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Whom God hath joined…

April 1st, 2007

anonymousmarriage.jpgBY TOBY TOMPKINS

It’s interesting that in the American states dominated by Bible-bangers, the divorce rates have been significantly higher over the past twenty years than in those whose populations prefer that God stay out of the State House and the bedroom. The Bible Belt keeps divorce lawyers richer than the northeastern states where the secular humanists rule (although in fairness, liberal California leads the nation in divorces per annum, but more about that below).

I know a nice guy from Alabama, a professed Christian, though he doesn’t make a fuss about it, who made a tidy fortune as a divorce lawyer until his soul began to sicken. He was spending his weekdays thinking up nasty and devious ways to put asunder those whom God had joined together, and his Sundays praising the Joiner. Well, most divorce lawyers thank God for marriage, but my friend is no hustling shyster. He’s sincere, smart, and he was seriously troubled by the gap between his beliefs and his job. When I met him (with his second wife), he was on vacation wrestling with his moral quandary. “The trouble is,” he told me, “I don’t know if I can afford to quit my practice.” The religious American’s dilemma: God hates what I do for a living, but my God how the money rolls in.

South Carolina, whose leaders thump the tub for God and holy matrimony as loudly or louder than the pols of Alabama and the rest of the Deep South, or those of the Christian Crimson block of midwestern states, had a divorce rate in 2005 far exceeding that of Massachusetts, a state whose name a godly person can’t even pronounce without spitting (well, nobody can: it sounds like a wet sneeze). Of course all manner of factors shade that finding. For example, there are a great many more South Carolinians in the military than Bay Staters, and military service is hell on marriage. And South Carolinians, other than some inhabitants of its major cities, are poorer and less educated than Bay Staters. Poor folks anywhere tend to marry very young and regret it quickly. Still, to hear the pols tell it, God still rules in the Palmetto State, and you’d think that with the preachers howling hell and damnation into their ears from the Sunday pulpit, the evening TV and the drive-time radio, South Carolinians would be too terrified to bust up their marriages with such gay abandon.

Oops, I wrote the “g” word. Of course South Carolina is violently opposed to allowing sodomites and sisters of Sappho to marry, along with every other state in the Bible Belt, although so far it hasn’t actually enacted legislation against marriages that violate the injunctions in the Good Book, every self-contradictory statement of which was directly dictated by a God who seems to be a little bi-polar, on the evidence of that same Holy Writ.

But the charismatic and terrifying preachers themselves can’t seem to stay married to the same woman for very long, as the record shows, and that must trouble their flocks. Still, when the preachers get caught with their pants or panties down, they always evoke Scripture and the fathers of Christianity to excuse themselves, a privilege they don’t extend to their followers. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (St. Paul) “God, make me holy and chaste, but not yet.” (St. Augustine) “Do as I say, not as I do.” (God himself, in most of the Old Testament, when forbidding humans to engage in the sort of behavior he exhibits when he’s having an act-out episode) “The devil made me do it.” (every celebrity preacher from Aimée Semple McPherson through Jim Bakker)

In California, although the revolving door between marriage and divorce spins fastest among the Hollywood types, the divorce rate in the conservative counties that house the mega-churches of the new evangelicals is almost as high, which is why the Golden State wins the divorce prize.

In the deeply Catholic countries of Europe getting a divorce can be still difficult, if not impossible. I gather things are loosening up in France, but in Italy and Spain, although there are usually more tourists in the churches and cathedrals than worshippers, the fear of God (or the Vatican) still survives, even if in a rudimentary, reflexive way. In Leonardo Sciascia’s novel Il Contesto, the police detective Rogas is questioning a magistrate about a series of murders involving judges and other court officials. The cynical magistrate asks him, “Are you a Catholic?” “Not a practicing one,” says Rogas. “But you are a Catholic.” “Of course, like everyone.”

