Friday, July 16, 2010

Agent of the State, God or Both? -or- Why Gay Marriage is Potentially a Positive Development

Who should officiate at weddings? Should civil and sacramental marriage be kept separate, or should they be synonymous? Currently, while a pastor can officiate, one still has to obtain the marriage license from the state. Is this a good thing? Stuart Koehl has an excellent essay briefly delving into these issues, especially as regards gay marriage.

This conflation of roles strikes me as one of the key problems that the Church has had in maintaining a Christian view of marriage. If the Church acts as an agent of the State, then it is far too easy to cheapen marriage to conform to the broader cultural view of marriage, instead of that taught by Jesus. Coming up with juridical structures that can adjudicate a lawful "divorce" is terribly time and resource intensive. Much easier to simply let the state handle that messy business and officiate when one has a decent hunch that the marriage would be Christian... and that's when people bother to bring any form of Christian doctrine to bear at all on remarriage.

Are there risks in this separation of powers/duties? Absolutely. Currently, by combining State and Church, the State encourages married couples, albeit in a rather indirect way, to settle down and take their religion seriously. The formation of a family and presence of children is one of the best statistical indicators of religious attendance. If the Church is seen as less relevant to family formation, couples sitting on the fence regarding religious attendance will be less likely to give it a whirl and discover for themselves what life in Christ is all about. However, by conflating the roles of Church and State, Christians have also diluted the meaning and doctrine of marriage for the faithful. Is this trade worth it? Most often, people don't even consciously think about these decisions. It is just accepted as a byproduct of the culture we live in and given as much consideration as the air we breathe.

It would probably be useful to look at the example of the Orthodox churches in communist countries, as Church and State marriage were distinctly separate during that time and (I think) remain separate to this day. It isn't like this would be the first time such a separation has been maintained between State and Church recognition of marriage. Catholics have also maintained separate juridical structures and offered a distinctly different concept of heterosexual marriage from the state (think Henry VIII), and so the adjustment for them would in some ways be minimal. If this separation of powers were to be implemented, the biggest adjustment would be among Protestants, most of whom (in my limited experience) haven't thought deeply about what constitutes valid Christian marriage and the difficult, controversial and practical aspects of blessing Christian remarriage, for instance. The only thing a Protestant needs to do to get married after divorce is to change churches/states. Almost never is a denominational change required, because the structures/doctrines simply aren't in place to determine if one is "free" to marry, in the Christian sense. Shaking this complacency in letting the state make those determinations is no small feat, and it offers tremendous opportunity for Protestants to re-examine what Jesus really taught on marriage. Who knows, state recognition of gay marriage could end up being one of the best things that ever happened to Christians in this country.


Douglas said...

The above shouldn't be viewed as an endorsement of the concept of gay marriage or the separation of powers. There is still much to be said regarding societal stability for civil recognition of sacramental marriage. Also, there is a danger, if gay marriage is seen as a right that Churches cannot refuse, that religious freedom in general will be abused. Even today, Christians are fighting in courts for their right to practice their secular jobs in a manner that will not infringe on their religious beliefs. One sees this most distinctly in the area of chemical abortion and pharmacy and general rules when doctors must follow a patients wishes on end-of-life care. There is a very real danger that the right to die/kill one's offspring is transforming into the obligation to kill for people who work in related fields. This ghettoization of Christians cannot but have a negative impact on broader society.

Kevin said...

You argue both sides well. I think separation could benefit Christianity if it were thereby protected from discrimination suits, but I somehow doubt that it would reduce people's complacency about marriage in practical terms.

Perhaps ideally, gay marriage would be implemented by reducing the role of government and expanding individual freedom (e.g. to discriminate and contract), but that seems highly unlikely, in part because an overarching goal is cultural acceptance, which such freedom does not achieve.

Maybe it is just me, but I think we need to list all of the legal rights and responsibilities of a marriage, including all the ways in which society recognizes marriage and why. People mention these things broadly and obliquely, but I think the discussion would greatly benefit from a specific, comprehensive list and I've never seen one.

I wonder how much of that absolutely must be encoded in government. Maybe "marriage" can be removed entirely from government, with what little role the government must play be abstracted into a "civil union" that covers even non-sexual assocations between an arbitrary group of people.

Douglas said...

"Maybe it is just me, but I think we need to list all of the legal rights and responsibilities of a marriage, including all the ways in which society recognizes marriage and why."

Sounds like a great idea for a blog post. Go for it!

Kevin said...

Hehehe. :)

It sounds like a great idea for someone who has a clue on the subject. Once I get a clue, I'll post it.

Thanks for the encouragement. :)

MarkC said...

"Maybe it is just me, but I think we need to list all of the legal rights and responsibilities of a marriage, including all the ways in which society recognizes marriage and why. People mention these things broadly and obliquely, but I think the discussion would greatly benefit from a specific, comprehensive list and I've never seen one."

Kevin, specifics like that will be very helpful... but I think they'll only apply to one part of what you're suggesting.

We can definitely list out the "legal rights and responsibilities" that society currently gives to marriage. But, we can never list out the answers to the question of "why society recognizes marriage". That is a whole different animal.

Personally, I can see a couple primary "why" reasons, and they are related.

(Obviously, everything I am about to say are generalizations that I believe apply when looking at society as a whole, but not necessarily when looking at any particular individuals. Also, these are my impressions; I am not a sociologist, and haven't done the work to see if there is specific research to back up these statements.)

