Changing Terms On Our Terms ~ “Government Marriage”

Two short articles by R.R. Reno that have impacted me a lot just reading them through once. It seems that this is the best, considering our current climate, response that is conservative and conservatively libertarian for our [again] current culture.

Government Marriage

A constitutional right for men to marry men and women to marry women is a done deal. That’s how I read the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear cases in which lower courts ruled that marriage laws in various states that recognize unions only of a man and a woman are unconstitutional. Lower courts will continue to draw this conclusion. If portions of the country resist, the Supreme Court will very likely intervene and find a right to same-sex marriage amid the penumbras and emanations of due process or equal protection.

We are thus fast approaching a fundamental distinction between government marriage and church marriage. Government marriage is… well, it’s hard to tell. The courts have studiously ignored traditional arguments about the meaning of marriage. That’s not surprising, because all thick descriptions of marriage end up focusing on the male—female difference, which isn’t very useful if your goal as a judge is to find a constitutional right of same-sex marriage.

Given this new legal reality, what are we to think and’ do? First, we need to recognize how miserably we have failed. We sought to convince our fellow citizens of some simple truths. That marriage is a universal institution found in all cultures. That it properly organizes, regulates, and sanctifies the sexual union of male and female. That to say otherwise is unprecedented, strange, and unwise as a social policy. We tried to speak these truths in many different ways but without success.

Clarity about our failure need not entail giving up on the arguments we’ve made. Sometimes things need to be said because they’re true. But facing our failure should lead us to a keener sense of what we’re up against. It’s very hard these days to speak about men as men and women as women. Last month I wrote about the perverse way in which political correctness prevents us from talking about the problems of date rape and sexual assault in a manner that acknowledges the unique sexual vulnerability of women. We have the same problem when it comes to marriage. Our culture dreams of equality so complete that the male—female difference becomes irrelevant. Why do we need an institution to regulate the union of men and women if there aren’t any real differences between men and women?

Our current culture of the intimate life adds to our confusion. Widespread cohabitation makes marriage seem increasingly irrelevant. Our date-then-fornicate social mores run counter to the traditional claim that we should discipline our sexual instincts in accord with the limitations imposed by the institution of marriage. The fact that this culture shapes a great deal of our lives and those of our children, friends, and relatives makes our situation all the more troubling. How can we speak clearly about marriage if we participate in trends that obscure its proper meaning?

And then there’s the general fear we all feel about being “judgmental.” We take for granted the minute regulation of our economic relations. We accept extensive educational expectations and adopt rigorous regimes of exercise and dieting. But when it comes to sex and sexual “iden­tity,” our culture finds regulation suspect, even odious. This involves more than solicitude for our perennial hedonistic impulses. Anxious efforts to secure “transgendered” rights don’t focus on sexual relations at all. Those rights secure the freedom for a male to think of himself as—and to be treated by others as—a female, and vice versa. Most people I know roll their eyes when talk turns to the rights of the “transgendered community.” But they also shrink from saying anything censorious. To give full voice to traditional moral judgments about sex, sexual identity, and relationships is insensitive, puritanical, or just plain bad manners.

In this respect, Pope Francis is both very right and very wrong. We have not found a way to talk about sex and marriage, at least not one we’re confident will humanize, which is what clarity about moral truth should do. But he’s dangerously wrong to suggest that the way forward is to “obsess” less. The opposite is the case, for as both Roger Scruton (“Is Sex Necessary?”) and James Kalb (“Sex and the Religion of Me”) observe in this issue, our age is already obsessed with sex. If we don’t speak—if our church leaders don’t speak—we’ll be absorbed into our culture’s way of thinking, and our children will be catechized by progressive creeds of sexual liberation.

In the new regime of redefined marriage, we need to think long and hard about what we need to do—or refuse to do. For example, I can’t see how a priest or pastor can in good conscience sign a marriage license for “spouse A” and “spouse B.” Perhaps he should strike those absurdities and write “husband” and “wife.” Failing that, he should simply refuse the govern­ment’s delegation of legal power, referring the couple to the courthouse after the wedding for the state to confect in its bureaucratic way the amorphous and ill-defined civil union that our regime continues to call “marriage.”

More generally, I think we need to make a simple change in the way we talk about marriage. I propose dropping the term civil marriage and adopting the term govern­ment marriage. In the past, the state recognized marriage, giving it legal forms to reinforce its historic norms (or, in more recent decades, to relax them). Now the courts have redefined rather than recognized marriage, making it an institution entirely under the state’s control. That’s why it’s now government marriage rather than civil marriage. On this point I believe in the separation of church and state. The Church may participate in civil marriage. It should not participate in government marriage.

A Time to Rend

Getting out of the government-marriage busi­ness is exactly what Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz now urge. They’ve formu­lated a pastoral pledge. It requires ordained ministers to renounce their long-established role as agents of the state with the legal power to sign marriage certificates. I find their reasoning convincing. Easy divorce, prenuptial agreements, a general tolerance of cohabitation, the contraceptive mentality—this de­grades and obscures the meaning of marriage. But rede­fining marriage so that male—female complementarity is irrelevant? That’s a fundamental contradiction of the moss fundamental meaning of marriage.

Here’s the pledge:

In many jurisdictions, including many of the United States, civil authorities have adopted a definition of marriage that explicitly rejects the age-old requirement of male-female pairing. In a few short years or even months, it is very likely that this new definition will be­come the law of the land, and in all jurisdictions the rights, privileges, and duties of marriage will be granted to men in partnership with men, and women with wom­en. As law-abiding citizens, we join in according the ap­propriate legal recognition to these partnerships where and when they are accorded the legal status of marriage.

As Christian ministers, however, we must bear clear wit­ness. This is a perilous time. Divorce and co-habitation have weakened marriage. We have been too complacent in our responses to these trends. Now marriage is being fundamentally redefined, and we are being tested yet again. If we fail to take clear action, we risk falsifying God’s Word.

The new definition of marriage no longer coincides with the Christian understanding of marriage between a man and woman. Our biblical faith is committed to upholding, celebrating, and furthering this understand­ing, which is stated many times within the Scriptures and has been repeatedly restated in our wedding cere­monies, church laws, and doctrinal standards for centu­ries. To continue with church practices that intertwine government marriage with Christian marriage will implicate the Church in a false definition of marriage.

Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings. We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life.

Please join us in this pledge to separate civil marriage from Christian marriage by adding your name.

For a long time Christianity has sewn its teachings into the fabric of Western culture. That was a good thing. A Christian culture is not the same as a Christian commu­nity. No society is a church, no matter how thoroughly Christian its ethos. But as David Bentley Hart has writ­ten so eloquently, such a society will participate, however imperfectly, in the heavenly civilization of love. But the season of sewing is ending, and we need to separate that which is Christian from cultural forms taken over and reshaped for post-Christian purposes. Now is a time for rending, not for the sake of disengaging from culture or retreating from the public square, but so that our salt does not lose its savor.

We have posted the pledge on firstthings.com. Signa­tures welcome.

 R.R. Reno, First Things, December 2014 (Num 248), 3-5.

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