My marriage is a living violation of the separation of church and state.
On May 2, 1998, a pastor pronounced my marriage to be legitimate based on “the authority vested in me as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the laws of the state of Minnesota.”
How did we get here? Is there any other legal ceremony that is routinely performed as a church service?
In his book Beyond “I Do:” What Christians Believe About Marriage, Douglas J. Brouwer gives us a little history lesson:
It might surprise you to know that, in the beginning, the church took relatively little interest in marriage. Early in church history, celibacy was considered to be the preferred state. It was practically sacred. The Apostle Paul said as much in 1 Corinthians 7:1.
And marriage? Well, at the beginning it was all but ignored. As one writer puts it, “When asked, some priests might come by and say a blessing as a favor, just as they’d say a blessing over a child’s first haircut.” But that was about it.
Roman law spelled out most of the requirements for marriage, and, following the words of Jesus, most early Christians were content to “render unto Caesar” in matters pertaining to marriage.
Another seemingly small but critically important characteristic of marriage in the early days of the church is that marriage was typically announced rather than pronounced . . . Early on, couples – or rather, families – would simply announce that there was going to be a marriage, and the church took little notice.
At the beginning the church didn’t pronounce a couple to be married. Church ceremonies to mark the beginning of a marriage were largely unknown . . .
Centuries rolled by with virtually no change to this arrangement. But then something began to happen. Historians don’t agree on all of the details, but what seems clear is that power became an issue. Slowly and unevenly, the church began to exert its control over Europe’s social and political life, and this included the writing of laws pertaining to marriage, family, and sex. In 774, for example, the pope gave Charlemagne, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, a set of writings that defined marriage and condemned all deviations from it.
But it wasn’t until 1215, nearly twelve hundred years after Pentecost, that the Roman Catholic Church formally decreed marriage to be a sacrament – the least important one, to be sure, but a sacrament nonetheless. Equally important, the church established a systematic canon law for marriage – with a system of ecclesiastical courts to enforce it. These actions, it’s important to see, profoundly shaped our understanding and practice of marriage until the last century.
I’m not sure why Brouwer stops at “the last century.” It seems that these actions continue to profoundly shape our understanding and practice of marriage. In my state of Minnesota, we will soon be voting on a proposed constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between one man and one woman, although it is already illegal for same-sex couples to marry in Minnesota. Many people – both for and against this amendment – seem to have no problem viewing the legal entity of marriage as the terrain of both the church and the state.
But the state does not – or should not – legislate marriage in order to define proper sexual ethics. The state legislates marriage because it is a legally binding contract between people. For various reasons, often including a sexual relationship but not always, two people decide to share their lives, including their physical property and whatever children they may produce – or adopt, or care for – together. Just as there are laws pertaining to individuals and laws pertaining to business corporations, marriage laws are (or should be) formulated to legislate the domestic partnership that two (or maybe more!) people set up together.
I anticipate some protests – “You’re making room for polygamy!” “Domestic partnerships are fine, but keep marriage sacred!” And I’ll respond momentarily.
The state sets up laws to protect people and their property from harm. These laws are supposed to be agreed upon outside the realm of religious beliefs, but within the realm of generally-accepted societal mores. And what chafes many conservatives is that our society decided, a while ago now, that homosexual behavior between consenting adults is generally acceptable. So, although it is currently not the case in most of our states, laws pertaining to marriage should not take sexual behavior into account; since our society has generally agreed that consensual sexual behavior between of-age adults, aside from any harm inflicted on people or their property, is not a legal issue.
Okay, to protest number one: polygamy. Currently, polygamy is illegal. To be honest, I’m not really sure it should be (in light of the previous paragraph). My brilliant husband dealt with this argument in this blog post on his Release of Marriage Act blog, so I will refer you there and not restate everything. In summary, the state should be legislating harmful and abusive behavior, in addition to legislating the ins and outs of shared domestic life. If children are being abused or women (or men) are being forced into relationships they do not want, then there are other laws already on the books to protect them. The state does not need to define how many people, or what gender or ethnicity of people, can enter into domestic partnerships.
(I say this through gritted teeth because as a feminist I am no fan of polygamy. I think of children being brought up in such a household, and I cringe. It’s powerfully difficult to reassess everything you were taught was normal from your earliest years. Many women in fundamentalist Mormon multiple marriages would never look at their marriage as being “forced” on them, would be grateful for the secure home their husband has made for his wives and children – and yet, I may look at those women and grieve for the potential in each of them that will never be realized. If these sentiments sound a little familiar, they are. Don’t think I can’t sympathize with the feelings of someone who opposes children being brought up by a same-sex couple simply because I don’t oppose the same particular issue. People living in a free and democratic nation must be willing to compromise.)
On to the second protest – domestic partnerships are all well and good, but let’s keep marriage sacred. I agree with this. Whatever is “sacred” about marriage should be preserved in its proper place – the religious sphere. Individual churches and denominations should have the freedom to decide how they dispense their sacraments, conduct their ceremonies, label their orthodox worshipers and heretics. As long as they do not violate the laws of the land. This basically means, please don’t burn your heretics at the stake. Please do not abuse children. Oh, I know it can and does get much more complicated than this, but as complicated and polarized as it has become, we do still have a legal system in this nation that works fairly well when compared with the world at large.
So, if we are really down to simple semantics and some of our religious citizens are deeply offended by the state calling something beyond a one-man one-woman domestic partnership “marriage,” there is at least one solution. Let’s take “marriage” away from the state and give it to church people. I’m not sure it was theirs to start with (see the Brouwer quote above), but that’s okay. Some churches will gladly perform marriages for same-sex couples. Others will not. (Again I refer you to my husband’s writings and ideas at his Release of Marriage Act blog – start here for his main idea.)
But our government has a duty to provide civil rights to all of its citizens, so for those people who want to share a house, a family, and/or their lives together, let the government make just laws that consider everyone equally. Let it not establish separate “classes” of domestic partnerships, the highest class being called marriage, based upon gender or sexual orientation.
There’s plenty to think and talk about. Feel free to go at it (respectfully please!) in the comments.
*Update – I heard this OnBeing podcast with Jonathan Rauch and David Blankenhorn after publishing this blog post, and I highly recommend it for further thought on this topic.