Monday, June 29, 2015

Marriage, Church, and State

Marriage is an institution dating back to prehistory. Mankind has always had forms of government and forms of religion, and marriage has been associated with both government and religion. The place of marriage within religion and government does not pose much of a problem for monolithic cultures, but marriage can be an immense problem for cultures wherein diversity is the rule.  Such a problem is that which we are facing in our land today.

The problem is simple, both government and America’s religious institutions reserve the right to define morality, however, they do not agree on morality. Let’s be clear, the state has an agenda, and so do the religious institutions, and they are not the same agenda. It seems to many that this is an insurmountable conflict, however, I contend that this need not necessarily lead to succession or civil war (although, I must admit it can if not handled rightly).

The reason that the conflict over marriage rights strikes so deeply at the heart of Americans is precisely because in America the government has been thought of as part of God’s gift to americans. In other words, the government has been thought of by persons of religious conviction as being good and guided by the principles of the bible. The fact is that historically there have been religiously committed people in government, but the government has usually carried out what its benefactors (the robber-barons of a given era) have commanded, and what the voting populous pushes for. 

The fact is that the government does not consider ethics a transcendent and eternal constant that has been revealed, but rather something that is to be self-determined by a democratic process. In other words, according to our government, right and wrong does not flow from the perfect being we call God, who is perfection, but rather from what we (the President, the Congress, or supreme court justices) determine is best for us here and now. This is the source of our conflict. Let me say it very plainly to my religious friends, the government is not good in the way that you define good! Let me be clearer yet, the government is not in your favor, or looking to be holy!

Now then, what are religious institutions to do?  Let me begin by saying that we are not the only ones in history to have a government that is not benign.  Most people around the world do not look at their government as a good institution.  It is only now that this view is becoming mainstream in America. The plain fact is that our government has never been benign, to believe this would be a delusion. There has always been oppression of some sort, killings on a mass scale via unjust wars, hypocrisy, discrimination, and so on. Let me be very clear, our government is not holy! quite the opposite in most cases.

So then, let’s consider the way forward.  

Government has an area of authority regarding marriage, and that is the establishment and oversight of the legal contract that binds the two persons (for now, this may expand to more than two people in the future). The government lays out laws that direct the legal realm of the married person’s relationship between each other and the state. In short, the government manages and directs the marriage contract. No religious person should have a problem with this, unless of course, it is in some way discriminatory against religious marriages. For the moment this does not seem to be the case. 

Religious institutions also have an area of authority regarding marriage, and it is the establishment and oversight of the spiritual aspect of the union called marriage. The state has no say in the spiritual makeup, direction, or requirements for a religious marriage. To speak in historic Christian terms, the Church has sacramental authority in a marriage, thus the church determines who can and who cannot be married, and what that marriage must be like in order to remain part of the church. The government has no say in the church’s institution of marriage.

The problem then is the union of church and state regarding the way marriages are conducted. Today, a couple coming for a religious marriage must have an unsigned marriage license, which is then signed by the minister performing the marriage. it is the signing and filing of that signed license that constitutes a legal marriage for religious persons. This is a huge problem that can lead to all sort’s of future coercion from the sate. As agents of the state, the sate can determine right and wrong for the ministers who continue this practice.

In order to preserve a  more peaceful union, ministers must disengage from this practice of participating in the contractual or governmental side of marriage, and leave that entire aspect to the persons being married and the state. This contractual aspect is of no concern to the religious institution. Let me be clear, if we do not want the state to meddle into our religious affairs, then we must insist that our ministers stop acting as agents of the state.  

Give to caesar what is caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your good sense on this point, Father.

    I am always baffled by the approach taken in the US to this. Here in Britain a civil marriage is just that: a civil marriage, with all of its legal and social implications. It is not a religious event and nobody pretends that it is.

    People who belong to faiths that subscribe to an idea of religious marriage are free to take part in the rites and ceremonies of their faith insofar as that goes, and this has no bearing in law*.

    For Orthodox Christians wishing to marry, this means that they have the legal ceremony in the register office, then they come to church to celebrate the Mystery of Holy Matrimony, and nobody for a moment thinks that the two things are the same.

    *The exceptions to this are the state churches. In both England and Scotland (but not Wales or Northern Ireland), the Anglican and Prebyterian churches, respectively, have particular associations with the state, which means that their clergy are de facto registrars for legal marriage, and the two things are conflated, and these churches also recognise register office weddings as the sacrament of Holy Matrimony.

    Many other churches and religious groups, including the Orthodox churches, think that this is bizarre, for it means that a Hindu woman and an agnostic man could be married by an atheist registrar, and these churches would consider this equivalent to a Christian marriage, even though none of the participants would think of it in this way.