There's a lot to be said for what opponents of same-sex nuptials call "traditional marriage."
According to historian Neil Rolde, testifying about Maine's matrimonial heritage before a legislative committee last month, the state passed a law in 1883 making it illegal for "idiots" to marry.
That probably took care of most first marriages. And all third marriages.
Rolde also noted that at various times in Maine history, statutes prohibited wedded bliss for Catholics, Quakers, and people of differing races. At one point, Maine abruptly announced it wouldn't recognize civil divorce proceedings, thereby turning many remarried folks into bigamists.
These sorts of traditions could have inspired Ralph Waldo Emerson's observation: "Is not marriage an open question, when it is alleged, from the beginning of the world, that such as are in the institution wish to get out; and such as are out wish to get in."
Of course, opponents of gay wedlock aren't relying on state law or the musings of a transcendentalist when they talk about traditional marriage. They're basing their convictions on the Bible.
At least, the parts they agree with.
They're comfortable quoting the chapters where God comes down hard on incest, adultery, and homosexuality, but less likely to mention the verses where He gives a pass to polygamy, wife-beating, and the summary execution of people who marry outside their tribes.
This sort of theological selectivity is so ... uh, traditional with those opposed to same-sex marriage that it doesn't seem to trigger any cognitive dissonance.
At the public hearing on April 22 on the bill to legalize such unions, Pastor Danny Campbell of Augusta's Church of Christ told legislators, "It's a question of whether we're going to follow Biblical truth or our own desires."
Which category covers polygamy?
According to a letter to the editor of the Bangor Daily News from Stephen J. Martin of Amity, a member of the Republican State Committee, "Nationally, God believes in absolutes."
Nationally? Are there different rules in Australia? Can the Aussies marry koalas?
In an op-ed piece in the Portland Press Herald last December, the Reverend Neil Farrar of the Church of the Rock in Topsham rejected all secular tampering with holy matrimony. "For God is not bound to man's democracy," Farrar wrote, "rather we will be ultimately bound to His theocracy in eternity."
That theocracy thing might not be your most effective political argument.
Some opponents of same-sex marriage seem to have recognized that. They're trying to shift the debate away from religious doctrine to avoid alienating secular voters.
Bob Emrich, pastor of the Emmanuel Bible Baptist Church in Plymouth, went to great lengths in a recent Bangor Daily op-ed to avoid mentioning the Bible. "[M]arriage is a fundamental social institution," Emrich wrote. "Social institutions are the web of core values, understandings and meanings shared by all members of a society." He then adds, "There is no social institution of 'religious marriage' and another of 'civil marriage' in Maine or anywhere else. There is only the social institution of marriage."
In an April 30 Press Herald op-ed, the Maine Marriage Alliance's Tim Russell of Sidney claimed gay coupling conflicted with secularists' most basic beliefs: Darwin's theories. "[I]f reproduction and efficiency of reproduction are at the heart of natural selection," Russell wrote, "then homosexual couples cannot fulfill this core Darwinian tenet."
Richard Malone, the Roman Catholic bishop of Maine, took a less wacky approach in the April 23 Press Herald, saying his opposition to same-sex marriage "comes not more from theology but from the effect on society. It's more of an anthropological, philosophical thing than anything else."
Based on past musings of the bishop and his allies, it's possible to guess what sort of "anthropological, philosophical thing" marriage could become for those people who meet the qualifications to get hitched, which is to say nice, moral, straight people.
There'd be almost no divorce. Both the Catholic Church and Michael Heath of the Maine Family Policy Council (who's keeping a low profile in this fight because he continues to stress religious arguments against gay wedlock and because his abrasive style has rendered him the political equivalent of swine flu) are on record in favor of making the marriage contract all but unbreakable.
Birth control? Forget it.
Abortion? Are you kidding?
Sex? Only for procreation. Heath favors making "sodomy" and homosexuality crimes. Malone doesn't go that far. He just thinks being gay is a sin.
What's weird is that if these religious types got their way, marriage in Maine would require such strict government regulation that it really would become a secular institution.
Thanks to Mike Tipping and his blog (mainepolitics.net) for tipping me off to Rolde's testimony. You can e-mail me at email@example.com. No marriage proposals, please. I'm non-polygamous.