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View from the Chair

December 22, 2015

Knowing about the past can be of practical use in a number of ways. Knowing how a given situation (movement of refugees, race relations, war) came about may help us understand what, if anything, we want to do about it. Identifying past mistakes may keep us from repeating them. Both these uses have their limits, of course. Figuring out who is to blame for a current conflict may be satisfying but does not provide a solution. Focusing on the lessons of the past can blind us to particular and novel features of a current situation.

The recent Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, requiring all states to license marriages of same-sex couples, has gotten me thinking about the use of history and its relation to tradition. All of us have traditions that we value. As we eat, sing, dress, or pray, we may enjoy being part of a long chain of people who did it the same way. We tend to focus, of course, on the positive things we share with our predecessors and not to emulate the negative ones. I love graduation processions, where the regalia evoke the medieval university, but if we were really imitating medieval universities, I would, as a woman, be unable to participate. I may eat special holiday foods that my ancestors ate, but I’m happy not to have the limited choices and quantities that they had.

In the case of same-sex marriage, the Court’s opinion took history very seriously. Justice Kennedy wrote that “[f]rom their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage.” He also noted that “[t]he history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. That institution—even as confined to opposite-sex relations—has evolved over time.” He cited a brief filed by the American Historical Association and a number of individual historians—including our own Elaine Tyler May and Barbara Welke—as amici curiae. As he noted, both sides in the case agree that historically marriage has for the most part been between one man and one woman. (Although not always: see the piece in The Atlantic’s blog by our alum David Perry, in which he interviewed me and some other historians about this.) The question is, should that part of the history of marriage be normative, or some other part? There are different stages and different aspects of the history of marriage—“continuity and change” as Kennedy wrote—and the court had to choose how to take account of that history. The court decided that the key part was that marriage is central to society and that it has remained that way by being flexible. It could have focused instead on marriage’s history as a religious institution. Neither side made the argument that because of marriage’s religious origin, the separation of church and state forbids the government from regulating it. That would have been a losing argument; civil marriage is relatively new in the “annals of human history” but it is still centuries old and the court was not about to get rid of it.

Not only the court, but all of us, all the time, have to choose how to take account of tradition. When you see a couple in their bridal dresses, you may feel that they are going against a Biblical tradition of marriage between a man and a woman, and you wouldn’t be wrong—but look again at the Hebrew Bible, because marriage there is often between one man and several women (or several hundred, in the case of King Solomon), and you have chosen one aspect of the tradition to value and another to ignore. Or you might think that in choosing to wear very expensive white gowns they have bought into a tradition that values women especially for their actual or symbolic virginity and for their conspicuous consumption—and you wouldn’t be wrong there, either, but you too have chosen one aspect of the tradition to deplore and ignored the importance of a public and ritualized commitment. Or you can look at them and realize that, like all of us, they have chosen aspects of tradition that are meaningful to them and those celebrating with them, and broken with others—and you wouldn’t be wrong.

History can show us a range of options, and how people at different points in the past have chosen among them. It can identify for us the roots of practices that different groups today understand as “traditional.” But the most important thing it does is help us to situate ourselves and make informed decisions about what we value and why.