Marriage is confusing. You can take it from me personally. But speaking solely in political terms, marriage is confusing because there are two kinds—civil and religious—that have always been confused together, if only because they’re both called “marriage.”
This constitutes one of the most basic mix-ups between church and state that we have. You go to court, you get a license, sometimes you get a blood test. (The clerk actually gave us a little bag of goodies that included detergent, god only knows why.) And then, if you choose, you can have a J.P. perform a marriage ceremony. Or you can have some licensed religious person perform it. In any case, to make the civil part legal, you sign the marriage license with witnesses, and the person who performed the ceremony signs it, and it’s done.
If you just do the religious part without getting the license signed, you’re not legally married, i.e. in terms of civil marriage.
Civil marriage confers various legal benefits involving taxation, inheritance, insurance, medical decisions, and other social advantages. An argument could actually be made that the state discriminates against single people by conferring special benefits on married couples. The idea is that marriage somehow advances the interests of the community or the nation. Traditionally that would mostly imply the advantage of producing children, although of course people who are not married do that regularly. Then we get into the whole notion of legitimate versus illegitimate children, which really ends up being about property and how it’s passed on. Marriage itself was primarily a way to perpetuate property through the male line, and it’s only been in relatively recent times that the question of love has entered into it.
Organized religion being one of the bulwarks of the social order, it stands to reason that civil marriage and religious marriage were traditionally one and the same. But the rise of the secular state has occasioned a gradual split between the two marriages.
I know I’m not the first person to point out that, considering marriage in the light of the First Amendment, it would make sense for the American government to get out of the business of marriage by calling it something different such as “civil union.” That’s what civil marriage already is, but by taking the word “marriage” out of it, we could continue to allow religious institutions to marry, or refuse to marry, whomever they wished, and at the same time allow consenting adult couples to enjoy the benefits of civil union.
Of course this isn’t going to happen, and I think if we consider that fact calmly and clearly we can understand why it is more difficult to protect equal rights for gay people in terms of marriage than such a logical solution would suggest.
The values and mores of a people change over time. It used to be considered fine and dandy to enslave human beings. That changed, and there was a considerable struggle involved in that change. In terms of marriage, we can learn from the Bible that patriarchal society used to believe that having multiple wives was okay. That changed too. The notion that is undergoing change at this point in time is that homosexuality is immoral. There is an ever-increasing number of people who no longer believe this. However, those who still believe it are tenaciously struggling to maintain this “moral” position as part of the laws. The so-called sodomy laws have been successfully challenged. Now the marriage laws are being challenged.
One of the more ironic, and even a bit amusing, aspects of the legal struggle is that gay marriage was never specifically outlawed, simply because the folks who made the laws never conceived of the possibility of gay marriage. The general social hostility against homosexuality precluded any such notion. Now that this hostility is being eroded, those who still believe that homosexuality is immoral want to “define” marriage as between one man and one woman.
In the recent controversy around California’s Proposition 8, a spokesman for the Mormons said that the church was not against gays, but only wanted to protect the institution of marriage. Other religious opponents of gay marriage have put forward this argument, and presented various imaginary disasters that will happen to society if we allow gays to marry. This argument is nothing more than a lie, or at best a piece of outrageous self-delusion. Without the belief that homosexuality is immoral, there is no reason to oppose gay marriage. Those who try to claim that they’re not anti-gay, and yet continue to oppose gay marriage, are simply afraid to state their true belief, which is becoming less popular, and thus less likely to succeed. (Of course there’s also the “love the sinner, hate the sin” canard, which only the most fervent state of denial could distinguish from the position of being “anti-gay.”)
In the case of politicians such as Obama who are, I suppose, not anti-gay, their refusal to support gay marriage is just another example of electoral timidity. They stick their fingers in the wind, and if there’s too much cross-current, they take the safe route, even if it means betraying principle. As soon as the zeitgeist shifts decisively, these same politicians will support gay marriage. This is another example of how change has to come from the bottom up.
Why authoritarian fundamentalists are so fixated on homosexuality, when they pass by the everyday immorality of their own death-dealing imperialist country, and even confer a Christ-like blessing on the nuclear bomb, is a subject for another essay, or probably an entire book. Religion as a guardian of the sexual order has become so dominant that it might escape the average person’s awareness that there used to be something more to “faith” than bickering about who gets to have sex with whom. In a world of suffering and calamity, it behooves us to ask if two loving people wanting to get married really hurt anyone, and if someone purporting to carry a gospel of “love” can reasonably dictate whom we should not love, especially when his own hatred and fear is on glorious display for all of us to see. But such is the predicament of religion in modern life. The least worthy representatives of faith seem to have a monopoly on all the megaphones.
Here is a question that I never hear asked. If gay marriage is outlawed, what of all the churches and other religious groups that have allowed it? For instance, I have attended gay weddings that were performed by liberal Methodist ministers. What of their religious freedom? Does it not violate their First Amendment rights to say that their weddings are invalid? It should go without saying that even if gay marriage is legalized, any church or other religious group has the right to refuse to marry someone within their tradition. So it really comes down to certain religionists wanting to dictate their own marriage (i.e. sexual) beliefs to everyone else.
The issue, it seems to me, is not gay marriage, but straight marriage. If the union of two consenting adults is conceived in the light of an ideological agenda that excludes certain people because of their sexuality, what does that say about the institution itself? I would argue that it diminishes it, and even threatens to invalidate it completely. The real immorality is to enjoy a benefit, civil or religious, that is inherently denied to others. It thereby becomes an unjust privilege rather than a blessing, and it loses whatever sacramental character it might have had. Allowing gays to marry, therefore, is necessary in order for marriage itself to be preserved.