Tuesday, October 26, 2004

One of the frustrating things about studying history is that you must constantly confront people who believe that because something is now true and seems totally natural, it must always have been true and in fact be a timeless law of nature. And if you study history, you know that this is seldom the case. I once heard conservative film commentator Michael Medved proclaim on some talk show that violent movies should be outlawed because they threaten childhood innocence, and protecting childhood innocence is the foundation of Western Civilization. I don't really have a position on violent movies, except to point out that I don't think it was a coincidence that Medved's example happened to be a serious movie that condemned torture rather than your average Hollywood shoot-'em-up, but I do know that the idea of childhood innocence is not the foundation of Western Civilization, unless you believe that Western Civilization is a pretty recent invention. Unless I'm very much mistaken, the idea that children were innocent didn't take hold until the Englightenment, when it supplanted the much older idea of innate depravity. Lots of participants in Western Civilization believed, and continue to believe, that children are born infinitely sinful and guilty and that the best way to deal with that is to use lots of violent images to terrorize them into accepting Jesus as their only salvation. Hence all the little kids at that Mel Gibson gore-fest. Medved, like me, is Jewish, so the whole innate depravity thing probably seems as, well, depraved to him as it does to me. But unless you want to exempt much of the Christian tradition from "Western Civilization," you have to admit it exists.

Similarly, there's something slightly perverse about the insistance that marriage has "always been between a man and a woman." It's even more comical that anti-same-sex marriage types call this "Biblical marriage." If you actually look at the Bible, you will find many instances in which marriage was between one man and up to 700 women. The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament, Torah, whatever) was written in a society in which polygamy was just hunky-dory. If you think that the U.S. is founded on a legacy that goes back to the Bible, that's part of our heritage. I'd argue that it's a pretty oppressive, nasty part of our heritage, but that's not really the point. I think that marriage, like all institutions, changes over time. I believe we should go with the system of marriage that is the most just and that works the best, not the one in some ancient, deeply weird text. It's not a problem for me that the Bible reflects some ideas about gender and family and whatnot that are really foreign to modern people. But if you want to claim that the current system of marriage is a law of God or nature, the Bible, not to mention the historical record, is going to present you with some serious challenges.

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