Patricia Nell Warren

One More Time...Marriage Is Not a "Church-based Tradition"

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | August 18, 2009 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Marriage Equality, Media, Politics
Tags: civil marriage equality, marriage politics, Olson Boies federal lawsuit, Prop 8, same-sex marriage, separation of church and state, state religion

Back in 1957, when I was 21 and closeted, I tied the knot with a heterosexual European guy named Yuriy. We did the deed at City Hall in New York City. My mother had wanted to see me walk down the aisle at her Presbyterian church in Montana, so she was very disappointed. But the groom and I had our way. We were both refugees from Christianity -- snarky young existentialists who wanted nothing to do with "church" at this moment in our lives. But we had no problem with "civil marriage."

So we dealt with the laws of New York State -- paid our fee for the marriage license, and said our irreligious agreements in front of a municipal wonk in shirt and tie. Not a word about God was spoken.

Sixteen years later, in 1973, when I finally came to my senses and acknowledged my different sexual orientation, and walked away from the guy and the marriage, it was back to New York State for a divorce and a re-run on my maiden name. Again, not a word about (what was his name again?) God.

Looking back, I realize that this experience got me crystal-clear about the nature of "marriage" in the U.S.

Today the latest buzz-word from the right is that "marriage is a church-based tradition." But the right is wrong about this. They are up History Creek without a paddle.

For every single American couple that ties the knot, the only thing that marriage "is" ... is a civil status, and a legal contract with another person. Once the deed is done, all sorts of legal and governmental forces come into play, like tax law and property ownership and inheritance, to name just a few. Even divorce and child custody send their message that state law, not religion, is calling the shots.

Some Americans do insist on tying a shiny ribbon of religion around this civil contract. That is their right -- part of their "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness," if they want it that way. For them, marriage is that "church-based tradition." But it's not that way for everybody.

Marriage, Majority and Statistics

The loyal base of "traditional marriage" claims that "90 percent of Americans believe in God." What they're trying to do, is invoke the tyranny of majority in their own favor.

But definitions of "God" vary wildly from person to person. America also abounds in agnostics, atheists, nihilists, existentialists, skeptics and other types of non-theists who also marry. And the sky doesn't fall when they do, even though they don't say a word about marriage being "church-based."

Each marriage is a highly personal ideological decision by two people. A couple gets to choose whether their contract will be set at St. Patrick's Cathedral, or the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City -- or city hall in Vegas, or the beach in Malibu with a few seagulls in attendance -- or even while skydiving, with the couple saying their vows at 8000 feet. The contract is the contract, no matter what you believe. That's because the government doesn't give a hoot where you do it, or whether you mention God or not -- as long as state requirements are met.

To put it another way, religion isn't what makes the marriage "legal." Likewise, when a marriage goes bad, the couple don't go running to a minister to get out of it. They go find the state, and the courts.

Besides, that "90 percent of Americans who allegedly believe in God" don't necessarily get married in church. Two million-plus people still get married every year. But the stock-market for ecclesiastical nuptials is sharply down. Said a 2006 Washington Post report: "Decades of statistics point to a societal retreat from the church wedding. Catholic marriage ceremonies have been in decline for 35 years -- from 426,000 marriages nationwide in 1970 to 212,456 in 2005, according to church data -- even as the number of Catholics continues to grow. Many states, including Maryland and Virginia, have tracked a shift from religious to civil marriages. And a growing network of interfaith and nondenominational ministers offers couples the freedom to wed on their own terms."

A 2003 USA Today story added this significant detail: "In the 18 states that have tracked data for any significant period of time since 1980: 14 showed a growing or essentially steady rate of civil marriages -- more than 40% of marriages in 2001. That's up from about 30% in 1980."

In spite of the religious right's manic efforts to Godify the country, that trend noted by both newspapers hasn't reversed in the last few years. And it's happening in other countries as well. In once-churchy Ireland, there are now nearly as many civil marriages as church marriages. My guess is, more young marrieds-to-be don't just want to "wed on their own terms." They are turned off by the strident, even violent atmosphere that some churches bring to the political arena. At that sensitive life-time moment of taking a mate, they may want to distance themselves from dogmatic frenzy.

No wonder the "traditional marriage" base is so anxious about "saving traditional marriage."

But their logic is flawed. Denying marriage to gays won't inspire more straights to tie the knot in church.

Long History of a Contract

Today religious righters lie about a lot of things, like the "death panels." One of the biggest lies is the one that tries to hide marriage's history as contract-based, not church-based.

In Gay & Lesbian Review a few years ago, I wrote a full-dress article on the real history of Western marriage. For most of its lifetime in Western culture, going back to ancient Rome, marriage was a civil affair -- viewed as a social and economic contract, not a "religious tradition." Every Roman couple and their families had their contract. Only some of them opted for the extra of a religious sacrifice at a temple, but this was not required by Roman law.

