Thursday, July 9, 2015

Same-sex unions and interracial marriage: does one really follow from the other?

The only "anti" people of interest in any debate are invariably Amerifats with ill-fitting clothes and redneck accents. True story.
Nothing wakes me up from my usual break-of-day stupor like reading an article as insidiously misleading as the Weekly Sift's "You Don't Have to Hate Anybody to Be a Bigot". Until today, I judiciously refrained from directly commenting upon last week's U.S. Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage because I didn't think I could contribute anything to that debate beyond what I had already said in "Why Oklahoma's House Bill 1125 should make everyone happy (or equally mad)" last March; that anything further would be merely agitprop or preaching to the choir.

The Modern Medievalist as Hollywood villain.
Of course, what you and I both know is that, at least for the foreseeable future, history will not look back kindly on those who have resented the idea of same-sex marriage as anything other than a constitutional right that naturally follows the path of social progress. The Onion, that most truthful of media outlets (and I say that completely unironically), published the headline "Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Alito Suddenly Realize They Will Be Villains In Oscar-Winning Movie One Day" back in 2013! I add to it my own prediction that Thomas will be played by a white actor to more easily categorize the forces of good and evil into, pardon the pun, black-and-white terms. My only consolation is that, when the said movie premieres, I won't have to watch myself caricatured onscreen by the next generation's Keanu Reeves because I, as a "homoskeptic" who is neither a redneck nor above the age of 50, will be written out of the accepted narrative entirely.

Up to this point, the author of the offending Sift article will nod his head in agreement. In his comparison of today's great gay debate to yesterday's controversy over interracial marriage and racial equality, Doug Muder isn't interested in the cross-burning Klansmen, the white trash throwing hot coffee and screaming obscenities at black patrons occupying a lunch counter, or other such extreme outliers of their day. He's speaking of the "sedate and thoughtful people who were not aware of hating anyone", the bigots who were wholly rational in their opposition to otherness and who were doomed to be forgotten by history because, most likely, they were our grandparents: in Muder's words, "The thoughtful, intellectual, devout defenders of an unjust status quo are forgotten, because their memory embarrasses their heirs."

I would even go so far as to agree with Muder that he builds a strong case against the idea of social conservatism itself. The word "conservative" inherently suggests a desire to preserve the status quo. The trouble with that for someone concerned with the capital-T Truth above all is that, if the social mores of, say, 1950's America were bankrupt (and they were), then today's conservative is merely yesterday's liberal, and conservatism is really part of the problem. The Modern Medievalist's goal here has always been to analyze problems with a mind to the greater picture of western history, thereby liberating ourselves from the prison of seeing everything in terms of the past ten, thirty, or even three hundred years. 

So, let's get down to business: is the right for a man to wed another man, or a woman to wed another woman, truly on the same continuum of social progress and conservative resistance as was interracial marriage, civil rights for people of color, or even slavery itself? Muder wants us to believe so, and in all honesty, that version will win the day. But for those interested in the facts of history, this simply isn't the case; and while I have no qualm with drawing from my own Christian worldview to make the case if I feel it necessary, a simple outlining of facts suffices below.

First, why did the United States have laws against interracial marriage to begin with? Was it an established doctrine of Christianity? Was it even a latent prejudice that always existed in western society, backed up by out-of-context prooftexts from holy writ? In truth, the opposition to miscegeny is of a much later vintage; even an innovation in the greater story of the west. In 1944, the California Law Review journal published an excellent essay on "Statutory Prohibitions Against Interracial Marriage", which you may read for yourself here. The comment eruditely points out that "at common law there was no ban on interracial marriage". The first laws against interracial marriage in the entire English-speaking world didn't come about until 1661 in Maryland.

