This past December my wife, Robin, and I celebrated 20 years of marriage. That chilly 1990 December morning at Ocean Avenue Presbyterian Church, before God and our community, we boldly and tearfully exchanged vows proclaiming our commitment to one another in marriage. Oh wait, that wasn’t REALLY the marriage, at least not in the eyes of the state. Not until the witnesses and officiant signed our licence were we “officially” married. Religious blessing or not, the civil rights we enjoy because we got hitched did not begin until that license was signed and received by the county registrar.
In my world and understanding marriage, however, we were married when we exchanged vows and “I do” and we were joined legally when the license was signed and received. This separation is very clear to me and I believe that our nation’s current marriage debates exist because we have confused and combined the two. Now I am not the only person that thinks this relationship is not only awkward, but constitutionally inappropriate. And while I applaud President Obama’s recent decision regarding the Defense of Marriage Act, I for one believe that the government should get out of the marriage business all together.
I offer a few thoughts . . .
Civil Unions make sense. - Our government is responsible for the civil rights of its citizens. Moral codes will always be part of a national dialogue, but the only reason that the government should be interested in the bonds between two people is to regulate issues of taxes, property, contractual obligations, etc. and NOT the religious/spiritual nature of relationship. The civil relationship, should two people choose to enter into this kind of agreement is purely legal and not about a spiritual bond of marriage.
Defining marriage is a no-win situation. - Let me be as clear as I can be. There is not one “Biblical” definition of marriage. Yes, there are examples of one man and one woman who are married, but even my kids know that there are also examples of marriage that go far and beyond the limits of one. I am shocked when Christian leaders talk about the Bible, especially in a civil context, as if is clear on the subject of marriage. This debate about and continued use of this “Biblical marriage” interpretation to inform civil relationships will lead nowhere and further blurs the separation of church and state.
Marriage is deeply spiritual - First, I know that there are many who believe that marriage as an institution, religious or civil, is a bankrupt social construct. And there I times I see some marriages and kind of agree, but call me old-fashioned, I still believe in the beauty of the institution of marriage. It would be all the better if the government left the marriage part to the religious community. In my understanding of Biblical marriage, scripture invites us into deep and intimate relationships with one another, two individuals, who seek to commit their lives to one another growing individually and together into God hopes them to become. Other religious traditions will bring a different perspective, and barring destructive practices, should be allowed to exercise their marriage perspectives.
I am not an agent of the state. - While I do enjoy saying the words, “By the power given to me by . . .” that is mostly out of nostalgia for the classic wedding experience and my secret desire to be a cop, neither of which is reason enough for me to officiate weddings on behalf of the state. In no other part of my life as a pastor am I asked to be an agent of the state. Yes I am responsible to the state when it comes to reporting abuse, but even then I do not act on behalf of the state in any other part of the process. This blurring between church and state is a relationship whose time has passed, if it ever had a time in the first place.
So there you have it, my quick thoughts on marriage, civil unions and why the government should leave the marriage life of its citizens to someone else.