Friday, July 31, 2009

church, state, and gay marriage

Church, state, and gay marriage

A few weeks ago, the Metro published a column by a writer sympathetic to the gay-marriage opponents. He spoke about their sincere religious beliefs, and then went on to explain what the bible says. It was gently toned but hardly enlightening. What interested me most was his implicit assumption that the sincerity of the religionists’ convictions somehow meant that the rest of us should let them have it the way they want it.

At first I had my usual reaction. They are entitled to their beliefs but not to attempt to enforce those beliefs on society. But something still bothered me about the column. I reread it. There it was: the writer was treating marriage as if it were one institution. And it dawned on me that I had never heard that notion explicitly refuted. The refutation is implicit in all the pro-gay-marriage arguments, and surely it must be spelled out somewhere. But I haven’t seen it. And if I haven’t, surely some others haven’t.
Marriage is not one institution. Once upon a time it was. When the Christian church ruled Europe, when the Holy Roman Emperor took on that title as a claim to his divinely inspired secular power, it was. Even after the Wars of Religion, it was.
But with the separation of church and state, it changed. Marriage was bifurcated into two separate but usually interwoven institutions. There was religious marriage, and civic marriage. Perhaps that was a mistake; perhaps marriage itself should have remained the domain of the church—or, later, of the various religious and social institutions to which people were attached. It might then have taken its place with the rest of the religious rites--ordination of priests, bar-mitzvah’s, first communions—all accepted and respected by the law, but conferring no legal rights or obligations on the citizenry at large.

Obviously, it didn’t happen that way. We have two separate forms of marriage, usually conflated in the public imagination because when it is performed by a religious officer –priest, minister, rabbi— it functions simultaneously as a civil marriage. The fact that the one ceremony performs a dual role is easy to blur and indeed to forget...
Yet we have also long had, and continue to have, legal marriage apart from religion—you go to city hall, or (my personal favorite image) run off in the middle of the night to wake up some befuddled justice of the peace. Legally this procedure confers exactly the same rights as you’d have gotten in a religious ceremony.
Far less frequently, but importantly, it has gone the other way. A couple unable to legally marry goes to a sympathetic clergyperson, and has a wedding ceremony that acknowledges the sacred reality of their union, which remains unacknowledged by the state. A few heterosexual couples have chosen such a wedding, wanting to formally affirm their union without bringing the state into it. And it remains even now the only kind of marriage available to most gays and lesbians.
When the separate functions of marriage get blurred, it’s easy to confuse them and try to keep the ideals of the one entrenched in the other. Marriage is perceived as God-given and god-defined. Within the religious institution, that makes sense. In that realm, the belief in a god with a certain set of rules exists though differently among different religions and different factions within a religion. The God who offers his body and blood in the Holy Communion no doubt wants all marriages to be between one man and one woman (though in spite of the eternity-babblings of less historically astute Christians, even God changed his mind, somewhere between the polygamous Old Testament and the monogamous New one). Followers of that god have every right to insist that a marriage between two men or two women is not a marriage in His eyes. .Canon law may withhold religious sanction of such a marriage.
But in a country that defines itself as a democracy, legal institutions must be equally available for everyone. The divorcee who is not permitted to remarry in her own church may nonetheless be remarried legally. The Catholic priest who leaves the priesthood may be committing a sin in the eyes of a church that views his religious vows as binding for life. He remains in the secular world precisely what he was before, his legal rights unhindered. And in any state, the man who wishes to marry another man may have a hard time finding a cleric who will perform the ceremony. But that is the right of the cleric, as it is the right of the congregation to reject the spiritual validity of the marriage. It is not the right of the government to withhold the legal status from some of its citizens while granting it to others. If marriage is forced to conform to religious beliefs, it has no reason and no right to be a civil institution.

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