President Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage
has gotten people talking. I am late to the party, so maybe I can toss in a question that few people are asking.
Why should anyone need the government’s permission to marry?
The whole thing smacks of feudal times, when serfs needed their lord’s approval to marry. Today, we have freedom. Shouldn’t we be free to make a basic commitment to each other without the government’s say-so? We don’t need the government’s permission to commit ourselves to a particular god; why should it decide which interpersonal commitments are up to snuff?
Let’s get government out of the marriage business.
Wherever government now relies on marriage to determine something, let it use a civil contract. And I’m not talking about civil unions. What I have in mind is much more fine-grained. There could be contracts to establish a household for tax purposes, inheritance contracts, living will contracts, contracts to raise adopted children together, and so on. In each case, the restrictions on who could execute the contracts would be based on the relevant factors for that type of contract, not on the religiously charged concept of marriage.
If you talk with those on the Religious Right, who style themselves as the most ardent defenders of marriage, it’s clear that for them marriage is a religious institution, and their faith makes it especially hard for them to accept the idea of same-sex marriage. But can we not see that even in the context of faith, marriage means different things to different people?
Our country is supposed to allow everyone to practice their faith (or lack of faith). How do we have freedom of religion when we prohibit Muslims from following their custom of polygamy? And have we forgotten that the founders of the Judeo-Christian tradition were polygamous as well? (Yes, Abraham, Moses and many of the other patriarchs had multiple wives.) Finally, does anyone else see irony in the fact that the Republican platform of 2012 will almost certainly include a “one-man-one-woman” plank, and standing squarely on that plank will be … a Mormon?
Did you know that the Bible nowhere defines what it takes to be married? Certainly heterosexuality is assumed, but it’s remarkable how little the Bible actually says about the mechanics of getting married. There is no particular ceremony to follow, and no particular vow to take. And it isn’t until the New Testament that monogamy is unambiguously held up as the ideal. More to the point of this post, no government is invested with the authority to “declare you husband and wife.”
How have we Americans, of all people, ended up with a government that arrogates the right to define marriage not only according to one particular religion’s definition of it, but a late-arriving definition at that?
The first amendment to our constitution expressly tells government to stay out of the religion business, but we have taken a long time to realize the full implications of that wisely drawn boundary.
- The first prayer of the Continental Congress (admittedly predating the First Amendment) closes with, “All this we ask in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Thy Son and our Savior.” Recent prayers are generally less sectarian.
- The history of blasphemy laws in the United States may surprise you. As late as 1977, Pennsylvania used its law to prosecute a man who named his business I Choose Hell Productions, LLC. My own state’s general statues still threaten jail time for those who “reproach Jesus Christ.” Yet, one by one, we are realizing that these laws are unconstitutional.
- It wasn’t until the 1960’s that many people thought twice about things like prayer and devotional Bible reading in schools. Now most Bible advocates realize that a time of silent reflection is probably the most that our constitution will allow.
We have gradually realized that the government does not belong in the prayer business, nor should it police blasphemy. Isn’t it time to realize that it should get out of the marriage business, too?
Let’s go back to the traditional practice of marriages that are covenants between free people – people chosen by each other, not by the government.
Those who want religion to be part of their marriage can enroll a religious leader to conduct a ceremony; those who don’t can pledge their commitment in front of friends or all by themselves. Most marriages will still be between one man and one woman, but a minority will not.
If it’s important for some groups of people to maintain a distinction between their brand of marriage and others, they could copyright a design for special rings.
Wait. That would be kind of like where we are today. Well, I’ve gotta go. One of my kids is asking me to read The Sneetches.