familiar with. Only stories, governments, and leaders insert the concepts of right, wrong, true, and unacceptable. Some stories say that god believes a certain way, yet at the same time many other stories say something different or that there is no god. There are literally thousands of conflicting marriage traditions which have been practiced traditionally by one society or another. Mormons comprise 0.09% of the earth’s population. Their original traditional was to be polygamy and now it’s one man and one woman. Exactly which traditional marriage are they trying to protect and for whom?

  5. Jay
    July 29, 2013 at 7:19 pm

    If one simply looks at human behavior, the only truth that can be drawn is that over time and geography, marriage traditions have varied widely in the varied societies of humanity, sometimes even within the same society, and only a single thing remains consistent: it is human nature to seek a partner during their life, whether they procreate or not. That’s it. Words like right, wrong, acceptable and so on are assigned by opinionated men. Some of these men say god believes one thing, some say another. Mormon marriage traditional was originally supposed to be polygamy, now it’s heterosexual monogamy. Mormons comprise .09% of humanity’s population. Exactly which traditional marriage are they protecting and for whom?

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