Agreeing about Marriage

The more I think about political discourse, the more I am reminded that the meaning of the most important terms is absolutely dependent on what the participants think they are talking about. From Heather Cox Richardson’s recent column (Letters from an American), I find three references to laws about marriage. I’m going to deal with them in historical order.

In 1924, the Commonwealth of Virginia passed The Racial Integrity Act. Anybody here against “integrity?” Before “integrity” became an all-purpose good word, it had a meaning of its own. It meant, “having the characteristics or quality of an integer.” And an“integer” is a whole number, rather than a fraction. This is not a moral critique of fractions, of course, but while the first meanings of “integer,” are “intact, whole, complete,” we moved quickly to symbolic meanings like “untainted” and “upright.” [1]

Framing the question of whether marriage ought to be “fractured” or to have “integrity” is very helpful to the people who have the ability to define what “marriage” is. It asserts what marriage is and asks whether we want it to be whole and healthy. Sure. We want it to be healthy. In Virginia at the time, “healthy” required that the marriage partners be of the same race.

In 1996, the Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act. “Marriage” was, apparently, under attack and because we value marriage, it is crucial that we defend it. The attack was gay marriage: men “marrying” men; women “marrying” women. [2] There were policy implications, of course, including a direct attack on the “full faith and credit” provisions of federalism in the Constitution, but we are considering only the language itself here.

“Marriage” is good, but it is good only as we define it. When we “defend” marriage, it is that definition of marriage we are defending. It could have been called the Defense of Heterosexual Marriage Act, but only a complete idiot would have done that. That title offers a choice of what the issue is. Are we talking about marriage or are we talking about homosexuality? That choice is not what you want to offer to potential opponents in the title of the bill.

Finally, we have the Respect for Marriage Act. I, myself, would have preferred the Respect of Marriage Act, which is really not as good a title, but it would give us ROMA and we could have had ROMA/DOMA controversies. I think I would have liked that.

Again, the question is just what is to be respected. “Marriage” is to be respected and in this context it is clear that both homosexual and heterosexual marriages are “marriage.” The “marriage,” that is to be respected, in other words, is not at all the same as the “marriage” that is to be defended by DOMA and that is not at all clear in either title.

So what might look to the casual observed like a great and broad agreement among Americans is, in fact, a debate. It is not that “marriage” should have integrity and it should be defended and respected. I suppose that is a proposition that would be assented to by large majorities of Americans if the question were put without a context. But, as we have seen, each of these measures has in mind defining marriage so that includes some ideas about it and excludes others. It is not a great concurrence. It is a debate.

[1] These come from, one of the best and most accessible sources for etymology.
[2] All of the debates that made up the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) presupposed that “men” and “women” were intact categories–that the categories, in other words, had “integrity.”. In today’s context of “gender fluidity” the presupposition of men and womenas the necessary categories sounds almost quaint.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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