What is Marriage?

May 18, 2012

It’s no surprise that many regard President Obama’s stated support of gay marriage as merely a political gesture. Nor is it a surprise that such an announcement will keep some individuals from voting for him in November.  But shouldn’t that second statement discredit the validity of the first at least somewhat? Everything a President does is “political” in some way, but Obama’s silence and issue-dodging on the issue of gay marriage was far more an act of playing the game of politics than his announcement of support. Obama is a progressive, well educated, urbane and relatively young President so the fact that he has no hatred of gays or prejudice towards them shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. His past actions have showed him as supportive of gay equality issues, from his repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to his criticism that  DOMA is unconstitutional. No, Obama has realized all along that there are those on the fringes willing to vote for him that he would lose if he became too outspoken on this particular issue before his second term. So he tried to play it safe and it looks like Biden forced his hand a bit, likely making him take that stand a bit earlier than he would have perhaps liked. It seems to me the stand he is taking is one he has wanted to take all along but has delayed for the sake of politics. Certainly that dilemma in general might deserve a bit of criticism but Obama is far from unique in keeping his cards close to the chest until the votes are secure. There’s a primary reason prophets, sages, and radical justice workers generally eschew public office; in the arena of speaking truth to power and working for progress even if it upsets the status quo it usually helps if one is not an integral part of the power structure itself. So although Obama may admire a man like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his critics are missing an important point when they accuse Obama of failing to live up to the legacy of his idol on issues of equality, war, or even economics, and that is that a man like Dr. King was able to accomplish far more outside of a political office than he would have had he been holding such a position. So, was Obama’s endorsement of support “politically motivated?” I would say I honestly think not–I think he simply came out and said how he had always felt about the issue. His act of delaying doing so was the political move; because Obama knows that he’s going to lose a few votes but it’s very doubtful he will gain any from such a stand. Those already on board with the equality issue might have been disgruntled that more hadn’t been done by the Obama administration in this regard but the alternative vote is eons behind on this issue (and almost every other issue– which is a perennial difference between progressive and reactionary politics) so they almost all would have cast their ballot for Obama anyway.

The focus here really is, what is marriage? Is it a religious union marked by a sacred ceremony? Or is it a political arrangement, a civic union sealed by government approval and bestowing a change in legal status? This is an important question because its answer should help re-frame the debate over gay marriage and (possibly) silence its critics. Marriage has been both religious and political throughout history. The state generally got involved in the “business” of marriage for tax purposes. That is why modern libertarians urge the government out of marriage issues altogether. That would be a solution to many of the current problems but in itself would create others. For the purpose of record keeping, inheritance, legal protections, civil law, and a host of issues that protect women and children, it is important for the government to keep some record of marriage unions. Of course, there are ways out of most of this with a complete restructure of key laws, but we can say that for now government is certainly involved in marriage, so marriage is itself a legal, political institution at least in part. One assumes that most of the hostile critics of gay marriage view marriage as a religious institution. That it most certainly has been in much of history and still is for many today. For Catholics, marriage is a sacrament and many Protestant denominations take a similar position to a lesser degree. For those who are religious, particularly Christian, the idea of marriage as sacramental is a beautiful one. It sees the union of two human beings (traditionally man and woman of course) and the love they share as a mediation of grace. For two partners who are lucky enough to discover a truly good marriage, that can be an apt metaphor–in a life spent together in love, struggle, and all the facets of going through time together as partners they can catch a glimpse of how God loves humanity, how Creator is caught up with and in Creation. It can be a remarkable, though humanly flawed, physical representation of something much larger and more intangible. Of course, judging by what I’ve heard many who’ve experienced bad marriages express, I take it that marriage can be the exact opposite of sacramental as well. So if marriage is religious, if a wedding is a ceremony that binds two together, shouldn’t it be up to the Church? There are some loud religious critics of gay marriage today. Catholic and Southern Baptist leaders have bemoaned Obama’s latest remarks in the past week or two. If the harshest criticism of gay marriage is related to its religious nature, it really seems that the issue is settled already–because there are Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Unitarian, Presbyterian, Lutheran and non-denominational church bodies all across the United States right now ready and willing to perform gay marriage ceremonies. Such issues have provoked large church body disputes and splits over the past few decades but the point is that out of such splits there have been born intact denominational bodies who have already decided the issue. Outside of the Christian religion there are similar bodies in most other religions represented in America today willing to perform gay marriages and/or unions, especially Buddhist and Reform Jewish congregations. And what of the non-religious altogether? An increasing number of straight couples opt for a non-religious wedding ceremony each and every year. The point is, if marriage is a religious institution the issue should be settled–for if a gay couple has no problem in finding a religious community honoring and recognizing their union and performing their ceremony, what business is it for the federal government? The only way the religious rights of gay marriage critics would be offended would be if the government forced ALL churches to provide gay marriage services. I find it unlikely that a gay couple would seek out a religious body who actively preaches an anti-gay message to perform their service in the first place, though.

So obviously critics of gay marriage must admit that their real problem with gay marriage is in its political, civic sphere. They do not want the country they live in to recognize the union of a same-sex couple nor bestow legal rights and protections on that couple. They do not want their tax dollars in any way going to benefit that couple. Now, 40 years ago were it left to a popular vote many of the same people not wanting the above recognition going to gays would have voted to not allow them to “mixed race” marriages either. But even if we don’t equate these two issues and we give modern critics the benefit of a doubt, assuming it’s not an issue of prejudice, should the fact that they do not want the country they live in to accept something they don’t agree with be a justifiable position? We all pay taxes to support things we do not agree with. A lot of our dollars go to dropping bombs each year and I see no way to “opt out” of that though I would like to. If you live in a state that utilizes the death penalty, tax dollars go for state-sanctioned death each year. The list could go on. The point is that living in a society often entails paying for things that don’t outright benefit you or that you won’t always agree with. As far as gay marriage, it’s not going to have a financial cost of any significance for its critics just by allowing legal rights, protections, and benefits to gay couples. The statement that “gay marriage will hurt the institution of marriage” is preposterous. No one will force anyone to be married to a member of the same sex! How can a gay marriage hurt a straight marriage? How can anyone else’s marriage directly harm your own? Each couple bears the responsibility of their own arrangement. If conservative religious bodies are concerned with the state of marriage today, they should concert their efforts in stronger marital counseling. They should stress the importance of the decision when a couple considers marriage. They should communicate realistically and evenhandedly what marriage is and can be. They should not idealize nor trivialize it. And they should stress the equality of it for straight couples for certainly there are deeply embedded and outdated patriarchal strains and gender-inequalities rooted in the minds of even the most “modern” couples, perhaps unrecognized. Marriage, like religion itself, all to often gets trapped in a box of outdated perceptions, expectations and prejudices that impede it from becoming the evolving blessing it is capable of being for every time and place it finds itself in.


3 Responses to “What is Marriage?”

  1. David said

    Well said. Its not really an issue that Obama should have to even address. But because of a fundamentalist desire to marry politics and religion (which is beyond me) it creates pressures that he eventually has to speak about.

  2. […] reflected in our political scene and the state of our communities today? Related to my last post, “What is Marriage?”, we’ve seen how some take their religious inclinations and make them felt in the political […]

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