CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — When the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 found a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, it settled a legal dispute but also deepened the cultural divide over the role of religion in family life. The division was widened by the court’s recent decision to allow a Colorado baker to refuse to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple on religious grounds.
But according to a new paper by a University of Illinois philosopher and legal scholar, same-sex marriage doesn’t have to remain a lightning rod or flashpoint in the culture wars between secular and religious values.
“There are many things that religious observers consider to be attacks on the religious institution of marriage, but same-sex marriage need not be one of them,” said Robin B. Kar, an internationally recognized scholar of contract law, philosophy of law, and moral and legal philosophy. “The historical processes that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage cannot be understood as mere wins for secularism.”
For centuries before the rise of same-sex marriage, religious marriage had itself been evolving from a largely political and pragmatic arrangement, with little place for personal choice of partner or romantic fulfillment, into something very different. Marriage was becoming a “love-based social institution, where personal choice and expectations of romantic fulfillment became paramount,” Kar said.
“This historical fact is well-known, but what is less often acknowledged is how religious conceptions of marriage were changing in the process,” he said. “Marriage was essentially being reconceived as a social institution that could help support the maturation of early romantic desire, so that individuals could grow past narrow, ego-driven interests and attach themselves to wider communities of concern.”
Many people of faith consider marriage a religious institution, but they do not always consider the relevance of these expanding religious and spiritual functions of marriage to contemporary debates over marriage equality, Kar said.
“Many perceive only a shift from what they view as religious conceptions of marriage to a more contractual and secular arrangement, rooted in personal interest,” he said. “But the historical picture is more complicated. In fact, what many people consider ‘traditional marriage,’ with its deep ties to romantic love and personal choice, only became widespread in the last three centuries or so.”
The paper considers these developments through the lens of “transformational marriage” – a concept that Kar developed to account for these changes. Drawing on the writings of Pope Francis, Kar defines transformational marriage as a “social institution that aims to help individuals mature in their capacities for love, break free from the strictures of ego-driven desire, and attain greater personal communion with a wider set of concerns.”
“The value of transformational marriage can be understood in both secular or religious terms, and it can be understood within the religious terminology of many different faiths, but its value is not limited to opposite-sex couples,” he said.
If given sufficient social and pastoral support, same-sex marriage of the transformational variety has underappreciated spiritual, religious and transformative potential, Kar said.
“Even if same-sex marriage reflects a break in Western tradition, thinking of it in these terms should significantly complicate the way that committed religious observers respond to recent legalizations of same-sex marriage,” he said.
Given the importance that many attach to Scripture in these debates, Kar examined the scriptural passages most commonly cited as prohibiting same-sex marriage.
“Those passages may prohibit some same-sex conduct in some circumstances,” Kar said, “but they do not plausibly address same-sex love-based relationships of a transformational variety. How could they, when transformational marriage had not yet arrived on the historical scene?
“Unfortunately, some peoples’ capacities for romantic love are currently being denigrated and cast as mere hedonistic impulses, while others’ have been reconceived as gateways to greater emotional and spiritual maturation.”
It helps to recognize that same-sex marriage is the partial result of the recent historical rise of transformational marriage for opposite-sex couples, Kar said.
“Understanding that fact will make same-sex marriage look less like a historical outlier, and more like the culmination of broader historical developments,” he said. “Over time, the denigration of romantic love has undermined the full religious and transformative functions of love-based marriage for opposite-sex couples. But given the rise of transformational marriage, with its dependence on romantic love and personal choice, religious opposition to same-sex marriage now has similar religious and spiritual costs.”
The paper was published in “The Contested Place of Religion in Family Life,” which was edited by Robin Fretwell Wilson, the Roger and Stephany Joslin Professor of Law at Illinois.