Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The joining together of persons in a union marked by affective or conjugal intimacies; one of the foundational institutions of society. As such, it affects and is in return affected by the activity of other institutions, such as economy, education, and religion. As the purveyor of meaning and source of legitimation, religion plays a central role in explaining cultural beliefs, values, and prescribed action patterns for marital relationships. Religion provides for boundaries affirming marriage as well as consequences for those who fall short of religion's ideals.

Marriage provides the first functional unit into which peoples divide themselves. Marriage may regulate sexual access, procreation, and membership of offspring into the larger culture as well as claims on resources both present and future. There are clearly well-documented differences between Eastern and Occidental structures governing the role of the conjugal, kin groups and of inheritance structures (see Goody 1983). Nevertheless, animist and folk forms of religious life may depend on the marital unit as a basis for clan membership and its related objects of worship and sacred awe. Marriage can determine one's place in the religious panoply (Orthodox Judaism, for example), or it can be the paradigmatic relationship describing the ineffable bond between a god and the believers (e.g., Christianity). Religion defines, celebrates, and protects marriage with sacred spaces; religion also acts as oppressor and violator when its teachings demand inequity and loss of self-determination in marriage. This entry will survey Western models of religion and marriage using monotheism's traditions from antiquity into modernity; in general, however, analogues for other civilizational complexes across geohistory can be found to complement the principal trajectories of the Western case.

Economics, Contracts, and Conjugal Love

In the First Letter to the Corinthians (7:9) of the Christian New Testament, St. Paul writes that "it is better to marry than to burn." Obviously, marriage was not held in high regard in terms of access to the deity. Yet, throughout much of the Greco-Roman world, the monogamous union of the propertied classes was held to be an important social institution for the purposes of property arrangement. Lower classes did not actually "marry" even though their permanent monogamous couplings were held to be similar in function. Marriage was the chief business of the upper classes: It was the difference between dependence on parents and legal independence; it was the full initiation into adulthood for the woman (the man may have achieved that separately and earlier); it provided for satisfactory conjugal relationships and the parenting of children, specifically as legitimate heirs to family wealth.

Ceremonies governing the business transaction of the marriage often were seen as binding at the betrothal stage; religious trappings were added to this economic "handshake" as well as being useful in the symbolic (but usually less important) marriage ceremony itself (Boswell 1994). Roman husbands and wives shared a life that intertwined procreative, parenting, economic, community, and legal responsibilities. But marriage was not necessarily the seat of love; it was left to the industrialized West to develop notions of romantic love. Between the Roman Empire and the romance of the capitalist era, we have the Catholic Church, which as early as the third century defined marriage as "the union of man and wife persevering in a single sharing of life," with emphasis on propagation as the primary goal of marriage. The natural bond of marriage existed before the church; however, the church held that Christ had elevated marriage to a sacrament, for which state the church alone held full responsibility.

The Council of Trent in 1566 defined marriage as that sacrament in which is found the source of educating God's people in the religion and worship of the true God. The pre-Christian Greco-Roman world understood marriage as a business contract; by the sixteenth century, dominant Christian religious culture defined marriage as instituted by God for the sole benefit of his people. Along the way, religion took over as arbiter of the civil component of the relationship, although not without challenges from various secular authorities. Nevertheless, by the fourteenth century, the church held inviolably that the sacredness of the sacrament superseded the secular interests in forming this contract.

This transformation from secular economic partnership to sacred contract creates a backdrop to the development of what is now seen as the Western basis for marriage: romantic love. Ideas from the troubadours of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, most definitely influenced by the Cathari (a movement the church condemned as heretical), centered on "love" as a model for devotion-from-afar under the heraldic code of chivalry. Stories of unrequited "love" were carried about the Cathari regions by troubadours, whose paradigmatic story is that of Tristan and Issolde : Love can lead only to death, the story goes in its earliest form.

By the start of the industrial revolution, the separation from the family unit of production, education, and even the dispersal of kin meant the conjugal unit needed more than an economic contract to maintain the indissoluble bonds made increasingly stringent by church teachings. Love was borrowed from the courtly poems of the troubadours as a way of bonding together, after the fact, the marital pair.

Love, Sex, and Marriage

In The Natural History of Love (Doubleday 1994), Morton Hunt describes the movement, throughout the industrial revolution, of marriage away from an arrangement for economic inheritance and property rights toward an arrangement between appropriate families for financial and, perhaps, mutual support and affection. Increasingly, love is idealized and idolized in literature and popular culture. With asides to Jane Austen, many an impoverished young woman was given in marriage to gain financial stability, and not a few heirs of entailed estates searched for purse strings behind coquettish looks. The nouveau riche and the bourgeois middle class, once ignored, were now players on the marriage field.

