I was shuffling through the available radio stations on a long trip when the seek function paused on a preacher. I usually pass over such offerings, but he was launching into a sermon, promising to reveal the secret of successful marriage. “Well,” I thought, “this might be interesting.” I expended a couple of calories commanding the radio to desist seeking and decided to commit a few seconds to considering someone else’s opinion on this important topic, someone unlikely to see the world my way. I agree with many preachers about many matters, but the likelihood of agreement is inversely proportional to the odds of hearing those preachers on the radio. And this one had a southern accent.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a southern accent too. But what I mean is that this guy was obviously a southern Baptist, shepherding a large metropolitan congregation of what were surely all white, all Republican, all fundamentalist, all privileged, all well-fed, all straight, hide-bound and heaven-bound suburbanites. But I know that nearly all are well-meaning, morally decent, sincere people whose experience must be taken seriously, and to fail in empathizing with them, however benighted they may be, will serve no one, least of all me. So I listened to the preacher.
He was a kindly man, funny, articulate, caring, sincere, fatherly, intelligent, dare I say wise in a certain Baptistly idiom. I could easily imagine how he finagled a “call” to such a well-heeled congregation as he had. (I remember who it was, but I won’t say the name here; suffice to say it was a very large church in a large southern city.) His idea of marriage was pretty much what is diagrammed above. He was adamant that he wasn’t speaking of changeable emotion, but trying to guide our thinking about how to bring our minds into conformity with some realities of our experience.
The preacher peppered his sermon with Scripture, but the principal reading was 1 Corinthians 13, as one might imagine. They are among the best words ever written about love by anyone in history, but of course, they are not about marriage, even though Christians generally have them recited at weddings. Paul wasn’t too keen on marriage, after all. But this sermon was not mainly about making Christ the head of the household, it was practical, divided into two halves: advice to wives, advice to husbands.
Shockingly, the preacher simply came out and said what we all sort of know and won’t admit. Men respond first and foremost to the way women look. Therefore, ladies, watch your weight, get your hair done, be dressed in becoming ways for him, and don’t let any other woman catch his eye. Yes, from the pulpit, the man said this is the secret to marriage from the woman’s side, which is about keeping your husband from straying. The female half of the congregation was reminded never to nag him, and most importantly, don’t do anything to undermine his self-confidence and do everything necessary to build it up. I thought about all this. It is basically true –given our time and place. Not many “wives,” in the relevant sense, would lose their “husbands,” in the relevant sense, if they followed this formula. Who wouldn't want an attractive partner in whose eyes one is a demi-god?
It’s all in the diagram, given the misleading name of “respect,” which I admit angers me. Respect is far too important an idea to be trivialized. But the diagram isn’t trivial. It’s about commitment, in a certain interpersonal context, and it well describes the amalgamated customs, however misguided, of our time and place –not just old fashioned people, but many, many secular folks who have moved beyond their proximal upbringings and into a wider world of vague expectations. What if this diagram is what I want? Does that make me a reactionary barbarian? A sexist pig? This diagram describes what Martin Luther King, Jr., wanted, I’ll bet. Many good and decent men want this. Of course they do –look at what they get in the deal!
Emma Goldman seethed and boiled when she mulled over the deal that men got for themselves by dominating the religious, economic/political, and legal arrangements surrounding marriage. No self-respecting person, woman or man, would consent to such an arrangement, she thought. It is inherently unequal, oppressive to women, and because of that, also dehumanizing to men. She believed we could rise above our customs and their inequalities and recognize that, as she says, love and marriage have nothing to do with each other.
Goldman allows that, in rare cases, people who are married do make it from the altar to the grave and remain in love the whole way, but they have beaten the odds. More common is the way that marriage destroys love, she says. We all know the story, but here is an interesting tidbit. Goldman cites the rising divorce rate. Did you know that between 1870 and 1910 the number of divorced persons in every 100,000 people went from 28 to 73? Clearly marriage is failing us as an institution. One wonders what Emma would say now, when 10,000 in every 100,000 people is divorced (remember that over 15,000 in every 100,000 are too young to marry, and 24,000 will never marry, etc.). The change is that women really don’t have to marry now, so many don’t, and it is easier to get out, so many do. But Goldman wouldn’t be satisfied even with marriage from inclination because of love. Love doesn’t cause marriage, she says. They are at odds.
Surely you’d like to know what that preacher said to the men. Can you guess? He said that women must feel secure, first and foremost, and that means never being taken for granted. The man must remind the woman every day that she is the only one for him –flowers, opening doors, treating her like a lady, yes, yes, all of that. But more is required. The man must actually listen to what she says, even when he isn’t interested. He must be a good bread-winner but trust her judgment about the household economics. And never let the sun go down on an argument, and even when she’s wrong, you are the man and you must apologize.
It’s hard to know what to say about all this. I want to make it harder. Meet Chang and Eng Bunker. They had an interesting life, including being married. They were also southern Baptists, of the North Carolina type –and there is no more serious type of Baptist, in my experience. They had ten and eleven children respectively. They owned slaves and ran a plantation. I wonder what that preacher would have said to them. And what would Emma say? Was it worse that they married or owned slaves, or would it be the same? It strains the limits of propriety to wonder about it, but I am going to do so in my next post.