This is the second part of an essay explaining my view that religion should relinquish any further involvement in marriage.
In Part I, we performed a simple experiment to imagine what is sufficient for a wedding to "work," for any spectator to walk away with the conviction that things are different. It appears that liminal step amounts to a simple set of deeds and doers: two people must pledge themselves to each other in matrimony and others must see it happen. There you have it. I further discussed the cultural impact of marriage, the way it is knitted so neatly and deeply into our cultural context, and the way in which the rest of culture responds to it as a kind of continuous reifying witness.
Now that we've uncovered what marriage is, we must ask ourselves what marriage isn't.
When Is a Marriage Not a Marriage
What if we performed our experiment from last time -- imagining the fullest, biggest, gaudiest wedding we could with church and choir and flowers, and then slowly isolate different things and remove them until we are down to the bare bones of what a wedding is? What if we perform this experiment, but we make the spouses-to-be children. Now that would be a problem; and why? It would be a problem for the same reason that a wedding between a man and a goat would be a problem, or a wedding between two coma patients: consent. When two people marry, we know they are married because we trust they are making an informed commitment, a commitment they must not only express but understand. If either party appears in some way uninformed, or incapable of making an informed decision such as a toddler or someone severely disabled, the ceremony is invalid. So there we have identified one of the chief - if not the chief - characteristics of the parties: a capacity for and expression of consent.
People often avoid telling other people what marriage ought to be and instead explain what marriage means to them. Marriage is very personal. We have a kind of awareness that marriage differs in some ways from couple to couple, and that those differences don't delegitimize the relationship but merely distinguish it from other incarnations of the same institution. Still, through our own experience, these little thought experiments, and a casting of one's imagination over society, we can make some generalizations about marriage that universalize it. These include social recognition, consent of the parties, and an acknowledgment of the personal nature of marriage (which goes hand in hand with non-judgment about other people's marriages and the diversity of marriage).
Problems With Religious Marriage
This perspective of marriage is wholly secular. Consider: religions define marriage with tremendous specificity, enumerating not only the steps by which people achieve spousal status, but who qualifies to take those steps and, subsequently, how married life must proceed. Each religion is unique, of course, and many religions have diversity within them (the United Church of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church both perform marriages and both fall under the umbrella of Christianity, yet they're two very different doctrines indeed!). This makes understanding marriage as a religious institution extremely challenging, because it seems to mean that any religious definition of marriage must perforce be legitimate.
In fact, secular society has condemned a number of religious definitions of marriage on a number of fronts, including candidates for marriage (like minors, close relatives, and multiple spouses) and the rights of married persons toward one another (some religions permit the abuse or rape of one's spouse, while such behavior is criminal and therefore not allowed in secular society).
What about consent? Does consent figure as prominently in religion as it does in secular marriage? First we must ask what makes a marriage legitimate according to religion? Quite simply, it must be commanded by God. That would seem reasonable to most people until you consider that, in order to determine whether God commands it, we require the intercession of clerics, who in turn discern the commands of God through prayer, sacred documents, and tradition. To be married in the eyes of a religion, all you need is for the right person to say that God has married you -- no ifs, ands, or buts. And if God marries you, what does your consent matter?
So we see that, in a religious context, consent is at best a tertiary consideration and at worst irrelevant to defining marriage. You don't have to love, like, or even know your spouse in order to get hitched by God. In secular society, where consent is king, knowing and liking and loving your spouse are infinitely more likely, though not required, but no supernatural injunction can mandate your betrothal.
Consent also offers a means of dissolving marriages. Sadly, some people still believe a successful marriage is one you die in; Dan Savage speaks to this brilliantly. But secular society accepts that just as one chooses to enter marriage, so one may choose to exit it, and thus society accepts divorce. Religions contort themselves to catch up, but as history and our own experience and logic dictate, religion can never really reconcile itself to divorce because, as in so many cases, it would have to accept the fallibility of God, of religion itself, or both. After all, if you believe God has ordained your union, who are you to end it?
The diversity of marriage adds to its beauty, at least in secular minds. The idea that I am married to my husband and we value monogamy and will one day welcome children and sleep in the same bed every night delights me, but that delight does not translate into any belief or action about other people's marriages. It does not take anything away from, for example, married people with open relationships who are not going to have children and live separately most of the time. But both marriages respect and acknowledge each other in a way that religions cannot do on their own. In fact, many religions disdain unions outside their own faith, and for good reason, too: if you believe you are the heir of absolute truth, and that truth dictates relationships must follow specific rules, and others do not follow those rules, why then would you have any reason to respect those relationships? So secularism provides space for diversity of its institutions, while at the same time abdicating no moral strength or affirmation of them. Can religion do that?
