Marriage has always been at the center of politics. In most of the world it was instituted to solve problems-to settle dynastic disputes, to distribute property, or to join one family to another. The struggle to control marriage initiated civil wars, deposed monarchs, and even created churches. Today, it continues to divide Americans.
Yet, the roots of Western Christian marriage are unique-stemming from Christ himself.
Early Christians in the first through third century understood marriage to be a union between one man and one woman created by God as a consummated partnership described in Genesis 2. Early Christian leaders, such as the Apostle Paul, explained that marriage was more than just a union between two people. It was an act of worship that pointed to Christ's sacrificial relationship with the church (Ephesians 5). Therefore, marriage was not about a contract or a financial engagement as had been the custom for centuries prior, but a sacred union that should reflect God's love. Christ turned the accepted cultural norms about marriage on its head.
Later, in the fourth century, Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, instituted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. This act formalized Christian customs and grew the responsibility of the Roman church, which over time became formally responsible for officiating marriages.
It wasn't until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century that the recording of marriages and establishing of rules for marriage became a function of the state. Martin Luther, the Catholic priest who initiated the Protestant Reformation in Germany said that marriage was a "worldly thing ... that belongs to the realm of government." John Calvin, his Swiss counterpart, expressed a similar opinion. Calvin and his colleagues reformulated Christian marriage by enacting the Marriage Ordinance of Geneva, which imposed "The dual requirements of state registration
and church consecration to constitute marriage" as valid.
By the 17th century, many of the Protestant European countries' governments were responsible for instituting marriage.
English Puritans, who rejected the Church of England's view of marriage and immigrated to America in the early 1600s, believed that marriage was a civil contract, not a religious ceremony. The law they instituted required that marriage be "agreed" or "executed" (not "performed" or "solemnized") before a magistrate, not a minister. They also legalized divorce if the terms of the marriage covenant were broken. These customs became the model for marriage throughout New England. Other parts of colonial America followed different traditions -- Virginians followed the Anglican view of marriage, Quakers brought their own version to Delaware, and Catholics instituted their belief in Maryland and other states.
Unlike its European counterparts, which instituted civil marriage in the 18th and 19th centuries, the United States left the issue of marriage to the states. Marriage was not codified until 1996 through the Defense of Marriage Act. In fact, marriage today resembles a mélange of western Christian marriage traditions within a federalist system.
Since 2004, over ten states have granted marriage licenses to same-sex couples (Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington, Washington, D.C.). In California, same-sex marriage could be legally performed between June 16 and Nov. 4, 2008, until voters passed Proposition 8, which prohibited it. Proposition 8 will soon be decided on by the Supreme Court. To date, 41 states prohibit same-sex marriage by statute or state constitution. On May 9, 2012 President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to express his support for the legalization of same-sex marriage.
How did we get in this quagmire?
The Protestant Reformation was instrumental in moving marriage into the civil realm. Perhaps, had the 16th century Christians followed the early church's example, marriage may not have been thrust into the responsibility of government at all.
In light of this, American Christians find themselves in an ironic and divided situation. As citizens of a secular country they must be licensed by the state to validate a practice that is rooted in a religious belief. Should this be the case? Should a practice rooted in a Judeo-Christian faith even be under the auspices of government? If marriage had been left to the church, the church could marry those who practice and follow its beliefs. Civil unions among same-sex couples could be left to the government, providing the full range of civil liberties citizens in a democracy expect.
Granted, 17th century Puritans viewed the government as agents of God's authority, but they never could have foreseen how non-Christians would want to use marriage as a political right, erasing Judeo-Christian values through civil law.