Making Marriage Private?

Stephanie Coontz’ New York Times piece on “Taking Marriage Private” presents an idea that’s been brewing on this site for some time.

Let’s start with my piece “Gay Marriage?  What Marriage?” back in 2004:

…in their quest for a change in the legal status of their relationships, homosexuals have at least three options to pursue:

  1. They could call for the abolition of civil marriage altogether. This would be the more “Sixties radical” position to take, and certainly more consistent with their political antecedents…

As far as the church is concerned, I suggested the following course of action:

With a little organisation, Christian churches could even enable their members to opt out of civil marriage altogether, divorcing themselves from an institution that first came from God Himself but has been nationalised to suit the needs of the state, and putting it back in the hands of Him who joined the first man and woman in the Garden.

Three years later in my piece A Show Stopper for Everyone in the Marriage Debate I made the following observation:

The sudden “revelation” by the California Governor and Attorney General, who say marriage can be eliminated in the future is only news to those who have not thought the issue out very carefully.

Before Christians in California go off and begin a quest for a constitutional amendment, they need to think about a few things.

First, without going into a long theological dissertation, marriage for the Christian is an institution of God.  Allowing the state to dictate the terms and conditions of that institution as blithely as American Christians do is a mistake.  We’ve already seen that many of those terms and conditions have been changed at law.  The opinions of both the Governor and Jr. Brown confirm the obvious: with marriage, what the state gives, the state can take away.  (The phrase “rational legislative purpose” is absurd; legislatures do all kind of things for all kinds of reasons, rational and irrational.)  The “rights” of civil marriage are in reality very ephemeral, which makes one wonder why some are fighting so hard to obtain them.

To which I received the following response from Liam, a gay Californian:

Although I am an advocate of same-sex civil marriage, I would like nothing better than to see civil marriage itself abolished altogether. My advocacy of civil marriage for all consenting adults has nothing to do with advocacy of marriage in general, and everything to do with providing all U.S. citizens equal protection of the laws, since the state confers material benefits to those who are married.

But the complete abolition of civil marriage would be even better! Marriage was originally a religious institution and, as such, deserves no legal recognition. Marriage should be more akin to baptism, which may very well be important in the personal lives of Christians, but which is completely irrelevant in the context of civil law.

Liam’s position makes a lot more sense than that of, say, Susan Russell.  She and others in the GLBT community in TEC want to consider the elimination of ecclesiastical marriage, satisfying themselves with blessings while the state does the job of marriage.  This is the state of affairs in most of Europe.  For example, the French took marriage away from the church in the wake of the French Revolution.  In most of Europe it is illegal for entities other than the state to say they marry anyone, as Belgian King Leopold III found out the hard way in his marriage to Lillian Baels.

And that indicates who will be the most formidable opponent of denationalising marriage: the state.  Prying the power from the state to pronounce people spouses will be a job.

One thought on “Making Marriage Private?”

  1. I agree with Liam. Marriage is a sacrament and should be treated similar to baptism et al. In this sense the govt. has no right to demand that a church baptize someone nor should they have the right to tell the church to marry someone.

    I don’t really have a problem with equality of rights for all Americans, homo/hetero/bi-sexual. I’m not one of those legislate morality kind of guys.

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