Bob Hyatt has a suggestion that he hopes might calm the waters of the gay marriage debate. It’s a common enough suggestion that I hear from both Christians and Libertarians:
As long as we’re talking about “marriage” we’re going to continue to see a stalemate on this issue as those who believe in a traditional, biblical view of sexuality and those who want the basic rights afforded to others all around them each refuse to give an inch.
So what’s the solution?
The State needs to get out of the “marriage” business. It should recognize that as long as it uses that term, and continues to privilege certain types of relationships over others this issue is going to divide us as a nation, and is only going to become more and more contentious. We need to move towards the system used in many European countries where the State issues nothing but civil unions to anyone who wants them, and then those who desire it may seek a marriage from the Church.
Let me be clear that I don’t oppose this suggestion. There are problems, like the fact that “civil unions” are not treated as equal to marriage. We might be able to fix some of that with legislation, but I suspect the lingering taint of “not real marriage” will persist for generations.
But for other reasons as well I’m reluctant to accept such a compromise. Part of my response has to include a little history. Here’s a snippet from Gary Wills:
The early church had no specific rite for marriage. This was left up to the secular authorities of the Roman Empire, since marriage is a legal concern for the legitimacy of heirs. When the Empire became Christian under Constantine, Christian emperors continued the imperial control of marriage, as the Code of Justinian makes clear. When the Empire faltered in the West, church courts took up the role of legal adjudicator of valid marriages. But there was still no special religious meaning to the institution. As the best scholar of sacramental history, Joseph Martos, puts it: “Before the eleventh century there was no such thing as a Christian wedding ceremony in the Latin church, and throughout the Middle Ages there was no single church ritual for solemnizing marriage between Christians.”Only in the twelfth century was a claim made for some supernatural favor (grace) bestowed on marriage as a sacrament. By the next century marriage had been added to the biblically sacred number of seven sacraments. Since Thomas Aquinas argued that the spouses’ consent is the efficient cause of marriage and the seal of intercourse was the final cause, it is hard to see what a priest’s blessing could add to the reality of the bond. And bad effects followed. This sacralizing of the natural reality led to a demoting of Yahwist marriage, the only kind Jesus recognized, as inferior to “true marriage” in a church.
The church fathers ranged from men who thought that marriage was a lesser good than celibacy (St. Augustine) and those who thought it a lesser evil than fornication (St. Jerome). Most seemed to agree with St. Paul that “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” (1.Cor 7:1)
The Church came to marriage late and grudgingly. Only in the twelfth century did Aquinas add an Aristotelian spin on marriage and make it a sacrament. Note that this is not a biblical argument but a natural law argument. Protestant founders like Luther and Calvin seemed to reject it when they left marriage as a civil institution.
Which raises the question: exactly what claim does Hyatt think Christianity has over a civil institution that predates the religion, and which the religion resisted for centuries?
So here’s a counteroffer for Hyatt: let’s leave “marriage” as a civil institution. It has an extremely long history of being a civil institution, and for most of its history the Christian church was happy to leave it as such. Perhaps the Church could use a more theologically loaded word like “covenant,” since that already has some legitimacy among conservatives.
This is a serious suggestion. Conservatives have claimed the word “covenant” as a way of reclaiming of the idea of marriage from the 15 min. in Las Vegas variety. Unlike civil unions, covenants will not be tainted as a kind of marriage lite. It stands a much better chance of working for everybody than the original compromise.