Saint Maurice as patron of the Holy Roman (German) Empire, complete with imperial flag!
Let me make this as clear as possible: laws against interracial marriage did not exist in medieval Christendom. They had to be invented, and even then, only two full centuries after the re-introduction of slavery in the west. I assure you as well that their late arrival isn't merely because there were no black people in medieval Europe, because there were, even if they were few and far between. But common law, the body of English jurisprudence which the United States inherited, had no place for either slavery or bans on interracial marriage. Lord Mansfield, one of the greatest judges in the history of Anglo/American law, is attributed with saying "the air of England is too pure for any slave to breathe". In any case, Mansfield's ruling in Somerset vs Stewart (1772) was that slavery had no basis in common law, nor had Parliament or any other body ever legalized it in the realm. On the contrary, in 1102, the church synod of Westminster, convened under Saint Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, explicitly outlawed the slave trade as inconsistent with Christianity: "Let no man, for the future, presume to carry on the wicked trade of selling men in markets, like brute beasts." The consequence of Somerset vs Stewart was that all 15,000 slaves in England and Wales at that time were to be immediately emancipated, though its effect on the other domains of the British Empire was uncertain.

Muder's article admits that in our own country's debate over slavery, there was a split among the churches between abolitionists in the north and slavery apologists in the south; but is that in any way comparable to that of liberal and conservative Christians today over same-sex unions? Liberals will concede that 50 years ago, it was unimaginable for any church, even the Unitarian Universalists, to endorse same-sex marriage. By contrast, Christians were divided over the morality of slavery from the very moment in 1493 when Christopher Columbus brought men from Hispaniola back to Spain in chains, beginning the triangular trade. Reflect, for a moment, how extreme it must have been for Queen Isabella, of all people; who had grown up in a culture of intermittent warfare against the Moors for over five centuries--more closely resembling the nightmare of George R.R. Martin's Westeros than the comparably idyllic kingdom of England--who led her realm in the final act of the reconquista, the capture of Granada, just two years prior, and accepted that there were conditions in which Moors on the losing side of war who also refused to convert to Christianity could be enslaved; nevertheless rejected Columbus's gift of native American slaves and had him return them to their homes in the West Indies in 1498, on the basis that the the natives too were now citizens of Castile and immune to enslavement.

From there, Christian outrage against the slave trade continued with Dominican friars such as Bartolomé de las Casas returning from the plantations of the new world with one horror story after the next, demanding immediate reform and recognition of native Americans as humans with equal rights and dignity as Spaniards. These theologians and moral authorities persuaded Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (whose rule also included the Spanish Empire), to pass the New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians in 1542. The Leyes Nuevas abolished slavery in the Spanish colonies and provided for the gradual abolition of the encomienda system. Unfortunately, they stood in the way of profit, spurring plantation owners to open revolt against the viceroys and royal agents; as a result, the laws ultimately had little lasting effect. With the passing of time, slavery had become a "new normal".

Another hundred years would need to go by in order for laws against interracial marriage to even be conceived. Unlike the Spanish Empire, where miscegenation was widely practiced and accepted from the beginning, the English colonists in north America gradually came to see skin color as the most useful differentiator between "free" and "slave". Even in Virginia's earliest days at Jamestown, the first twenty black laborers who arrived in 1619 were regarded only as indentured servants because English law acknowledged no slavery. They joined one thousand white indentured servants on equal terms. 

1662 was a watershed moment for the institution of slavery as we know it in America. In direct contradiction to the received common law, Virginia passed a law whereby the children of slaves would take on the mother's condition in law, not the father's (common law does just the opposite). In this, fathers were now lifted from the past obligation of regarding their slave-born children as free.... and since most sexual affairs between slave and free were, by far, between free men and enslaved women, this ensured the perpetuation of slavery among mixed-race children. Again, a "new normal" had been attained, which was important to keep up by the passage of laws against interracial marriage that would have seemed nonsensical in any other place and time in the course of Christian civilization. By the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, slavery was so entrenched in the culture and economy that any talk of abolition threatened to abort the Union.

Still, people like Muder would mistake the widespread acceptance of slavery for an endorsement by the tenets of the Christian faith. One might even be tempted to see the abolitionists of the north as the forefathers of our generation's gay-friendly Christian denominations (such as the modern Episcopal Church), who also happen to be concentrated in the north today. Appearances can be deceiving; for just as the Democratic Party was once the party of slavery and the "solid south", so too was the north, not the south, the hub of fundamentalist Christianity. 