Part of the problem is that, while religions are good at adapting, they aren't as good at adapting as democratic societies are. Democracy puts change on the fast track because of majority rule, and because democracy creates a space -- namely government -- through which society finds the best way forward. If a democratic society learns that there is more to human sexuality, gender, and identity than was previously thought, all it takes is a majority of people to accept that truth for it to integrate into the law. Laws have a normative effect -- that is, we perceive how we ought to behave from the law. We form laws and laws form us, and they often help persuade much of the remaining minority to get on board as well. This is an admittedly simplified and idealized explanation of the democratic process, but it is helpful in understanding how something like marriage can grow in a secular context while stagnating in a religious one.
Marriage As a Social Act
Religion's approach to marriage doesn't seem to be measuring up favorably to the way it's handled by secular society, does it? Consent and diversity hallmarks of secular marriage, and yet religion disdains or disregards these principles.
What about that social aspect I mentioned before? One of the paradoxes of marriage remains its personal-social character, that its structure can be determined only by the couple engaged in it and yet it relies on all of society's acknowledgment to properly function. This latter part explains why LGBT people seek legal status, because they understand -- having experienced its absence -- the necessity of social involvement in their relationship.
No, this does not give society some kind of say over the day-to-day goings-on within marriages, but it does give society a kind of authority over its official administration: Society bestows its blessing through social functions, and in return gets some say in who gets to be blessed. (Those of us who value marriage would say, too, that society inherently benefits from marriage, that marriage is intrinsically good, but ignore that for the moment to better perceive the tit-for-tat exchange of power between society at large and a two-person subset.) This is the crux of the marriage equality issue. Still, it is a superior means of establishing marriage in society than anything religion could offer.
And what about logistics? It would be impossible for society to organize itself effectively around religious marriage because it would have to accommodate every religious definition of marriage. What would this mean for society? Society offers all kinds of accommodations to married people, both general and specific, but if religious dogma alone dictated social norms, what accommodations would be required? Would those in society who do not belong to your particular religion be obligated to police your behavior for dogmatic missteps? Would reporting perceived infidelity be mandated, and would we have to ignore evils such as domestic abuse because certain religions permit them? Such an approach would be unfeasible, morally suspect, and emotionally damaging.
I suggest, rather, that if religion were left the keys to the store, society would tend to grow apathetic; our rich network of ancillary institutions, intellectual disciplines, and other cultural responses to marriage (things like counseling, event planning, employment and family and tax law, healthcare, etc.) would beg off any involvement with marriage at all.
Today, we enjoy a broad network of cultural stuffs including expected individual responses, laws, and organizations that serve marriage; without a general, secular definition for and administration of marriage, the whole thing would fall apart. Our society defers too much to religion as it is -- think of religious federal holidays and tax credits for churches and the tacit credibility of men in funny robes -- but imagine the catastrophic effect of society trying to accommodate every single religious tradition's definition of marriage! For this very reason, our society must be a secular one in order to be a functioning society at all.
The State's Right
It seems clear to me that the state, the primary organ of society, provides the best administration, defense, and regulation of marriage. Why, then, do I so often encounter, even among marriage equality proponents, the assertion that "government should get out of the marriage business"? Is this merely an expression of frustration on the part of advocates who tire of the long struggle to equality? Does it derive from the cult of moderation which adheres to a fanatic belief that truth is always located at the quantitative middle of any issue, and this is the rational middle they have pinpointed between bigotry and equality? Or does it speak to religious privilege which I mentioned before, to an evidence-free intuition that anything claimed by religion must be ceded to religion?
I don't deny there are historical connections between marriage and religion, but that is not the case today, and not all of those historic connections are positive anyway. It's also true that civil marriage (people are quick to emphasize the "civil," meaning "not religious," in a way that makes me uncomfortable) is imperfect. Perhaps tax incentives are a bit old-fashioned and tend to gender the institution, which is inappropriate. Perhaps the limitation to two persons is problematic, though I argue the opposite is true (historically, polygamy has tended toward patriarchy and enhanced the de-personhood of women; furthermore, it is usually fraught with religious overtones that don't fit our secular understanding of marriage as previously discussed). Ministers are empowered to act as agents of the state even though they are not providing the same services of the state -- as far as I'm concerned, if you're acting as an agent of the state, you need to abide by the rules of the state. Put another way, if a judge is obligated to marry whomever the state says can be married, so, to, should any and all other agents of the state who are allowed to perform marriages.
And while we're listing the imperfections of civil marriage, let's not forget that marriage equality for same-sex couples remains imperfectly distributed throughout the country.
Even so, leaving marriage to religion would, I argue, imperil the institution itself. We would have no useful, universal way of understanding marriage across religious and nonreligious lines. The personal nature of marriage would diminish, for only those people willing to subscribe to the dictates of a religion would be able to participate in it. Society would fail to meet the needs of married persons because those needs would range so widely and divergently from any rational basis. And consent? Consent would lose its place as the key to marriage. Without consent, marriage can have no value.
If anybody should be getting out of the marriage business, it's religion.