So people stay married — and routinely conduct extra-marital affairs, which are regarded far less sternly than they are in hypocritical, neopuritanical America. The same casual duplicity obtains throughout Latin America. Marriage is a sacred institution ordained by God, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have it off a bit on the side. All you have to do is confess your sin to a priest, do a little penance, and be absolved to go and sin again. It’s a nifty system, which acknowledges that people are basically horny dogs (even — especially — priests).

Things are tougher in Islamic cultures, to be sure, at least for women. Sex in general and marriage in particular are still taken with deadly seriousness, in countries under Shari’a. Not only is adultery punishable by death (public stoning is still a popular spectacle in some areas), but an unmarried girl who even speaks to a boy unless she’s already pledged to him by both sets of parents runs the risk of being killed by her father, her brothers, her uncles, even her male cousins, for dishonoring her family. But breaking the pre-nup and marital rules is dangerous only for women, mainly because Muhammad was as schizophrenic as Allah/Yahweh.

The Last Prophet (well, there’s supposed to be a Final Prophet, Muhammad’s ultimate heir, due any day now, and the reason the Shi’a and Sunni continue to slaughter one another is that Muhammad didn’t leave a will), was probably illiterate. He began proclaiming his godly revelations in Mecca, and roughly the first half of the Qur’an was written down by anonymous scribes there. The Meccans of the seventh century CE were an easy-going lot when it came to religion. They were comprised of Christians, Jews, animists, and followers of gods and goddesses who predated even the prophet Abraham’s cranky Yahweh. They were merchants and traders, and they were alarmed when a bunch of armed Bedouins led by a guy claiming to speak for the One God showed up out of the desert and tried to convert them. Still, the message Muhammad brought the Meccans was essentially benign, especially when it came to the place of women in marriage and in society generally.

The Meccan suras of the Qur’an ordain that women are the rulers of the house. They give women ultimate ownership of all the goods they bring in dowry to a marriage, and they also allow women an equal right to divorce. Of course the Meccan suras don’t allow married women to sleep around, but men aren’t supposed to, either, and if a wife catches her husband in adultery, it’s grounds for divorce (though not public stoning). We are, of course, talking about free women here. Female slaves, as property, didn’t count. And men could take as many wives and concubines as they felt they could handle, thanks to the ancient Israelite exemplars who inspired Muhammad: King Solomon, for one, had hundreds of them.

History isn’t clear on exactly what happened to Muhammad and his followers in Mecca, but it appears that the Meccans didn’t take to his message and tried to assassinate him. Perhaps the reaction of the Meccans had to do with the name Muhammad had given his new faith: “Islam” means “submission.” And an open city of merchants and traders wasn’t interested in submitting to anyone, just in taking their money.

In any case, Muhammad fled with his core cadre and some other people he’d converted to the city of Medina. He was seriously pissed off. There’s reason to believe that because of the rights he’d given them in the Meccan suras, his wives (more modest than Solomon, he settled on four) were getting up in his holy face. The Meccans had had better-armed troops than Muhammad’s band of Bedouins, to enforce his departure. Medina, a smaller city, offered him no resistance, and he converted the entire population, raised a formidable army, and spent the rest of his life kicking ass and taking names all over the Middle East in the name of Allah. Naturally the first place he conquered, with spectacular brutality, was Mecca, and after he killed all the animists he co-opted their most holy object, a large stone, without doubt a meteorite that fell to earth in prehistory, which the pagans revered for its extraterrestrial mojo. Muhammad declared that the prophet Abraham (though there’s no evidence that even that epic wanderer ever vested Arabia) took it as message from the One God (“Believe in me or I’ll drop another one on your head”), and he built the Ka’aba around it, the black cube which, today, is the goal of the hajj, the pilgrimage every true Muslim must make at least once in his life. Well, nothing new about johnny-come-lately religions gobbling up the sacred objects of paganism: I wonder if the Christian Bible-bangers ever wonder where their Christmas trees come from.

