Monday, January 11, 2010
Before you tie the knot, untangle the Church and State
One of the blessings of living outside the country is that I'm largely insulated from the Gordian knot that is American politics. Unfortunately, my blissful ignorance is often ruptured by the various newsfeeds that Google and other internet companies like to helpfully spew at my unsuspecting eyeballs.
Anyone who had the misfortune of living in America during 2008 will remember the battle for Prop 8 in California, an epic struggle that seemed to consume our attention spans all over the country (see, its not just vapid and shallow Hollywood celebrities that can get us to pay attention to the Golden State). After the dust settled, Prop 8 had passed and a lot of angry fallout settled on the Mormon Church. This is not surprising, considering how sensitive an issue it is. I mean, its hard not to take it as a personal attack when someone is raising money to say your marriage isn't 'real'. Emotional responses are to be expected (and nothing says 'I'm angry' more than sending anthrax threats with white powder to Mormon Temples).
Now its 2010 and since California, more and more states have been quietly voting on the same issue, with much less fanfare. Google's newsfeed informed me that the gay marriage issue is now being brought before a federal court. Now it could be a result of living out of the country, but considering how much higher the stakes are here, I certainly am not hearing a big deal being made of this. Could it be that the media is more concerned with Nigerians lighting their underwear on fire in airplanes and where Tiger is sticking his Wood to cause a huge media circus? Even the plans to air the trial on Youtube were postponed.
Of course, in any issue where basic human rights are involved, there's going to be a lot of outcry when they are taken away. This raises a question that rarely gets brought up: Is a state-recognized marriage a basic human right? I do not recall much being written about life, liberty, and the pursuit of wedding bands. Civil rights are, as correctly recognized in the American founding, inalienable. They can neither be given by government, nor rightfully taken away. These rights are those which slaves, and all subjects of tyranny, were denied: free speech, the free exercise of religion, a free press, the right to peaceably assemble, the right to vote, to be free from unlawful intrusions of government on their persons or property, and the right to fair and equal treatment under the law in all other matters mentioned in the Constitution and its amendments.
Marriage is an institution, not a right. The distinction is important. What this debate is about is not a civil rights issue, but rather, the redefinition of an institution. And this is the great irony. This great quarrel is essentially an issue of semantics. It is the word 'marriage' that is the real point of contention.
Historically and culturally, marriage has fallen under the domain of religion. For many faiths, it is one of their sacraments. This is where the supporters of Prop 8 take umbrage with the state's redefinition. It is somewhat akin to the President telling the Pope that from now on the Communion must replace wafers with gummy bears. The government has no right to redefine a religious sacrament.
If marriage were only a matter of religious significance, the debate would not have even arisen. As the opponents of Prop 8 rightfully point out, married couples are given certain legal and economic privileges that unmarried couples do not get. Imagine for a moment that your partner has been injured in an accident and you are not allowed to see him or her in intensive care because only family members or spouses are allowed. Unfortunately, though you've been living in a monogonomous relationship for years, you don't qualify as either because you're both homosexual. You can see, then, the frustration.
Why do married couples receive such benefits from the state? From a real politik perspective, I'd venture a guess that the state is rewarding them for contributing to its future. By producing stable families, the state grows stronger, and thus incentives were put in place to reward what was the only institution designed to create stable families. The fact that this was a religious institution was irrelevant, it became a politically convenient way to reward couples who provided stable family environments (in theory). And so the religious institution and the government became intertwined until now it seems rather messy to untangle them.
As Alexander the Great knew, sometimes the easiest way to untangle a knot is to sever it completely. America could take a cue from France here (I had to bring up France at least once to justify blogging about it here). Sever the civil union from the marriage entirely. Gay or straight, let the government regulate all civil unions in a town hall or a courthouse, let the institution be stripped of any spiritual or supernatural connotations and kept strictly in the realm of legality and economics. This would result in legal equality, and leave the debate about marriage with the churches where it belongs. Whether or not God gives your union a thumbs up or thumbs down largely depends on which denomination you're asking, and since this only impacts the insubstantial metaphysics of eternity and not the rather concrete facts of mortality, the government really does not need to get mixed up in this. Let the people go to the flavor of church that matches their preference or none at all if they don't care. The all important legal and economic rights are granted by Uncle Sam, not Father Brown or Pastor Smith. Let us render unto Caesar the political and economic benefits of union (and the painful divorce paperwork that often follows). God can sort out the spiritual benefits without legislation.
Most opponents of the idea of 'gay marriage' are more concerned about the word 'marriage' than the idea of gay people living together. Take the word out of the equation, take the government out of the marrying business altogether, and we'll find a lot less to argue about. Maybe then we can get back to the important business that's monopolized my newsfeed, like security breaches, deaths in Afghanistan, and baseball legend Mark McGwire admitting to steroid use when he broke the homerun record in '98...
Weighty matters indeed, and only one of the three stories even made it onto my current news feed (Which one? The answer may surprise you...unless you guessed the trivial steroid story, because yeah..it was totally that one.)