Throughout these centuries, marriage was considered essentially indissoluble. Unlike the Semitic, nomad cultures whence Western Christian culture was born, a man could not simply put aside a wife by returning the dowry money and sending her away with a writ of divorce. By the eleventh century, Christianity's hold on the civil law of the land created in marriage an indissoluble bond (see Mackin 1982). Relief could come only from papal annulment, decreeing the marriage to have been lacking in sacramental bond from the first. History only need look to the marital problems of England's Henry VIII to discover that not even the rich and powerful could guarantee themselves rid of a legal wife.

By the twentieth century, several forces joined together to slowly open the possibility of divorce. The 1917 revolution in Russia and the socialist movements in many Western countries held women to be equals and divorce to be readily available—although this was more a socialist ideal than a practical reality. Women gained enfranchisement in many countries; universal education for girls was increasing; factory employment for women was readily available (although women's wages were still lower than those of men); notions of romance and emotional attraction were encouraged by both high and popular culture; contraception within marriage was more widely discussed and used (and supported by Protestants of the Social Gospel ilk). Both world wars created an atmosphere of intensity and the feeling that there was no tomorrow; but it was the "make love not war" generation of the 1960s that broke sexuality fully away from its ties to love and marriage, and created of sex a recreational activity.

Today the need for marital stability across a lifetime has dissipated. The need to tie nuclear families together as working units by love and marriage has declined. Women's income has steadily risen. Children reared by one parent, stepparents, or a combination of parenting units are no longer an exception but the norm. Religious bodies now need to recognize to varying degrees that, with increased life expectancies (especially in Western postindustrial countries), we need different partners for the different lifetimes we have. First, lust, passion, and sexual experimentation as young adults lead to multiple partners, childbearing, and perhaps marriage. Stability, economic partnership, and a rediscovery of romance may mark the marriage or remarriage of younger middle age and into the midlife crisis. Relationship, companionship, and sexuality freed from the demands of launching adolescents into the adult world may create partnerships (not necessarily marriages) in the maturing years. Even Max Weber understood the "passionate enthusiasm of youth" to contrast deeply with "the mature love of intellectualism reaffirm[ing] the natural quality of the sexual sphere . . . as an embodied and creative power" (in Kent 1985:319).

Different churches offer reconciliations of divorce, remarriage within the church, and counseling and support groups for ex-spouses and children from divorces (Mackin 1984). Some religious leaders are asked to bless sacral, without creating civil, bonds of the partnerships of those drawing Social Security. A few, notably the Unitarians and the Metropolitan Community churches, offer ceremonies marking the unions of same sex couples.

The growth of worldwide fundamentalism stands in a reactionary position against this view of marriage as, at best, a form of serial polygamy. Fundamentalisms denounce marital breakdown, discourage or disallow remarriage, completely prohibit recognition of a homosexual lifestyle, and seek to promote the "traditional" family as the only viable sacred option socially, economically, and emotionally.

Current Research Trends

While secularization theory suggests religion has become a less important determinant of family behaviors and outcomes, other research emphasizes the growing importance of such factors as women's increasing socioeconomic status and involvement in the workforce in creating today's marriage "marketplace" of serial monogamy, alternative lifestyles, and single parenting (to name a few variations). Organized religions and their formal teachings seem to affect directly neither religious behavior within family units nor women's changing roles and economic contributions. Divorce rates are static but not declining, yet marriage as an institution is healthy, as individuals "try it again."

The future may hold a deeper division between those religious bodies defining marriage and its prescriptions within the context of the here and now, allowing for the replacement of partners "when love dies," to use a phrase popular in the 1970s, and those continuing the tradition of indissoluble and irrevocable marriage vows. People may move from one to another (or to no) religious body depending on life stages. Marriage itself is alive and well, as attested by the high rate of remarriage and divorce. Stigma has all but disappeared from divorce among the baby boomers now entering their middle age (and middle state) of married life. Those younger are reluctant to marry easily but more ready to divorce when the relationship sours. Personal lifestyles and religious ideals may move farther apart as culturally legitimate opportunities grow and persist for sexuality, relationship, and social and economic recognition outside of marriage.

See also Homosexuality, Sexuality and Fertility

Barbara J. Denison


J. Boswell, Same Sex Unions (New York: Villard, 1994)

W. D'Antonio and J. Aldous (eds.), Families and Religions (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1983)

B. J. Denison, "Papal Authority," Social Compass 37(1990):269-279

J. Goody, The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983)

T. B. Heaton and M. Cornwall, "Religious Group Variation in the Socioeconomic Status and Family Behavior of Women," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28(1989):283-299

S. A. Kent, "Weber, Goethe and William Penn," Sociological Analysis 46(1985):315-320

T. Mackin, What Is Marriage? (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1982)

T. Mackin, Divorce and Remarriage (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1984).

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