Government’s role in marriage: An issue for the ages

By Tom Baxter

A few years ago, Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum hosted a fascinating exhibit based on the papyrus legal records of a family which lived in Egypt in the 5th Century BC. As a testament to the lasting lessons such archaeological treasures can transmit, it came to mind last week when Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to endorse same-sex marriage.

The papyri were the legal documents of a couple, Ananiah, a Jewish temple official, and his wife Tamut, an Egyptian woman who’d been sold into slavery as a child. They lived on the island of Elephantine in the Nile, in a time when Egypt was part of the Persian Empire and Jewish mercenaries guarded its southern border.

As it is today, relationships could be complicated back then. When she married Ananiah on July 3, 449 BC, Tamut was owned by another man, Meshullam, who didn’t free her or her daughter for another 22 years. Things worked out, though. Later papyri record Ananiah giving Tamut part ownership of their house, selling a house to his son-in-law and making payments on a wedding gift for their daughter.

The records are a striking contrast of the bizarre with the familiar. The conventions of legalese have changed so little over the millenia that a modern-day lawyer would feel completely at home with these contracts. But the concept of marriage around which these legal proceedings revolve appears to have been radically different from ours today.

The contract between Ananiah and Tamut is so detailed that it specifies on which side of the stairs each is to walk up and down. But as far as the state was concerned, marriage contracts like theirs – the notarized enumeration of what one party could take the other to court for, if things didn’t work out – was all the marriage was. Since Ananiah was a religious leader, there may have been a ceremony to sanctify the marriage within the Jewish community on the island, but over the whole of Egyptian society, the state’s involvement in defining, protecting and preserving marriage was quite limited and specific to each coupling.

If government has developed a better way to deal with this complex aspect of human society, it was not in evidence last week, when North Carolina voters overwhelmingly declared their support for an amendment defining marriage solely as the union between a man and a woman, and Obama declared the next day that he’d decided his “evolving” views on the subject and supports the right of people of the same sex to marry.

By comparison with other historic stands taken by presidents, Obama’s carried remarkably little weight. The states decide this issue, and one just had. Obama’s statement on a morning news show the following day was couched more as something which had been forced by Vice President Joe Biden’s unguarded comments on the subject rather than the embarrassment of a big vote in the state where the Democrats will hold their convention this summer. This sounds progressively more fishy the longer you think about it, particularly when you hear how angry the Obama staffers sounded about Biden’s goofiness, according to the reporters who repeated on-the-record what the staffers told them off-the-record.

Yet symbolically, Obama’s statement was rightly looked on as an historic event. The North Carolina vote, which put into the state constitution what was already on the books as state law, was also largely symbolic. And lemme tell you – as former Gov. Roy Barnes might have said after his bitter experience with changing the state flag – symbolism is the rat poison of good government.

Should government get more involved in marriage, as those on both sides of the current controversy would have it, or less? At present the states and the federal government find themselves in a cycle of ineffectiveness. Washington has no power over what the states define marriage to be, but because of the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Clinton, which prohibits same-sex couples from the rights and protections of marriage in more than a thousand federal laws, it really doesn’t matter what the states do either. Because our modern concept of marriage — unlike the Egyptians — involves a certain fusion, long since blurred, between the provinces of religion and the state, we appear bound to debate state by state an issue which in some respects can only be settled congregation by congregation.

Nor does government at the federal or the state level have the ability to stop the steady decline in heterosexual marriage, as attested by a voluminous array of statistics on divorce, unwed mothers and single-parent households. In terms of the work hours it has to invest, government’s biggest involvement with marriage today is the administration of breakups and the management of the carnage that often comes with them.

Administratively, things were much easier for Ananiah and Tamut, which makes it impossible to replicate the arrangements of their day. But their preserved family records challenge us to think about whether we’ve really figured out what aspects of marriage government should involve itself in, and what it shouldn’t.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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