Now, naturally, even the mildest and least committed of 19th century Christians could easily come off as zealots if they were transplanted to the year 2015. But in broad strokes, Americans of the antebellum South had a more lax approach to their religion than their Yankee counterparts. It was a genteel kind of religion which, as in Europe, played its part in the ceremony of statecraft but was awkward at the parlor and dinner table. The religious justifications for slavery in the South, in other words, were very much a liberal view to accommodate the spirit of the times and counter the firebrand arguments against it by the "fundamentalists" of the north. Compare the secular, freespirited lyrics of Dixie ("There's buckwheat cakes and Injun batter,/Makes you fat or a little fatter") to the apocalyptic militancy of the Battle Hymn of the Republic ("Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord/He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored"). 

When I look at our present time, I see, among the most ardent, secular supporters of same-sex unions a kind of evangelical zeal that's very distinctly American and would make our Puritan forefathers in Massachusetts Bay proud, though perhaps for entirely different reasons. Here, their fight for "LGBT equality" has taken on the form of a crusade with corporate sponsorships, banners of war, and a sustained media campaign, wholly unrecognizable from the ways in which gay marriage has been legalized with more of an apathetic shrug in the nations of Europe (France being, as always, an odd exception). And, of course, one can't escape the irony that gay marriage is still couched in the ethics of a Christian framework: we speak of a man's right to wed another, singular man, not two or three. 

Nonetheless, to compare conservative resistance to same-sex unions in 2015 as being somehow on par with attitudes to racial equality in 1965 or slavery in 1865 is intellectually dishonest and absurd. Interracial marriage was regularly practiced in areas of medieval Europe, such as Moorish Spain, where cultures and ethnicities collided. The people of Malta, where the Knights Hospitaller made their headquarters and turned it into a bastion of Christian resistance to Ottoman incursions in Europe, were descended from miscegeny between Italians and Arabs. Same-sex unions or even the desire to establish them, on the other hand, have no precedent whatsoever in western history, even in those societies such as ancient Athens where homosexuality was widespread. No, Muder's "new normal", to the historian, is much more aptly compared to the social changes, the "new normals", that led to the re-establishment of slavery and the creation of new classifications of people, backed by the interests of commerce above all else, at the end of Europe's Middle Ages. Unfortunately, even though a column on Slate, of all places, has made a critical distinction between the two, this uncomfortable conclusion will not be permitted in polite company within a few years, if it even is now. The only thing I ask is this: to all you casting directors out there, if you absolutely must cast someone to play as me in the role of Rational Homoskeptic #4 for your upcoming, Oscar award-winning biopic on Obergefell v. Hodges and the triumph of marriage equality for all, I think Benedict Cumberbatch would be a good fit if you can't get Rufus Sewell or James Frain. I'll even take Keanu. Just, whatever you do, don't choose Rob Schneider just because you saw him on a list of half-Asian actors and he was the cheapest option. Then I would be forced to write a bad review for your movie.

P.S. Earlier this week, I published an article for Independence Day on English liberty and common law, which is of some relevance to today's discussion and which you may read here: English liberty: the tradition of rebellion, America as it could have been, and America as it should be.

P.P.S. The article I linked to on interracial marriage laws from the California Law Review early in this article was published just a few years before Perez vs. Sharp (1948), where the California Supreme Court ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional in that state. Interestingly, one of the arguments used to strike the laws down was that they infringed upon the couple's First Amendment freedom of religion. The couple, a black man and Mexican woman, were both Catholic. Since the Catholic Church was willing to witness their marriage complete with Mass, the miscegenation laws were deemed to impede their right to marry in the Church. Bet no one saw that coming.

P.P.P.S. In one of the comments to Muder's article, someone shared this thought-provoking op-ed titled A Really, Really, Really Long Post About Gay Marriage That Does Not, In The End, Support One Side Or The Other By Jane Galt. I recommend it if you still have time after reading everything else up to this point.


  1. New France, in typical French fashion, had laws that prohibited interracial marriages (but, oddly enough, not interracial sex) whilst interracial marriages were regularly declared valid by courts.

    I am, however, sceptical about whether or not these laws were taken seriously, especially in Louisiana. The mere existence of the Cajun and Creole populations simply refute any suggestion the laws had any effect.

  2. The first time the Christian view of marriage ever differed from the State's was in ancient Rome when Pope Callixtus I recognized the possibility of marriages between slaves and between slave and free, which was not permitted in Roman law. Now the state has gone too far in the other direction.