Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Modest Proposal on "Same-Sex Marriage"

My only major disappointment in the election was the passage of Proposition 8 in California, prohibiting same-sex marriages. But I wonder if we need to rethink the entire issue in completely different terms.

There are a lot of socially/religiously conservative folks who honestly fear “the Gay Agenda” (I have never figured out exactly what this agenda is supposed to be: mandatory homosexuality?), but a fair number of them claim to have Gay friends they value and support civil rights for same-sex couples. How you can fear the Gay Agenda and support civil rights for Gays is something of a mystery to me, but it appears to be true none-the-less.

Likewise there are a fair number of social progressives who are passionate about “Gay rights” but waffle a bit when the word “marriage” is used to describe committed same-sex partnerships. In the commitment services at which I have officiated over the years I have never used the word “marriage,” primarily because I wear two hats when officiating, one for the church and one for the state of Wisconsin, and Wisconsin does not allow me to perform a “marriage” for two persons of the same gender. But I must confess that I also struggle with that word in theological terms. I agree with Stanley Hauerwas that God is likely a good deal less fascinated by our genitals than we are, and that the heart of Biblical teachings on relationships is not about gender orientation but about fidelity and commitment, but still the “M word” makes me squirm a little bit.

So here’s a potential solution: we eliminate the term “marriage” from civil law for all persons, gay or straight, and the states issue only “civil union licenses” rather than marriage licenses. The state assumes its proper role, which is to guarantee legal rights and protections to committed partners regardless of orientation. Then religious communities assume their proper role, which is to bless the spiritual commitment of marriage in accordance with a given religious community’s doctrines and practices. Some religious communities/denominations, including my own, would bless spiritual marriages for same-sex couples while many others would not. Fine. If two nice Mormon boys fall in love and want to share in a civil union, they would have that right. If they also want to be married in the eyes of God, they would need to decide if that is a higher priority than remaining Mormon, because their church is not going to permit them to marry.

Negatively, this would tend to isolate folks into spiritual communities with like-minded folks, perhaps contributing to our division as a society (which, of course, is already the case). Positively, it could lead more people to experience how the theology of their faith tradition shapes and forms how we live together in community: "this is who we are, this is what we believe, this is how we live."

It would also make it easier for faith communities to say “no” to people who hold no religious faith but still want the church to perform their marriage ceremony; “marriage” in the church would be reserved for those who understand that it is a spiritual commitment and who genuinely want to make that commitment. This being a reputedly free country, persons who do not hold religious convictions would remain perfectly free to declare themselves “married” – who’s gonna stop ‘em? – and could have a ceremony performed by a New Age Guru with feathers and crystals and tap-dancing squirrels if they wish. But churches, synagogues and temples would no longer need to prostitute themselves by accommodating requests from couples who desire a “church wedding” but would just as soon not have God mentioned.

It’s not going to happen, of course, if only because it makes too much sense, and because the tradition of church weddings is so deeply established in our culture. I remember when my colleague Lillian met with a couple who had asked her to marry them in her church, and they could not identify a single religious belief they held. “Why do you want to be married in the church, then?” Lillian asked reasonably. The bride giggled: “I just always pictured myself walking down an aisle.” Lillian nodded understandingly. “Have you considered being married in a supermarket?”


Harry said...

With the reception next to the deli?

Terrific idea!

JPN said...


First, great talking to you on Sunday night. I appreciate your input and work at SD. I would like further discourse as I still have a heart for that community, do you have any time to talk in the next few weeks.

Second, I enjoyed this post. I didn't know where you were headed initially but fully agree with you that "marriage" should be taken away from a state recognition and placed solely in the hands of the faith communities. Nice work!