Thursday, October 13, 2011

Government Involvement in Marriage and Its Ironic History

In his book Moral Reconstruction, a history of moral lobbying and legislation between the Civil War and Prohibition, Gaines M. Foster recalls a period at the turn of the century when Christian lobbyists and special interest groups were pressuring the government for stricter laws regarding marriage and divorce. Interestingly, among the measures proposed was an amendment to the Constitution which would explicitly give the federal government power over marriage. In all, forty-two resolutions to give the government power over marriage were introduced to Congress between 1892 and 1920, none of which received so much as a favorable committee report. Given the striking parallels between the moral polity of the period and the current political climate (a secondary purpose of Foster's book), the three reasons given for the widespread failure of reformers to achieve such federal legislation is intriguing:

1) Such legislation met with overwhelming opposition in the South because many southerners feared it would result in federal intervention in state antimiscegenation laws.

2) The American Bar Association and the Interchurch Conference opposed the measures because they preferred state measures to regulate marriage and divorce.

3) Christians could not effectively mobilize support for legislation because there was widespread disagreement about precisely what the Bible said about marriage and divorce.

The obvious, superficial irony is immediately apparent. Unlike contemporary movements to grant the federal government powers over marriage, Christians and southerners were the key to opposing extending federal powers. The role reversal becomes even more pronounced when one considers that the new support for such measures in the South is born out of the desire of southerners to have their peculiar discriminatory marriage laws universalized. In the past, southerners feared for their idiosyncratic conception of a "true" marriage. A look at the history of moral legislation would seem, thankfully, to justify the fears of nineteenth century southerners rather than bolster the aspirations of those in the 21st century. Granting moral power to the federal government tends to have a liberalizing effect on public morality. Which makes almost amusing the fact that so many supposed supporters of "states rights" also support an amendment granting the federal government a new and unprecedented field of power, while their predecessors had the foresight one hundred years ago to oppose federal involvement in marriage consistent with a belief in restricting the power of the federal government.

In the interest of learning from history, it is perhaps time to realize that whether moral legislation fails (as did federal marriage legislation at the turn of the century) or succeeds (as did Prohibition), in the long term the tendency of the federal government is never toward stricter moral codes. If American history is any judge, progressive moral ideologies win the war of attrition, and time is a surer constant than political favor.

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