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.
I think I sense a Libertarian at heart here 🙂 and believe it or not, I would tend to agree with you – less government in every area of our lives is generally better.
A short, vaguely related comment. . .
I always find it amusing on one level to hear people parrot the phrase, “government can’t legislate morality” yet those same folks are willing to follow and enforce government laws that restrain people from robberies, murder, rape, from marrying too young, etc….(I’m certainly not arguing for these actions) – just pointing out a logical inconsistency here.
Generally speaking, I agree that government has blurred and crossed the line between their primary job of protecting its citizens from external attacks, and from harm within the country by criminals. It is not the business of government to decide how I choose to lead my life in the interest of ‘protecting me from myself.’ Wow! That brings up a lot of possible re-thinking – thanks for that Julia.
Also, I think that many church leaders have blurred and crossed lines of individual soul liberties by defining their denominational views of ‘correct thinking and behavior’ in order to garner their acceptance. (I was publicly demonized, and kicked out of a church because I asked the wrong questions, said the wrong things to the wrong people, and had the audacity to exercise my liberty to think and speak for myself. And to this day, I’ll be damned if I ever let any so-called ‘religious person’ judge me without my permission, but I digress.)
Wrapping up my comment here; If I thought that a candidate from the Libertarian party could win, I’d probably vote Libertarian, because I agree with you in principle if not on every specific.
You write well, I always enjoy reading your blog Julia!
Hey Kelly – thanks so much! Yes, I admit to being libertarian-leaning, definitely more so than I used to be. That’s partially what shades my views on military & defense spending as well. Why is it our nation’s job to “spread democracy”?! But I digress . . .
Great post Julia, and a nice closing paragraph. Unfortunately, the State of Minnesota is poised to cast its lot on the wrong side of history with regards to this issue. It appears voters will vote “yes” to create a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Like you, I think this is nothing less than a civil rights issue.
Gay rights is sometimes compared to earlier struggles for minority and women’s equality, I don’t the comparison is at all strained. As you say, the government’s fundamental duty is to protect its citizens and make it possible for each individual to pursue his or her own happiness. That function has had to be rethought and fought about for all of our history, even to the point of civil war.
It is my view that a great deal of the reason this proposal is on the ballot is simply to energize the republican base and get them to the polls. Minnesota actually will be voting on two things this year, the marriage amendment and the voter id amendment. It is no accident that these are being pushed at this time. Minnesota has had two super close elections recently, one for the governor in which the Democrat won by a few thousand votes, and the 08 senate race which the Democrat won by a few hundred. Despite there being no evidence that gay marriage would affect traditional marriage, and despite there being a statistically tiny amount of in person voter fraud (if you want voter fraud, google “Strategic Allied Consulting,” notice who is the founder of this GOP fixer, a name many of us will remember!) Republicans are likely to succeed on both questions. They will thereby fire up the reactionary base in their own party while suppressing the vote for Democrats. Genius!
I like Nathan’s proposal, I would have no problem letting churches manage their own marriages.
Great post, as always.
Thanks for your comment, Nnox. I still hold out hope that Minnesota will be the first state to vote down a marriage amendment like this. It doesn’t seem to be such a long shot. And I agree with you that gay rights is another logical tic-mark on the historical line of unfolding civil rights for all people. I imagine that fifty years from now, people will look at all of this very differently, much like we now look at Jim Crow laws and denying women the vote in the past.
Re: this amendment being about voter turnout – looks like you are spot-on. Check out this news story – http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2012/10/15/vote-yes-strategist-will-vote-no/ (I think it’s funny that they are calling it “the gay marriage amendment” since its passage or defeat would do nothing for or against gay marriage!).
Lastly, wow. I didn’t realize how famous said SAC founder has become. Interesting!