Friday, November 21, 2014

Resolving the Marriage Debate

This is another weird landmark moment, like when I posted an article from James Randi's website two weeks ago. Today I find myself in agreement with members of the religious right, at least on one issue. But that's still pretty remarkable; I never thought I would agree with them on anything.

The article in question is from First Things, a publication that has been instrumental in pushing for Christian control of the public sphere, a position that I routinely mock here on Augoeides. But in response to the rising legality of same-sex marriage, the article advocates churches getting out of the "government marriage" game. I couldn't agree more.

As the legal reality of marriage changes, we must also act. If the churches continue as if nothing has changed, the message is that for all our strong words nothing really decisive is at stake. It’s now time, then, to think long and hard about what we need to do—or refuse to do. I can’t see how a priest or pastor can in good conscience sign a marriage license for “Spouse A” and “Spouse B.” Perhaps he should strike those absurdities and write “Husband” and “Wife.” Failing that he should simply refuse the government’s delegation of legal power, referring the couple to the courthouse after the wedding for the state to confect in its bureaucratic way the amorphous and ill-defined civil union that our regime continues to call “marriage.”

Getting out of the government marriage business is exactly what Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz now urge. They’ve formulated a pastoral pledge. It requires ordained ministers to renounce their long-established role as agents of the state with the legal power to sign marriage certificates. I find their reasoning convincing. Easy divorce, pre-nuptial agreements, a general tolerance of cohabitation, the contraceptive mentality—this degrades and obscures the meaning of marriage. But redefining marriage so that male-female complementarity is irrelevant? That’s a fundamental contradiction of the most fundamental meaning of marriage.

What the same-sex marriage debate has exposed is that the way we do marriages in this country is dumb. You apply for a "marriage license" which then has to be signed by either a minister or a civil official after conducting the ceremony. A good friend of mine asked me to officiate her wedding earlier this year, but had I not registered credentials with the state the marriage would not have been legal. That's just silly.

The problem is that now more than ever many churches and the state define marriage differently, and that should be okay. We supposedly have separation of church and state in this country, after all. It seems to me that to be legally married all a couple should have to do is sign and file the appropriate forms, which would be analogous to the "marriage license" application today. Then they could have whatever ceremony they want officiated by whoever they want, or none at all.

This has all sorts of advantages both in terms of protecting the rights of individuals and the rights of churches. Under this scheme, a church could refuse to perform a wedding ceremony for same-sex couples or previously divorced couples or whatever their doctrine specifies. Likewise, a religious marriage ceremony would have no special legal significance. If we are going to separate church and state, it strikes me as the best, most logical way to do it.

With that, I think we would be done. Government would be out of the religious marriage business, and religion would be out of the civil marriage business. While most couples will probably want to hold either a civil or religious ceremony for family and friends, I see no way in which the public good is served by requiring one. The marriage contract itself should be legally sufficient. Furthermore, the (admittedly imaginary) fear that churches could be forced to perform same-sex weddings by the government would be completely eradicated.

Perhaps this is one of those cases where the best solution is the one on which sworn ideological opponents can find agreement.

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1 comment:

Nerd said...

This is my position too. We don't need to be "licensed" by the state in order to get baptised. (yet) Why marriage? Ostensibly because of taxation.