Anyway, the suras of the Qur’an, which came out of his sojourn in Medina, reflect the prophet’s deadly pique. They introduce jihad, holy war, to be waged by whatever means necessary against unbelievers. They debase even free women to the status of property and take away all of the rights the Meccan suras gave them. They proclaim men absolute rulers over their wives and children, even in the house. They lay down the law regarding female attire in public, from the hijab in moderate Islamic countries to the top-to-toe burkha the Taliban favor. They restore horrible punishments for women caught in adultery and establish the basis for the “honor-killing” of girls caught talking to boys without paternal sanction. There are even Medina suras that seem to support clitoridectomy to mute female sexuality, and castration for superfluous boys to make them more submissive slaves.

And in later additions to and commentary on the Qur’an, (think Talmud v. Torah) we find Muhammad’s alleged vision of the paradise awaiting jihadist martyrs, a heavenly garden staffed by houris, seventy-two beautiful virgins possessed of both nymphomania and miraculously-renewable hymens. However, there is no equivalent fuck-heaven promised for female jihadist martyrs, which has always made me wonder why the young women strap on the explosive belt.

So marriage isn’t much fun for women in Islamist countries. It’s almost as tough for women under strict Hinduism, although Gandhi and Nehru did eliminate suttee, whereby dutiful widows were supposed to throw themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. (It still goes on, though, in some rural areas.) Buddhists are less severe, although there are severe setbacks on the reincarnation road for women who stray, like coming back as pond slime.

It all boils down to male domination, as the feminists have been saying since the days of Amanda Bloomer. Specifically, wherever women are regarded as property, draconian measures are meted out to unfaithful wives, although men get to fuck pretty much freely. But the patriarchal view on marriage is pretty beleaguered these days. Marriages as equal partnerships, entered into by relatively mature people who certainly make sure the “obey” word is left out of the ceremony, the sorts of marriages that obtain in the secularist states, the kind gay people would certainly adopt if they were given a national right to marry, just seem to last longer than the sanctified property contracts. The statistic makes the Christian Right furious and in part explains why it has started presenting itself as a noble band of outnumbered holy warriors battling the rising tide of secularism, trying to put Dad back as the head of the family (or at least the one who gets to carve the turkey even though he didn’t shlep it home, cook it, or even, increasingly, pay for it to begin with) and save Christmas from Santa and Easter from the Bunny. In fact, of course, the Christian Right, after stealing two presidential elections, ran this country until the mid-term elections of November 2006, and it’s by no means beaten yet.

Fortunately the law of this land is still secular, and divorce is readily obtainable even in the Bible Belt. And it can be said that a divorce down the road is almost built into born-again Christian marriages. The Bible-bangers don’t allow sex education in the middle or high schools they control. No condoms or any other methods of birth control can be mentioned. Abstinence until marriage is the only message. But youth will out, so teenagers fuck anyway, and the girls get pregnant. The number of teenage pregnancies among girls who have taken a sacred pledge, witnessed by their pastors and parents, to stay virgins until they’re married, is significantly higher than among girls who have not. So there’s a hasty marriage, repented at leisure.

“Honey?” “Yes, sugar?” “Well, I hope you won’t take this bad, but I’ve been thinking about the Tenth Commandment.” “Oh, sugar, why should you trouble your pretty little head about that? Just obey it. Leave the thinking to me and Pastor Jimmy.” “No, but, c’mon, honey, it says ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, nor his wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox nor his ass nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.’” “Well, golly, sugar, I’m impressed! You really have been learning your Scripture!” “Yeah, but here’s the thing, honey. It’s all about how the guy — well, the neighbor, but you’re his neighbor, so it’s about you, too, right? Anyway, it’s about how the man owns everything. OK, you don’t own an ox or a donkey, and we sure as hell don’t have servants and even if we did you wouldn’t own them unless they snuck slavery back into South Carolina while I wasn’t looking, and we co-signed the mortgage on the house. So that leaves me, and you sure as shit don’t own me. Actually I’ve been coveting our neighbor Jack’s ass, which is a helluva lot cuter than yours. So I’ve got a lawyer and I’m outa here. And I’m takin’ the kids. Bye. Honey.” •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Marriage Issue, Tompkins | Link to this Entry

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