Squirelly History

Well, I see that in addition to recipes for cooking squirrels in popcorn poppers, Mike Huckabee has shared some wisdom about God’s plan for the U.S. Constitution, specifically His desire to insert provisions prohibiting abortion and same-sex marriage. As in, God doesn’t want us aborting or cavorting (with or without state sanction), and we ought to revise the U.S. Constitution to reflect God’s will on those matters.

Leaving aside the broader issue—i.e., why, if I wanted to live in a country where some people’s narrow vision of religiosity was made the law of the land, I wouldn’t just move to Saudi Arabia—I want to address one claim Huckabee made, because it is a common theme of arguments against same-sex marriage. Huckabee said, “Marriage has historically, as long as there’s been human history, meant a man and a woman in a relationship for life.”

Except that’s simply untrue. And not just untrue around the edges; it is massively, demonstrably, wildly untrue.

In Ancient Greece, marriage was important, but for entirely practical reasons. Parents chose their children’s partners for economic reasons, and the purpose was to produce children. Women were considered inferior to men, who were free to indulge their romantic and sexual desires elsewhere; as Demosthenes famously explained, “We have prostitutes for our pleasure, concubines for our health, and wives to bear us lawful offspring.” Many men also established sexual and emotional relationships with young boys, and those relationships were widely accepted. Husbands could divorce relatively easily, especially if the wife proved infertile.

In Rome, marriage was personal and optional, and evidently so widely disregarded that the Emperor Augustus found it necessary to pass laws compelling people to marry. Even then, there were three kinds of marriage: one called “usus” where the couple simply moved in together; a more formal variety that involved a ceremony with witnesses; and an upper-class version requiring ten witnesses and a priest. Divorce was common for all three types, and tended to be pretty informal.

In early Israel, a man could have several wives and concubines. You’d think that Huckabee, who is so hung up on God’s law as revealed in the bible, might recall the story of Jacob, who married two sisters, Leah and Rachel. Or that of Solomon, who had 700 wives and 300 concubines. (Solomon was evidently one busy dude!)  Divorce was permitted if you were the husband—wives weren’t so lucky. Both marriage and divorce remained entirely civil matters.

Over the following centuries, marriage came increasingly under the influence of the Catholic church, which was extending its authority over more aspects of life generally. Catholic theologians decided that marriage was for life (although there were grounds for annulment), and imposed a number of other rules. Even so, however, it wasn’t until the 12th Century that priests got involved in the marriage ceremony, and not until the 13th that they actually took charge of it. Marriage continued to be a practical, economic arrangement.

Martin Luther declared marriage “a worldly thing” that belonged to the realm of government, not religion, and the English Puritans decreed that marriage was purely secular. (When the English Reformation occurred, the religious significance of marriage was reasserted.) The Protestant reformers also allowed divorce.

Here in America, there have been various experiments with marriage. In 1848, the Oneida community cultivated a form of group marriage. They called it “complex marriage” and every woman was married to every man in the community. (They also practiced so-called “scientific breeding.”) And we all know about Mormon polygamy. While the Mormons have formally renounced the practice, polygamy persists in many parts of the Middle East to this day—among President Bush’s princely pals in Saudi Arabia, for example. (Not only that, a so-called “Christian polygamy movement,” unrelated to Mormonism, began in the U.S. in 1994.) In Senegal today, it is estimated that 47% of marriages are “plural” or polygamous.

Why this brief—and incomplete—excursion down history lane? Because it really fries me the way the radical right manufactures history out of whole cloth. They have succeeded in promulgating an ahistorical mythology in which the Founding Fathers—most of whom were Deists—created a “Christian Nation” that looks remarkably like their own version of Christianity. Like Huckabee, they blithely fabricate wholly fanciful historical “facts”—confident, evidently, that no one reads  history anymore.

Mike Huckabee knows a lot more about fried squirrel than I do. But he obviously doesn’t know  much about other countries, world history, U.S. history or the Enlightenment philosophy that guided those who drafted our Constitution.