Once upon a time, many years ago, I got married.
Setting aside the question of whether this was a wise decision (it wasn’t), one aspect of the day stands out in my memory: I got married twice.
You see, getting married is one of those areas where the Establishment Clause (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …) and practicality have to reach some sort of an accommodation. Whereas the state doesn’t want to be seen as confirming a religious rite, the Catholic Church (and it’s not alone) has a rather narrow view of what it means to be married in front of a Justice of the Peace. They call it Living In Sin. Insofar as the Church is concerned, the simple civil ceremony is the equivalent of never having been married at all.
Once again, setting aside the many virtues of Living In Sin, having decided to take the great plunge, many of us decide to go the whole way, religious ceremony and all.
Well that’s fine, but doesn’t that just put you at the other end of the same boat? I mean, given the Establishment Clause, wouldn’t the state deem that a purely religious rite should have no civil and legal reality at all?
Logically, I suppose that’s true, but that’s where the “practicality” part comes in. In one of those legal loopholes so hallowed by age and tradition that logic need not apply, the state allows itself to be involved in a religious rite while steadfastly maintaining it is doing nothing of the kind.
What the state does is designate John Q. Citizen, a.k.a. your friendly neighborhood minister, as a representative of the state and endow him (or, today, her) with the power to perform civil marriages.
So, although you can’t see them, the minister is actually wearing two hats during the service. You are simultaneously being married by your minister and your state representative. At the end of the service you might get, as I did, two marriage certificates, one from the state and one from the Church.
I found this a bit amusing as the Catholic Church went to such lengths to impress upon us how a civil ceremony (ich, blech, ptui!) was a sham with no validity…then allowed their priests to perform it.
One useful result of all this Jesuitical pilpul was that it gave me a very solid grasp of the enormous gulf that separated the religious rite called marriage from the civil ceremony called marriage. The one involved God, Religion, and Morality while the second involved those other powerful entities, the State, the Law, and the IRS. They might share the same name, but I always understood the separation and had no problem with any ambiguity between them.
I bring all this up because it seems to me it is precisely that ambiguity that powers a large part of the current brouhaha about Gay Marriage.
Of course, there are wonderfully intense emotions aroused over the whole idea of homosexuality. And there are a lot of questions surrounding the issue whose answers appear to be far more a matter of emotion than empirical truth; i.e. whether homosexuality is a “choice” or a biological determination, whether it is “natural” or “unnatural” (with all the connotations thereof), whether homosexuals are a threat to straight people and their values, whether teaching “non-discrimination” of homosexuals is really equivalent to “promoting” homosexuality, etc., etc.
I don’t intend to get into any of those. I have my own notions about them, as no doubt you do. Instead, what I find curious about the whole question of gay marriage is that there are a whole raft of people, sensible, intelligent people, who support “civil unions” for gays but have a problem with “gay marriage.”
This I don’t follow at all.
As a result of my upbringing and experience, my understanding of our laws and traditions is that a ceremony of marriage before a Justice of the Peace (or whatever local equivalent) is simply a “civil union.” That we have gone through a lot of logical and legal gyrations to insure that a civil marriage is not a religious rite or event.
I once enjoyed two separate marriages to the same person: one was a religious rite, the other a civil union. This fact was driven home to me when my wife and I separated and then divorced. Unlike the marriage ceremony, there was no rite where we could get both civilly and religiously divorced in the same convenient ritual. (The Catholic Church doesn’t recognize divorce — thank you very much — which pretty well precludes that idea.) So we got a civil divorce. This was recognized by both the state of California and the IRS, but was quite irrelevant to the Church, which still considered us married.
A large part of the American population seems to have real trouble keeping the religious and the civil separated when it comes to marriage. I suppose this is understandable on the part of the Religious Right, which has never accepted separation as a logical consequence of the establishment clause. From their point of view (showing, by the way, a complete ignorance of the religious ideas and definitions of the eighteenth century), America was founded as a Christian country and we should incorporate that fact in all of our public expressions.
But that is the Religious Right. How about all those folks who don’t claim to share the notions of the Religious Right but find themselves okay with the idea of civil unions but uncomfortable with the term “gay marriage?” They seem to feel that expanding the definition of the civil unions called marriages to include homosexuals would make the result less.
Less what, exactly?
I suspect that a lot of people feel, at bottom, that even a civil marriage ceremony somehow involves God blessing the union. That it creates not merely a legal unit, but also a moral one. That it is really all about the creation of that most fundamental of all religious units, the family. That it somehow ties into all those centuries of inheritance of father & son, mother & daughter that guarantees the cultural and moral bloodlines of our country. That making the commitment to marriage is a civil, patriotic, and moral act. Seen in that light, many people have a visceral feeling that expanding the definition of civil marriage to include other intentions and goals cannot really be done without first trimming away all of those other tacit elements.
The hole in that logic is, I think, revealed by the common feeling that it is a good thing for two heterosexual people who love each other to make that public commitment, even if they never intend to have children. That is, we think marriage is still a good thing, even if father/son mother/daughter and all the rest don’t apply.
Much as I’d love to cap this with some pithy creation of my own, let me cite David Brooks, instead. He is a conservative media commentator on the political events of the week on PBS’s News Hour. When asked on that show for his take on the whole matter, he said:
“I’m for gay marriage. I not only think gays should be allowed to get married, I think they should be expected to get married and encouraged. We should consider it a disgrace if people fall in love and don’t want to get married. Being conservative, I’m for marriage. Making a lifelong commitment worked for me and my character. Everyone should do it.”
And the problem with this logic is…?