Friday, November 7, 2008

Let's talk about gay marriage...

I'm going to take a break from finishing my little series on Girard to say a few quick things about the issue of gay marriage. Obviously, it's a "hot button" right now, with the recent approval of Prop. 8 in CA, and other anti-gay-marriage initiatives passing in FL and AZ. But my main reason for writing this is not to support or oppose gay marriage per se. It is simply to point out some apparent logical flaws that no one seems to be discussing (at least not to my knowledge).

First, it seems rather clear that we are dealing with two different definitions of "marriage" here. Until people on both sides are able to appreciate this fact and deal with it more effectively, both pro- and anti-gay-marriage proponents will continue to talk past each other. One group (typically) sees marriage as an institution ordained by God. The other (typically) sees marriage as an institution organized by the state, to provide certain benefits to people who are in committed relationships.

There is "religious" marriage, and there is "civil" marriage. The two are not the same. But they have been conflated into one grand, amorphous image of marriage that is neither real nor helpful. Marriage, as traditionally practiced throughout history in nearly every culture, was and is a religious institution. It is important to the structure of society, yes, but it (to my knowledge - correct me if I'm wrong!) has almost always, everywhere, been primarily a religious ceremony based upon religious principles.

Fine. So what's the problem? The problem is: The United States is not a nation where the laws are based primarily upon religious principles. Religion has always played a part, to be sure - after all, this nation was founded by Westerners who were steeped in the Christian tradition. Some took their faith more seriously than others. But they all agreed that religion would not be the guiding force behind the new nation. Rather, they relied primarily upon the enlightenment ideals of liberty, individuality, and justice. (We can argue about the capacity for those ideals to be realized without religious faith, but that is presently beside the point.)

Since the United States exists within the tension created by the "wall of separation" that is meant to keep religion from exercising undue influence over the state, a couple of things follow:

1) In a country where everyone can claim the freedom to equal treatment, sooner or later, a minority group of people who feel that they are being treated unjustly, with less liberties, will ask for the same "rights" as the majority.

2) In deciding whether or not those people deserve those liberties, the primary deciding factor cannot be religious beliefs. We who take our Christian faith seriously may not like that, but that is the way it is. Some Christians think we would be better off if our religion determined the laws - they want to live in an "American theocracy" of some sort. Personally, I think Scripture, history, and plain good sense tell us that would be a bad idea.

So, to make a long post short, at some point in the history of the U.S., "marriage" morphed from being primarily a religious event into something that is primarily a civil event. In fact, I would suggest that the vast majority of American marriages today are less religious than civil in nature. Whatever the case, when that began to happen, it opened the door to that same civil freedom being potentially available to anyone else in America. So, ironically, married religious people who want to ban gay marriage are in a catch-22: The very fact that they want the government to give them civil rights as married couples is the same desire that made it possible for gay marriage to become the issue it is today.

My tentative solution to this is probably not going to make anyone completely happy, but here it is: Separate the terms, and re-define marriage using two terms instead of one. "Civil marriage", unless a compelling non-religious reason can be found, should be available to all who seek it. There are those who think they have compelling non-religious reasons... I beg to differ with them, primarily because they deal in straw men, red herrings, and question begging.

As for "religious marriage" (Christian or otherwise), each religion has always retained the right to perform their ceremonies as they see fit. Many Christian churches will not marry same-sex couples, and that is their right. Other Christian churches will. But ultimately the debate in the Christian Church over gay marriage is an "in-house" issue. What the state decides about civil marriage for gays, lesbians, or anyone else is not our primary concern. If the Church can't get our own house in order, we have no business trying to dictate the actions of someone else's house... unless we have strong reason to believe that (to use a played out metaphor) they are going to burn their house down, and all the houses in the village with it.

But, since the jury is still deliberating (at least for the anti-gay-marriage folks) on whether gay people in the U.S. even really pose a threat to our society at all, it is disingenuous for Christians or other religious folks to attempt to limit civil marriage under the guise of defending religious marriage. More could be said about this, much more, but that is my rant for tonight.


Anonymous said...

good words, geoff. thanks for sharing them. - roy

Laura Brown said...

I can't comment on whether your theory about the evolution of civil marriage from religious marriage is correct, but your "solution" is pretty much the one I have always preferred. As far as I'm concerned, the state's only interest in marriage should be to regulate the division of property and responsibility for children. The only restrictions the government should place on who can marry should be aimed at preventing fraud, exploitation or abuse. Any other significance (spiritual or otherwise) to be found in the marriage should be determined by the spouses and by any religious group they choose to belong to.

I'm always amused when people state that politicians can or should protect "the sanctity of marriage"; surely only the couple involved in a particular marriage can do that.

Very nice to see a blog focusing on Girard.

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