After Christianity took over the Empire, most early churchmen weren't very high on marriage and sex, because they believed the Second Coming was near, so they felt contempt for earthly joys. Marriages continued to be arranged by families and celebrated at home without church involvement for many centuries. As late as the 9th century, the old pagan Roman format was still the model for home weddings.

Not till the 1431 Council of Florence was the church mentioning marriage as one of seven "sacraments" that could only be dispensed by a priest. So the "contract" of yore got dragged out of the family home by its heels and into the church. Eventually -- thanks to tight controls of state religion all over Europe, with church dictating to government everywhere -- the sacrament was said to make a marriage "legal" as well as "sacred."

But just a century later, as the anti-Catholic Reformation movement burst over Europe, a popular demand for civil marriage exploded with it. It was a fierce challenge to Catholic control over family life. Why? Because the proliferating Protestant sects refused to bow to the dictum that Protestant marriages weren't legal unless a priest performed them. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin insisted that marriage belonged in the "earthly kingdom," in a context of civil law.

Result: a revival of civil marriage, presided over by local city government. It did the job -- was neutral as to doctrine. It allowed every sect in Europe to keep its dignity and freedom to believe. Starting with the Dutch Republic in the 16th century, civil marriage was gradually accepted across Europe, even in most Catholic countries -- and it came to America with the colonists.

So where is this long time-line of "church-based tradition" that the traditional-marriage front is alleging? It looks pretty short to me. In the Catholic Church, marriage wasn't "church-based" till the sacrament of matrimony was formalized in the 14th century. And just a century later, Protestant rebels began smashing the Catholic monopoly on matrimony, heading it back into the "civil-based tradition" where it had started.

America's Confusion About Marriage

Unfortunately, many Americans have the notion that civil marriage and a church wedding are the same thing. Why are they so confused? Because we Americans have tragically lost sight of why many Europeans went so passionate for secular marriage.

In a 2006 article, Pediatrics Magazine discusses this problem while talking about the effects of different marriage arrangements on children. The magazine points out:

"In many European countries and elsewhere in the world, religious officials have no authority to establish civil marriages. If couples in these countries wish to participate in the marriage ceremony of a faith tradition, religious ceremonies are often held once a civil ceremony has taken place.... Because clergy in the United States are vested with the authority of the government for purposes of civil marriage, many people are not aware of the distinction between civil and religious marriage and assume that the two are inextricably linked."

So it's easy to understand why some European peoples have had an easier time legalizing LGBT marriage than Americans have. Their countries are smart enough to keep a wall of separation between church and state where marriage is concerned. In Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Rumania and Switzerland, the only form of marriage legally recognized is civil marriage. Most of these same countries also recognize same-sex marriages or domestic partnerships, or are moving towards this change. Spain, so conservatively Catholic for 500 years, still does recognize the legality of a nuptial mass. Yet Spain now recognizes same-sex marriage as well. In short, Europeans are a whole lot clearer about this key issue because of the horrible religious wars they lived through.

But here in the U.S., we haven't fought any wars against state religion -- not yet, anyway. As a result, many Americans seem to have forgotten why separation of church and state was seen as a good idea when our country launched. Result: the whole country is now stuck in this absurd confusion and controversy about marriage. We're paying a price for having fudged on marriage law the way we have.

Flawed Strategies by Gay Activists

I also think the confusion has led some of our same-sex marriage activists to mistakes on strategy. They have let the church lobby drag us into legislative or proposition fights in many states. This way, the fundies try to keep us fighting them on the "church-based tradition" battlefield. And the fundies often win these fights, as they did with Prop 8, because they have more money and warm bodies than we do.

True, there are some legitimate strategy questions. Like whether 2010 or 2012 is the right year for another California ballot initiative. Or whether we should march on Washington in October. But what we need -- more than victories on ballot initiatives or federal amendments, which are easily reversed by the right -- is a landmark court decision. It needs to clarify that the real issue is a right to civil marriage, not a right to a church wedding. The court needs to say that separation of church and state should extend to marriage law.

I'm not sure whether the Olson/Boies federal lawsuit in California will head things in that direction, because it's focusing on the 14th Amendment. But if the case gets appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, a courageous and honest decision ending church interference in civil marriage might help a lot.

Better still -- the 50 states of the U.S. should follow the European countries I've mentioned and recognize only civil marriage. Religious ministers should be prohibited from acting as government surrogates during wedding ceremonies. If a couple want the religious ceremony as their rightful extra, whether they're Evangelicals or Sikhs or Jews or Mormons, they can have it after the civil ceremony, as many Europeans do.

Naturally the religious right would scream bloody murder if America went that way with marriage reform. But the change would definitely clear the air.

