I recently celebrated my wedding anniversary, having been married to the same woman for thirty-one years without ever straying. Newt Gingrich has been married three times, divorced one wife while she was recovering from surgery, and has had extra-marital affairs.
Guess who is considered the defender of traditional sexual morality?
It’s a strange situation where the political party with more ex-wives than candidates, that houses and defends a disturbingly amoral network of fundamentalist operators, is regarded as the protector of the sanctity of the family. They’re anything but.
I think I understand, though—it doesn’t matter what you do, all that matters is what you say. The Republicans support a version of marriage that rests on tradition, authority, and masculine dominance, and everything they do props up one leg of the tripod or the other. Public piety reinforces religious tradition; the insistence that there is one true form of marriage, between a man and a woman, which represents a legal and social commitment is part of the authoritarian impulse; and of course, if a man steps out of the matrimonial bounds, it’s an expression of machismo and patriotism and entitlement. In a March 7 interview with the Christian Broadcast Network’s David Brody, Gingrich explains his own marital infidelity like this:
There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and that things happened in my life that were not appropriate. And what I can tell you is that when I did things that were wrong, I wasn’t trapped in situation ethics, I was doing things that were wrong, and yet, I was doing it. I found that I felt compelled to seek God’s forgiveness.
Gingrich was cheating on his wife, but it’s OK — because he also tells us that it was wrong and inexcusable, and then he wraps it all up in God and country to make excuses for it. Hypocrisy is acceptable as long as the right words are said to reinforce the public face of propriety.
Now look at those dirty rotten hippies, like me. We say the ties between a couple should be made with respect and affection, not the strictures of law and precedent; letting gays marry, for instance, strengthens the public approval of our kinds of bond, while weakening the authoritarian bonds. Our ideal is a community of equals, while theirs is a hierarchy of power, a relic of Old Testament values in which marrying a woman was like buying a camel, a certification of ownership, and nothing must compromise the Big Man’s possession of properties.
If we strip marriage of the asymmetry of power, as we must if we allow men to marry men and women to marry women, then we also strip away the man and wife, dominant and submissive, owner and owned, master and servant relationship that characterizes the conservative view of marriage. This is what they want to preserve, and this is what they are talking about when people like Gingrich echo those tired phrases about “Judeo-Christian values” and complain that their “civilization is under attack”. And it is, when we challenge their right to treat one partner, so-called, as chattel.
And once you look at it that way, you see no abuse of their values when Gingrich goes tomcatting around—he’s simply asserting his traditional privilege as the Man.
Paradoxically, though, it turns marriage into a brittle business where women are stressed by subservience and oppression (believe it or not, women are human beings who might resent being treated as servants), and men feel it is their right possess any woman willing to surrender to them. It’s not surprising that their relationships break up in courtroom battles.
I don’t condemn Gingrich for getting divorced, since it just means that so far he has managed to make a couple of women very happy twice. It’s also paradoxical that I see absolutely no problem in dissolving those bonds — if two people aren’t happy together, they should separate — and that that attitude might also make a marriage stronger.
I know. I’ve been married for thirty-one years, and my relationship with my wife is solid. Not because I’ve got her shackled with a prenup, a pile of legal documents, and a willingness to abuse her to keep her in her place, but because we’re comfortable together, she with me and me with her, and there’s no stresses that might tear us apart. With both of us in academic careers, there have been years where we’ve had to live apart, and those separations have been made with complete trust in one another — while we’ve both had times when we’ve “worked far too hard,” and we’ve been “driven” by passions for our work, strangely enough it never seems to have the side effect of sending us shopping for a different mate.
So, just a suggestion: if you want a relationship that lasts, don’t rely on god, lawyers, and social pressure to force it to work. Love and reciprocal trust are the only chains that last, and the only ones that make you feel happy while wearing them.
I think those are the “secular, atheist” values that Newt and his ilk find heretical and threatening. Those values allow me to sit smug and content in a happy home while watching authoritarians discard wives.
PZ Myers is an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, creator of the popular science blog, Pharyngula, and is the 2009 Humanist of the Year.