What does marriage have to do with the political agenda of the Religious Right? Why are Republican Christians so united in their support for both conservative politics and “traditional” sex and marriage?
To many non-believers, the two topics seem unrelated. Christians are sexual prudes, and Republicans are hyper-conservatives. It just so happens that most Republicans are Christians, so the two agendas ride side by side on the Stump Speech Train.
I believe this viewpoint is a bit myopic. Ironically, the Republichristians’ third stump issue — evolution — is the key to understanding how sex, marriage and conservativism fit together. Far from being a hodgepodge of archaic beliefs cobbled together through a quirk of historical chance, the Far Right’s political agenda represents an evolutionary truth, and a testament to the power of the force they so vehemently deny.
Marriage as an Evolutionary Adaptation
Defining marriage is very difficult for modern scientists. The problem is that across history and across cultures, nearly every post-agricultural society has had some practice that can be called marriage. Unfortunately, the practices are so diverse that it’s next to impossible to come up with a description that includes all of them.
Functionally, there is one unifying factor that brings the picture into focus. “Post-agricultural.” Pre-agricultural human society was tribal and nomadic. Groups of a dozen to a hundred hunted and gathered — and didn’t accumulate wealth. Notably, they also didn’t get married. Of course they formed pair bonds and chose mates, but they didn’t have institutionalized mate choice.
Recent scholarship has made a strong argument that early man was neither sexually exclusive nor prone to life partnerships. Instead, he was more of a communal animal, living in a small sexually non-exclusive group which raised every woman’s children as its own. Fatherhood was simply not a going concern, since everyone provided for every child. This conclusion is borne out by corroborating evidence from modern hunter/gatherer societies.
Humans did not begin “owning” mates until they started acquiring private wealth. Humans didn’t start acquiring wealth until they discovered agriculture. So in no uncertain terms, marriage was an evolutionary adaptation to the new environment.
This observation squares with a general observation of history. In cultures where wealth was more unequal, marriage was taken more seriously. In hereditary monarchies, who married whom was the single most important matter of state. The trading of a daughter, sister, or even concubine was often more valuable than boatloads of gold or caravans of salt. The story of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony was not one of love. It was nothing less than the fate of the Roman and Egyptian Empires. It was a cut-throat battle between families bent on acquiring powerful armies and vast resources — based entirely on which of several competing offspring would rise to power.
By contrast, in societies where resources are shared communally, or where the idea of personal ownership is not recognized, marriage is a very laissez-faire business, where both partners have significant autonomy in choosing mates, adding new mates, leaving old mates, and controlling their own reproductive destiny.
Marriage and Economic Policy
The United States is in an odd position, economically. Though it still ranks as a First World Nation, it is nearly feudal in many respects. A very few powerful families control nearly half of all the wealth in the country, and finding a non-wealthy congressman is about as likely as finding a virgin in a whorehouse.
On the other hand, we have a constitution that specifically spells out the equality of individuals, and we have a century of women’s rights battles behind us. Women may no longer be traded for political alliance (against their will), and inheritance law has become more nuanced, so that strict heredity is no longer that big a deal. A wealthy elder can leave his estate to anyone he wants.
In short, we are at a crossroads. Either we can proceed down the path of hereditary monarchy, or we can move towards equality and egalitarianism. With nothing more than basic understanding of the adaptive nature of marriage, we could make a prediction at this point: Those who favor accumulation of wealth and stratification of society would press for strict controls over marriage. Those who favor economic and social equality would press for relaxation of marital legislation.
And that is, of course, exactly what we see.
Sexual Fidelity and Marriage
Contrary to popular belief, sexual fidelity and marriage have not always been bed buddies. Quite the opposite, in fact. When we survey history, we discover a very powerful truth: Sexual fidelity has only ever been demanded when parental certainty was critical. Where there have been strict laws against infidelity, it has almost always been the woman who was punished for bearing a child by the wrong man.
Even more powerful evidence for the separation of fidelity and marriage comes from the practice of making eunuchs. Ancient female rulers were often famous for their sexual dalliances with harems of infertile men — usually with full knowledge and consent from their husbands. And men… well, men have always had concubines. And multiple wives. And prostitutes.
Here, too, America is at a crossroads. We would predict, based on our hypothesis of marriage as an adaptation, that those interested in maintaining a stratified culture with strict and powerful control over reproduction would demand female sexual fidelity and exclusivity (while winking and overlooking male promiscuity). We would also predict that those in favor of egalitarianism and equality would be more accepting of “alternative” arrangements, such as non-monogamy, open relationships, surrogate parenthood, etc.
And that is exactly what we see.
Marriage and the Patriarchy
There is a curious culture known as the Na that has existed at least since the Ming Dynasty. What’s curious about them is that they don’t have marriage. They have maternal families that pass on inheritance and property through female lines, regardless of who has fathered which children.
In a nutshell, if a child is born, it is the mother’s child. All the mother’s male relatives — brothers, cousins, uncles — contribute their earnings to their family’s children. When they are feeling randy, they head down the street to another family’s residence and pay a nocturnal visit to one (or more) of the women there. Then they head back home. Women are free to have whichever man they like as a lover, and indeed, both men and women are free to have more than one lover (although serial monogamy is very common).
This tiny society is a powerful statement against “The Patriarchy.” It is proof that not only is marriage not necessary, but that it is a tool of men to wield power over women. It is also a strong refutation of the popular idea that males are biologically designed to be viciously jealous of their own paternity.
The Na and other non-patriarchal societies are very clear illustrations of the fact that our attitudes towards marriage and sex are synonymous with our views of power and wealth distribution. Rather than reflecting some kind of moral high ground, they are indicative of our societal desires.
Those who would control marriage and sexuality are those who would return society to a patriarchy dominated by a few powerful individuals. On the other side of the fence are those who would like to see property and ownership taken out of the equation. They would rather allow people to choose mates based on things like love, companionship, shared interest, and basic friendship. They honestly don’t care who you sleep with, and they are perfectly content with any arrangement that takes care of the children.
With this basic understanding of the function of marriage through history, we can now see why those who vote for tax breaks for the rich and for corporations are also staunch defenders of the traditional family. It is the natural reproductive arrangement in the society they would like to create — feudal, patriarchal, and elitist. While each individual conservative might or might not be aware of the connection, it is a testament to the power of evolution that the idea resonates with them anyway.
Luckily, we are the only species that has the power to choose which adaptive path to take. Once we understand how marriage and sex are paired with economic policy, we can recognize the big picture for what it is, and realize that it’s important to fight for the version of marriage that suits our economic preference.