There have been a number of posts and comments recently here at Caffeinated Thoughts that dealt with same-sex marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act, the nature of marriage, and the government’s role, if any, in marriage. What became clear through this series of posts and comments is that our readers are all over the place on what their notion of marriage is. And it’s equally clear that this same diversity of opinion exists among Evangelical Christians.
Many Evangelicals view marriage as a strictly religious institution, and they bristle at the thought of having to get permission to marry from the state via licensure. “What God hath joined together…” doesn’t allow a role in the matter by the state, they would reason. Interestingly enough, there are some (many?) folks that are not Evangelical or even particularly religious that may well agree that the state shouldn’t be involved in marriage. Perhaps the most well known of these would be none other than attorney Alan Dershowitz, who says “government should quit the marriage business”.
Dershowitz’s view is in some respects similar to the view taken by the Iowa Supreme Court in its ruling last year legalizing same-sex marriage: They suggested two types of marriage, one civil and one religious, one determined by the church and the other by the state. The distinction that Dershowitz makes is that the civil institution should not be called marriage, but rather a civil union. This civil institution would be available to any couple, whether they were married in a religious fashion or not. He wrote this in 2003:
“The solution is to unlink the religious institution of marriage — as distinguished from the secular institution of civil union — from the state. Under this proposal, any couple could register for civil union, recognized by the state, with all its rights and responsibilities.”
Dershowitz concedes that his proposal is not substantially different from other situations that already exist in some states, other than the labels:
“All that would be different would be the name we give the secular agreement. The word “marriage” would be reserved for those who chose the religious sacrament.”
The problem with all this is that marriage is a civil union. And it is also a divine ordinance. It isn’t one or the other, it is both. Our Judeo-Christian heritage tells us that it is an institution that finds its origin in Genesis 2. This is why the Iowa Supreme Court’s view of this matter is a rather silly and futile attempt to make something that is inherently religious into something entirely secular. Dershowitz’s distinction isn’t particularly helpful either. His labeling mechanism robs marriage of its contractual aspects which, while they are civil in nature, are nonetheless vital to the religious understanding of the institution.
Marriage involves such matters as paternity and property. It is a contract, and it used to be spoken of in those terms. Evangelicals who wish to divorce (pun intended!) the institution of marriage from the state aren’t giving consideration to the fact that marriage is indeed largely civil in its nature. And maintaining that the state has no valid interest in marriage would, by necessity, land Evangelicals in Dershowitz’s camp, a place they would rather not be, because they would still have to secure a civil union in addition to their marriage, and the participants (both the gender and number) in these unions would now be determined by the state.
Note: For a bit more on the historical development of the Protestant view of marriage, see my earlier post The Nature of Marriage.