Religion's Right to Discriminate

As it is, the right keeps screaming that their "religious freedom" is put at risk by gay marriage.

But this is a fake issue. Existing civil-rights law already grants to every couple the freedom to have a church ceremony...or to not have one, if that's what they choose. That was the freedom that Yuriy and I exercised in 1957 when we kicked Christianity in the teeth and headed for the Manhattan City Hall.

Likewise, under existing laws, no organized religion in America can be compelled to conduct their canonical wedding ceremony in a way that directly violates their core beliefs. Indeed, religions are allowed to discriminate massively where marriage is concerned, in ways that wouldn't be allowed in the workplace.

Here are two examples: The Catholic Church can legally refuse to marry people who are divorced or unbaptized, as well as men who are impotent, and people who were formerly priests or religious. They're allowed to do this because barring such people from marriage is an item of their belief. Likewise, Orthodox Judaism can legally discriminate against non-Jews -- can refuse to marry an Orthodox Jew to a non-Jew, because that's what they believe. Other examples can be found.

By extension, existing laws also allow a religion to discriminate against same-sex marriage, if that's the way their beliefs bend. And I'm okay with that. Why? Because I'm not asking for LGBT people to have the right to marry in any religion we please. In fact, if the Catholics or Southern Baptists want to discriminate against me personally and any potential bride of mine, my answer is, "Knock yourselves out."

A growing list of dissenting U.S. religions do marry same-sex couples in their churches now. Even in states that prohibit same-sex marriage, these churches will at least do a blessing ceremony for an LGBT couple. And that's very gratifying. But it's not what I'm asking for. What I want is the right to neutral, non-religious civil marriage.

And if I married a lady today, goddess-loving pagan that I now am, we'd probably forego city hall, and marry on the beach in the sight of Goddess and God, with a few seagulls watching.

A Parting Shot at Civil Unions

My personal clarity about marriage reaches to "civil unions" and "domestic partnerships" -- to why they don't work for me. Maybe "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." But defining marriage by some other name is throwing a bone to the NOM lobby that they don't deserve to get.

Arguing from their illusion of "marriage as a church-based tradition," the fundies claim that they own the very word "marriage." But during the Reformation, they didn't hesitate to use "marriage" for the civil ceremonies that they wanted -- even though their demand was radical and revolutionary and outlandish for its time. Indeed, the Catholic Church viewed what Protestants wanted to do with marriage as evil.

The fact is -- that word "marriage" has been around longer than Christianity has. As I pointed out in my GLR article, the word goes back to Latin of the old goddesses and gods of Rome. It's one more proof that marriage is not the "church-based tradition" that the anti-gay church politicos claim it is.


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Thank you for so eloquently stating my own observations on marriage as contract law and not a religious institution.

No one seems to remember, or at least argue that churches are only able to perform legal marriages as agents of the state and not solely on their religious authority.

The Church(es) expropriated marriage to control women.
Now they use it as a bludgeon to enforce orthodoxy; further, the attraction to their cause allows them to beging to leverage anti-feminist stances as well.

Thomas Jefferson was right; the priest is the enemy of liberty in all times and all places.

SammySeattle | August 19, 2009 5:14 AM

Further to the bone of domestic partnership, the fundies will not be content with any recognition of our relationships. We are seeing that now in Washington State. They claim that domestic partnership is too similar to heterosexual marriage and threatens its very well being. We do need to change the way that we are fighting our battles, the fundies have been calling the shots for too long. Civil rights are not to be decided on biblical principals. Period.

Though my faith is a minority faith we treat marriage the same way that it was treated under ancient Irish Brehon law. When I perform a marriage we state which of the seven old forms it is usually it is the marriage of equals. Anyway, living in Mass has given me the chance to perform some same sex weddings which is cool.
And yes when I do a wedding I am an agent of the State and it is a legal contract but that is ok with me because in our faith tradition it is a contract and not any type of sacrament. We also recognize same sex couples and their children as families and even domestic arrangements which are not standard marriages. We also have no concept of an illegitimate birth. And we have a traditional cultural fosterage system similar to the 'godparent' system which can be brought into play for some of these family arrangements which are less the norm for our modern world.
But the approach to domestic arrangements under ancient Gaelic traditional law is much more varied than what is available today.
I feel sorry for those who are raised in these newer, modern mainstream faiths which are so limited. I couldn't imagine not being in an ancient cultural faith. Gives me the shivers thinking about it. We have traditional poetics, mythic material and legal material from many centuries ago showing that same sex relationships existed and were part of ancient Gaelic culture prior to Christianity.
My adoptive family were Christian but my birth parents are not and I always thought that their church was just strange.

EXACTLY! Thanks for expressing what I also know to be the truth.