The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Justice Roberts cited the traditions of four cultures in his dissent on gay marriage. Here’s what he didn’t mention.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. greets President Obama on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012, prior to the president's State of the Union address. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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In his written dissent to the Supreme Court's decision to effectively legalize gay marriage in all 50 states in the United States, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. made a conspicuous gesture to the rest of the world. He referred to the "social institution" that the majority of the court was "transforming," and anchored its legitimacy in the currents of history.

...the Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?

It's not quite clear to WorldViews why Roberts decided to implicate these four particular cultures in his opposition to the legalizing of gay marriage. But we can suggest reasons why they are hardly exemplars of "traditional" unions between men and women.

The Kalahari Bushmen

These hunter-gatherers in sub-Saharan Africa have long been the world's stock image of "primitive man," and presumably that's why Roberts referenced them -- as the stereotype of an atavistic people, whether it's fair or not. (It's not, but let's move on.) The Kalahari Bushmen don't have very strong wedding practices, and don't pay much attention to ceremonies around mating.

Early European accounts of tribes and kingdoms encountered in southern Africa included details of warrior women styling themselves as kings (not "queens"), polygamous households where lesbianism was common, and even ancient Bushmen rock paintings depicting explicit homosexual sex.

Han Chinese

Again, it's unclear what exactly Roberts is invoking by mentioning the largest ethnic group in China. Gay marriage is not legal in China, but activists are working to change that. A whole set of other "traditional" wedding practices -- including the grisly custom of "corpse brides" -- are banned.

During the Han dynasty, the ancient lineage of kings that gives the Han their name, homosexuality was rife. Almost all the emperors -- you know, the lawgivers of the land -- of the Western Han dynasty apparently had same-sex lovers.

The Carthaginians

For centuries, the Carthaginians were Rome's greatest rival, and sparred for preeminence in the ancient Mediterranean. The great Hannibal, general of Carthage's legions, famously crossed the Alps with war elephants in 218 B.C. and almost snuffed out the world-conquering empire before it bloomed. Sadly for him, things went the other way.

Now, some right-wing Italian scholars of Roman history see in Carthage the seeds of Rome's eventual fall. Why? Well, according to Roberto De Mattei, formerly the deputy head of Italy's National Research Council, Carthage "was a paradise for homosexuals." After it was conquered by Rome, said De Mattei in 2011, "the abhorrent presence of a few [Carthaginian] gays infected a good part of the [Roman] people."

De Mattei's remarks led to a heated backlash, but one imagines Roberts was not that aware of the debate.

The Aztecs

Here's an excerpt from a discussion of Aztec customary law on the Web site of the University of Texas at Austin. It hardly presents a picture-perfect snapshot of conservative family values:

Marriage was conditional in that the parties could decide to separate or stay together after they had their first son. Marriages could also be unconditional and last for an indefinite period of time. Polygamy and concubines were permitted, though this was more common in noble households and marriage rites were only observed with the first, or principal, wife. Aztec families could live in single family homes, though many opted to live in joint family households for economic reasons.

Then you have to factor in the whole human sacrifice thing. Children, meanwhile, needed to behave: "Parents were permitted to physically punish their children, and would beat them using maguey spines or force them to inhale chili smoke," notes UT-Austin's site.

Scenes from New York City's 2015 gay pride parade. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)
The Supreme Court's gay marriage decision explained in 60 seconds. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)