First, married people are more stable and well-rounded, and society benefits from stable, well-rounded people. Married people, because of the necessary work of learning to relate so closely to one other person, are better in general at relating to others in society. Over time, they will be somewhat less selfish and less individualistic, and society as a whole benefits from those traits.

The second benefit is related, and possibly more important. Marriage (between the biological parents, preferably) gives identity and stability to children. Children who grow up in a stable home are emotionally healthier as adults. Children who grow up with their biological parents have a better sense of their identity and place in the world. This process gives continuity and stability to society across generations, which is critical for the long-term health of society as a whole.

Now, these benefits really only accrue to society from long-term committed marriages. In actuality, marriage as it is allowed (encouraged?) today in our society is, I think, actually detrimental to society for these same reasons. Marriage does not teach us healthy ways to relate to each other... rather, it tends to feed our selfishness ("That relationship didn't work, so I'll find another"). Marriage does not build stability in society... rather, it destroys it (friends of divorcees often have to choose which partner to remain friends with, and whole groups of friends therefore become splintered). Marriage does not build long-term identity and emotional health in our children, it destroys it (divorce does untold emotional damage to children; we are only beginning to see the long-term effects our easy-divorce culture will have on our society in the next few generations).

So, should we, as a society, allow homosexuals to marry? If by "marry" you mean the same thing we have now with heterosexual marriage, then I say it doesn't matter a whole lot one way or the other. If your building has no foundation, and parts of it are caving in, do you build a new wing? Or do you shore up the foundations and strengthen what you have?

I think legalized homosexual marriage is a rather bad idea, for a few reasons. But I think easy divorce is a very bad idea, for much more significant reasons. As long as easy divorce is still condoned and encouraged in our society, I can't get myself too worked up about any of the other squabbles we might have about the boundaries of marriage rights.


MarkC said...
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MarkC said...
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MarkC said...

OK, everyone, here's a thought experiment for you. Completely impractical, yes... but I'm curious what the responses will be.

Suppose that you are a parent to a couple of young children... suppose that you die, and that your children have no other available guardians so are turned over to the state... suppose that your children are put up for adoption, and two families want to adopt your children... one family is your average American family (fill in any blanks necessary here to make them apparently ideal), the other family is a homosexual couple with no other children... suppose that, from beyond the grave, you can see certain future events, and you can tell that the apparently-normal family will go through a divorce in 5 years, and each partner will get remarried and go through another divorce 5-10 years later, but that the homosexual couple will remain faithfully committed to each other for the rest of their lives.

Which of those two families would you prefer your children to be adopted by?

Or, would you prefer that your children remain unadopted, bouncing around in foster care, rather than being adopted by either family?


Douglas said...

To me, that's kind of like asking, "Would you rather your child be raped or brutally tortured?" All three options are so awful, I don't think I could choose. If I was ever given that choice, I'd probably flip coins or draw straws to pick. The urim and thummim are as good a way of picking as any other.

Kevin said...

Interesting hypothetical. If I understand you correctly, our options are:

(1) Traditional (heterosexual) ideal, except for getting divorced every 5 years.
(2) Homosexual ideal.
(3) Foster care bouncing.

I don't feel I know enough to make a good decision, but I'll at least take you through my thought process.

My first inclination is that the instability of repeated divorce is worse than homosexual marriage. As such, I'd say that 3 is the worst. 1 might be seen as an approximation of 3, with longer ideal durations, making 2 seem like the better option to me.

But the "ideal" parts of these options throw me. How can everything be ideal except for getting divorced repeatedly? It's a theme you sometimes see in movies where two people can each be healthy but mommy and daddy just need to be apart. It's nobody's fault, really. We've just grown apart. We're still a family. In fact, now you have two mommies and two daddies. That's twice as good!

I suspect that's unrealistic. In most cases, I think divorce implies other issues that would probably be passed on to the kids, even beyond the destructiveness of the divorce itself.

Similarly, homosexuality is also often abstracted from issues of relationships, self-image, gender confusion, sex acts, promiscuity, etc. And somehow inherent gender inclinations and roles in a marriage and family become irrelevant. That seems unrealistic, too, but I am also less familiar with it, which may be the biggest factor in my preference.

Yet even assuming the homosexuality of parents were perfectly abstractable and harmless, a child would likely still develop issues due society's reaction to their parents, perhaps including alienation, shame, or a heightened sensitivity or focus on sex or gender.

Now, if instead of "ideal" you meant "average" (which you also said) that would make it harder, since I have even less idea what that word means, since I don't get to define it. :) And, as you mention in your previous comment, this discussion is probably more rightly focused on statistical averages and trends rather than exceptional cases.

Actually, IIRC, there's such a (relatively) small percentage of homosexuals that are monogamous, and probably far fewer if we require pre-union chastity, that an average from that select group might make the choice easier.

How would you answer your hypothetical, Mark?

Kevin said...
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Kevin said...
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Kevin said...

Crazy "Request URI too long" error. I didn't realize it posted regardless of the error.

So, I deleted the dups. I imagine that's what hit you, too, Mark.

Kevin said...

Actually, I can probably infer from your previous comment that we agree, Mark.

In terms of rebuilding the foundation of marriage, how would you do it? Would you create legal obstacles to divorce? Do you think they would then be obstacles to marriage?

And if divorce is somehow reduced, would you then look to create legal obstacles to homosexual marriage?