Mixed feelings about same-sex marriage

May 22, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

I knew it would happen–that somehow the issue of “same-sex marriage” would push front and center into the politics of our nation leading up to November’s elections. For the last 20 years, this issue pops up before elections as predictably as dandelions in my front yard, assuring an energized turnout from the religious segment of the Republican base.

I confess. I have mixed feelings about the dispute centered on “same-sex” marriage. That’s probably a dangerous thing to say in relation to such a polarizing matter. Neither side wants to see this as anything other than good versus evil. Let me explain.

Certainly I support full civil and human rights for all people without exception. That is not the cause of my mixed feelings. My concerns focus on the question of marriage itself as it is practiced in the USA. If we simply open up marriage as it is currently practiced to any couple that desires it, that is in one sense a “step forward.” But in doing so we miss an opportunity to make needed and necessary changes in our current practices that would be beneficial on a number of different fronts.

Most specifically, our current marriage practices perpetuate a problem in the relationship between church and state that could be easily remedied, and the by-product of that remedy would also totally solve the problem of same-sex marriage. Presently, ordained clergy have state sanction to declare a couple legally married. Regardless of the justification this had historically, it is no longer justified. Furthermore, since this practice essentially turns every ordained minister into an ad hoc administrator for the state, a good case could be made against it on Constitutional grounds.

There are two aspects of marriage that should be conceptually separate, but which get too easily confused because of our current practices. These are the LEGAL aspect, which pertains to rights, responsibilities and privileges under the law, and the HOLY aspect, which can only be conferred by the blessings of a community, and in which the state has no place and must remain neutral. Much of the rancor related to same-sex marriage, rancor that divides our nation right down the middle, is a direct result of practices that seamlessly align these two very different aspects of marriage. One side feels that to deny same-sex partnership its recognized legal status is clearly discriminatory. The other side objects that were the state to sanction same-sex marriage, they would be forced by the state to recognize as holy that which their interpretation of true religion tells them is not holy, a clear intrusion of the state into their religion.

I would like to see the sanction to declare a couple legally married withdrawn from religious clergy and placed completely in the hands of secular state administrators, such as Justices of the Peace. It should be clear that marriage as a LEGAL status emanates from the state. Those desiring to enter into the legal status of marriage would go to a designated secular official of the state, declare their intentions, and have this legal status bestowed on them by the state official. Those who want to enter into HOLY matrimony, receiving the blessings of their chosen community for their union, would go to the official designated by that community for this purpose, for whatever ceremony is in keeping with the customs of that community.

In short, I would like to see “civil unions” for all couples, regardless of sexual orientation, as the recognized legal status for a couple, conferring upon all who enter into it with the same legal rights, responsibilities and privileges. Conferring this legal status is what the state is fit to do.

Those desiring to have their union recognized by their chosen religious community as a condition of Holy Matrimony are then free to pursue that within their chosen religious community, in addition to the civil declaration, or for that matter without the civil declaration (though they would then not enjoy the legal status of union.) While this might seem radical to Americans (and no doubt many of the professional clergy would resist having their marriage-declaration powers withdrawn) it is the standard practice in many nations today.

This approach completely solves the same-sex marriage dispute that is dividing our nation, because it dissolves the religious aspect of legal marriage. It is clearly in better keeping with the non-establishment clause of the Constitution, because it does not even temporarily put religious clergy into the position of being clerk for the state. Each religious community would be free to decide for themselves what unions they want to bless, and how to bless them with whomever designated to officiate, without overtones of legal discrimination for their customs. Whether a given religious community chooses to bless or not bless any particular union would be of no interest to the state, as indeed it should not be. Those belonging to communities that refuse to bless some unions as holy would still be expected to respect the legal nature of the civil unions of fellow citizens outside their communities, and would have no reason to feel threatened by doing so.

My hope has been that the issue of same-sex marriage would spark a much wider critical examination of current marriage practices in the USA. I fear that the current headlong rush into solidified positions on same-sex marriage, hammered out in the context of power politics and the coming election, will actually hinder the process of real critical examination of current marriage practices. Discussions quickly devolve into a bifurcated pattern of “for it” or “against it,” but “how might we agree to do this thing differently” remains off the table. Clearly a missed opportunity. That is why my feelings are mixed.


  1. That makes too much sense, Dan, for it to ever happen.

  2. I think your reasoning is very sound. I also wonder if the word ‘marriage’ is not the big stumbling block with many. It is a little late in the day to change to something like ‘partnered’ or ‘united’ rather than ‘married.’ Would you comment?

    • When I was in college, if you asked a class ”who of you is married?” it was a clear cut. You either were or you weren’t (the few who might have been ”living in sin,” i.e., cohabitating, were fairly covert about it except with, perhaps, close friends – it could even have got you evicted from your apartment at that time, with little legal recourse, if you young folks can imagine that!!) If I were to ask that same question to one of my classes today, it would be anything but a clear cut question. In any random class of 50 students, there are probably at least 5 different \”grades\” of people who, given their circumstances, could answer yes or no to that question \”depending on what you mean by ’married.’” So, yes indeed, I do think that very term \”married\” is outdated and a stumbling block to the kind of social recognition of partnerships (with correspondingly appropriate rights and responsibilities) in the current discussion.

      BTW, it always surprises me how many Americans mention that what I am suggesting is a ”new idea” to them – it is the established custom of most European and many South American countries (perhaps Australia, Asia and Africa as well, though I don\’t know enough to say so in those cases.)

  3. I don’t recall hearing much about proposal like this before. It sounds reasonable to me. Wonder how the religious right would react. Would they also find it reasonable or would they view it as an affront to their beliefs and a weakening of their power?

  4. This is a sensible proposition, and one which has been advocated, on the right, by various Libertarians. No chance of it being taken up, of course.

    But there is a deeper problem: I think a lot of opposition to, and certainly uneasiness about, Gay Marriage, is because it is seen as part of the modern disintegration of marriage and the family. If you believe that this disintegration of marriage and the family, none of which is the fault of homosexuals, is a bad thing, then you will probably instinctively have a conservative response to any attempt to alter its definition.

    The real problem, in my opinion, is that marriage is commonly believed to be about love, when in fact, it is an attempt to glue the male to the support (emotionally and financially) of his children. It’s actually nothing to do with love, which is a modern invention anyway. It’s an attempt to contruct a social/state barrier to the natural instinct of the male to replicate his genes by procreating widely.

    It’s a shame that the Gay Marriage issue prevents our focussing on the issue of marriage in general, what is happening to it, and what we might rationally do to replace, insofar as we can, the role that the husband has played in the rearing of children. (I am assuming, of course, that marriage and the traditional familiy will continue to disintegrate, and that this is a bad thing.)

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