Church, State and Same-sex Marriage: A follow up

There were a few responses to my pervious post about same-sex marriage which seemed to miss the point of my argument. Perhaps I am just misreading these responses. Perhaps I wasn’t quite clear in the original post. Or some mixture of the two. At any rate, I take another run at it.

I was advocating for really only one thing: that we all recognize that what happens in churches, synagogues and mosques is qualitatively different from what happens when we sign marriage licenses.

This recognition has at least three implications. First, there is no legitimate reason for persons ordained by religious institutions to hold sway over the state’s decision whether to afford two people the rights and privileges pertaining to state-sanctioned unions. Many religious institutions ordain people with little or no education or other qualifications relevant to matters of political polity. But because some bishop or congregation recognizes someone’s ordination to ministry she automatically has power invested in her by the state as well to declare two persons lawfully wed. It seems to me this transfer of power is due to a misguided conflation of religious sacrament with state-sanctioned union. It’s easy to see the disconnect when you consider that marriage requires only a priest or a rabbi while divorce requires at least two lawyers and a judge. That’s because we don’t confuse state-recognized divorce with any function of a religious institution like, say, annulment. When we get the distinction between religious sacraments and political practices into proper focus it becomes clear that religious officials should not have the power to sign state marriage licenses. (Neither, by the way, should boat captains!)

Secondly, I think states should recognize union of anyone who choses to unite together under her authority, and afford to them all rights and privileges pertaining thereto. (This second implication comes with at least two caveats, but let me first make the point). Most of the opposition to same-sex marriage—certainly what has held it in public contention—is made on religious grounds. Again, once we get the distinction between the religious sacrament and the political practice into proper focus, it should be quite easy for the state to say to religious institution: “Yes, we understand and respect your view, and you have every right to recognize within your institution only those marriages you deem valid. But what we’re doing here has to do with tax brackets and property ownership—government stuff—so it’s really quite irrelevant to the arguments you’re making.”

Okay, now the caveats: (A) My own view is that the state should get out of the marriage/union business all together. There really is no reason I can see that each person could not files taxes and own property individually. However, this would require a radical restructuring of the tax code that I am simply not qualified to address. So for now let’s leave that to the side. (B) There may be other (non-religious) arguments for why same-sex couples should not be afforded the same tax and property rights as heterosexual couples. I am not aware of any such arguments, but if they exist, they should be evaluated on their own merits. I am not even necessarily opposed to religious people, acting as political agents, leveling religious arguments against same-sex marriage. If there’s an argument to be made, by all means, let’s consider it. It’s just that, on my model, the argument cannot be what most of the arguments have amounted to: “well, that’s not what we Christians mean by marriage.” Of course it’s not! That’s the assumption that we’re starting with: the political practice of marriage is distinct from the religious sacrament.

Finally, religious people need not worry that, by affording the rights and privileges pertaining to state-sanctioned unions to same-sex couples, the government is somehow threatening the institution of marriage. For again, once we get into proper focus the distinction between what we do in churches, synagogues and mosques and what we do when we sign state marriage licenses, it becomes clear that these state-given rights and privileges have nothing to do with the religious sacrament of marriage. To the contrary, insofar as we believe that all people are created in the image of God, religious people should be the most out-spoken advocates for the equality of political rights for all people.

A word about words: It seems to some that the state should keep the language of marriage, because it seems to bestow upon a union a certain kind of honor, which also should be equally afforded to everyone. I want to say that I think the premise is right. After all, when two people get married they’re not just looking for tax breaks, but to give a certain legitimacy and formalization to their relationship. I don’t want my LGBT friends to be just my political equals; I want them to be honored as image bearers of God. I just don’t think that the state, in the nature of the case, has the power to give this kind of legitimacy or honor to anything (except maybe war heroes)—that’s just not what governments do. Many LGBT couples will find (and have found) churches, synagogues or mosques that will bless their unions and call them marriages. That’s a different theological question all together, one for which this post is far too long already, and it is far too late, for us to take up now. For the reasons I’ve mentioned above, I think it’s quite important that we make the distinction between the religious sacrament that happens in churches, synagogues and mosques and whatever happens when we sign state marriage licenses. One easy way to do that, it seems to me, is to call them by different names. But I’m not necessarily committed to doing that, so long as we understand that what we mean by the word is two entire different social practices. For what it’s worth, “marriage” is a religious word, and it’s not entirely clear to me why the state would want to use it as a label for what it’s doing by licensing a union. But I’m a theologian, not a political theorist, so I have no real opinion about that.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Church, State and Same-sex Marriage: A follow up

  1. Luke

    It appears rhat perhaps I did misinderstand the previous post on the topic. It seems to me that this is really an opinion that kindly breaks the news to religious conservatives that they really shouldn’t be lobbying against homosexual marriage on a religious stance because marriage is a legal mattee in this case and not a religious one.

    I would agree wholeheartedly. It seems to me that the issue can be resolved by allowing gay marriage the same way we allow interracial marriage.

    Forgive this bold assumption, but is this just a thoughtful way of simultaneously supporting gay rights and maintaining a religious view that is unabashedly against homosexuality? I ask this because this is exactly the view I had before I decided that it was silly to think lf homosexuality as a sin.

  2. (1) “There may be other (non-religious) arguments for why same-sex couples should not be afforded the same tax and property rights as heterosexual couples. I am not aware of any such arguments . . . .”

    (2) “My own view is that the state should get out of the marriage/union business all together.”

    I think the best concise but thorough answer to both that I’ve seen so far is this National Review editorial. On the latter point, some recent pieces by Jennifer Roback Morse might also be of interest.

    In short:

    I think the argument about changing the legal definition of marriage (to include same-sex couples) can be had entirely without religious arguments. I think a lot of the case that people generally make for point 1 rests on begging the question of point 2: Why have legal recognition of marriage in the first place? The short answer is children. Changing the definition to extend it to same-sex couples does not serve that purpose, and along the way makes the justification for having a legal institution of marriage in the first place incoherent. Meanwhile children really are a good reason, and will be worse off if we give up and get the state out of the marriage business entirely.

    • Joe

      Thanks for your comment, Chillingworth! Welcome to the theologoholic conversation. I’m not sure that I see how children necessarily constitute a reason that marriage should be a legal institution. After all, people were having kids long before the state got into the marriage business. But I’m looking forward to reading the articles you linked.

  3. Pingback: Pragmatism or Nuance? The Pope on Same-Sex Marriage | Theologoholic

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