Supreme Court DOMA: Why Should We Listen to Religion On Gay (or Any) Marriage, Anyway?

Religious institutions such as churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques have a long history of political activism in the U.S.. They've played a significant role in issues ranging from slavery and segregation to war, abortion, capital punishment, and prohibition. So it's not surprising that many religious groups are weighing in on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and same-sex marriage more generally.

But when it comes to marriage, what does religion really have to say about it?

There's an inclination to think that religion supports the "traditional" view of marriage as a monogamous, one man plus one woman, husband-and-wife relationship. As such, religious institutions are going to support DOMA, Article 3 of which defines marriage the same way.

It only takes a little research to reveal how mistaken this is, however. Obviously, different religions and sects disagree with each other on all sorts of stuff. But this diversity of opinion is solidly on display even when it comes to marriage-related issues.

For instance, many religions have approved of polygamy (or at least, polygyny, one man with several wives. Polyandry — one woman with several husbands — not so much). Muslims and Mormons are perhaps the best-known examples (though Mormons largely rejected plural marriage over a century ago), but support for polygamy appears elsewhere: the Torah lays down rules for the treatment of second wives (Abraham, you recall, was matched up to both Sarah and Hagar), and Martin Luther said he could find no scriptural objection to polygyny.

Incest, child marriage, and arranged marriages seem to be on the table, too. Aisha was not even 10 years old when she became Muhammad's bride, a marriage which was arranged by her parents. And Abraham and Sarah had the same father, Terah, making them half-siblings.

And there are still other perennial issues raging among religions and denominations when it comes to marriage: Should married couples be allowed to divorce, or does the marriage have to be annulled? If so, what's the process, and can they get married to other people afterwards? What about priests and other clergy? Is marriage antithetical to their religious duties, or is it an important part of their spiritual life?

Consider a particular instance of marriage law from the Book of Numbers: In what's known as the "Ordeal of Jealousy" or the "Ordeal of the Bitter Water," a woman suspected of "straying" is interrogated by a priest and given "bitter water" to drink that, if innocent, will not harm her, but, if guilty, will cause her abdomen to swell and make her miscarry. You guessed it — this is a good, old-fashioned trial by ordeal, of the sort that was popular in Medieval Europe, where it was assumed that God would intervene to protect the innocent from harm.

(Note, the Bible doesn't outline any such trial by ordeal for men who were suspected of adultery. Apparently that would be unreasonable. Or maybe they didn't want to overwhelm the judicial system with a massive volume of applications and court filings.)

Now, I don't know of any religious people — Jewish, Christian, or otherwise — who accept this sort of nonsense. They outright reject it. But notice that there's no question of it being scriptural (at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition). It's right there, you can't miss it, nestled comfortably in the Word of God (well, the NIV English translation of the Word of God, anyway).

But most followers of the Bible ignore it, just like they ignore other biblical verses that condone slavery, just like most Muslims ignore the parts of the Quran that condone domestic violence, and just like most Hindus don't take Draupadi's marriage to all five Pandava brothers as a model for Hindu society in general.

The point being that there's no monolithic opinion among religions (or even within a religion, often times) on many issues related to marriage. If anything, there's a monolithic rejection of any number of religious positions that — while clearly stated in scripture — are so unpalatable to modern (you could say secular) society that they're simply dismissed out of hand.

Religion is an important part of life, and of politics as well. But it's far from clear that it has a special perspective on issues such as gay marriage or the nature of marriage in general. Partly, that's because it's hard to figure out what position a given religion takes on marriage.

But it's also because the established or traditional religious position has so often been flat-out wrong that there's no reason to treat the religious perspective as authoritative. So, if there is a religious stance on DOMA or gay marriage, why should we adjust our lives (and laws) to it, especially given that being gay doesn't hurt anyone?