Government and the Blessing Business

This evening I decided to watch Meet the Press on my DVR.  It turns out the episode on my list was not from this past Sunday but from Easter.  One of the issues discussed on the program was same sex marriage and one of the guests was Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage.

He had a lot to say about “tradition” of course.  His main argument, as I understand it, is that “marriage” is a fundamental term that (ignoring plural marriage as practiced in Biblical times and in many parts of the world today) means a union of a man and a woman.  This is the most essential aspect of what a marriage is.

Just before he was cut off as the program ran out of time he said, “Gays and lesbians are free to live as they choose, but marriage comes before the state.  The state does not create it.”

He would have said more, but I think the essence of his point was made. If I understand it correctly it is that no matter what else you think a marriage constitutes, no matter what kind of property arrangements, whether it is a love match or a way for aristocratic families to insure their regal status, whether it produces children or not, at its most fundamental level it is a male and a female who enter the contract.

“The state does not create it…”

What confuses me about the argument is this– if the government aspects of marriage are not, at its core, what marriage is– then why oppose government recognition of the unions of same sex couples? What the state says is marriage shouldn’t have any bearing on what marriage really is.  Just as gays and lesbians are free to live as they please without a law to support them, those who disapprove are equally free to believe they do not have a “real” marriage if they law supports them.

If it is not the state that creates the marriage, then  is a committed, cohabitating straight couple who do not sign a legal marriage contract married?  If signing the legal contract with the state is the difference between being married and not married then how does the state not create it?  If, in some fundamental way, the couple is married by saying they are a committed couple even if they do not get the state involved then aren’t same sex couples already also married in the only way that matters?  Isn’t that idea of marriage, and not the joint filing of taxes, what actually bothers you? What am I missing?

What is a “real” marriage?  Is it the contract with the state or something else? These days, I think we might be inclined to say that people who did not love each other but married for money and status were not in a “real” marriage. Up to a century ago such a marriage, especially among the upper classes, would be typical and it would be absurd to suggest it was not a “real marriage.”  Property and title transfers were exactly what marriages were about.

Is it about children?   Much of the compelling state interest in marriage is about providing a secure environment for children, yes. But childless couples have what we consider to be “real” marriages, don’t they?  Infertile couples can marry. If a male and a female friend marry but do not have sex, is it a “real” marriage? If not, does that mean sex is the basis of marriage?

In fact, isn’t it this very question that troubles traditionalists?  It is not about gay sex.  It is that if we start to question exactly what marriage is we might find that we can’t redefine it because we’ve never really quite defined it to begin with.  (For a similar train of thought, see my entry Identity Fluid.)

I was reminded of an article I wrote about a year ago under the heading “Traditional Marriage” which I want to quote again here:

It seems that those who hold the “tradition” view believe society bestows an honor on those to whom it grants the status of marriage.  It is a celebration, a recognition and a welcoming of the couple into the larger community.  Some feel that the marriage of same sex couples is not something that society ought to sanction or bless.

What I found most interesting about this guest (see original article for the background) was that he said that there was nothing stopping gay couples from gathering with their families and holding a ceremony to honor their commitment.  He was not opposed to that, only to the government legally recognizing the marriage.  When it comes to the legal status of marriage he said (I’m paraphrasing a bit because this was a couple of weeks ago) “We have to decide if it is a benefit to society to allow that.”

What is odd about this is that government recognition of marriage is the one part that completely ignores the spiritual, romantic and community aspects of the union.  The government doesn’t care if the couple is serious, or committed or in love, or what their parents think, or if they go to church or wear white or plan to raise a family. The government cares if you filled out the right forms and paid the correct fee.

Just as the government is not honoring the proud parents when it issues a “certificate of live birth,” the government is not bestowing a blessing with a marriage license.  Governments are not in the blessing business.

The reason the government provides a legal status of marriage is to make it easier for everyone else.  By granting couples the status of marriage, many legal processes are streamlined.  We do not have to reinvent everything for each couple or each relationship.  We have processes for co-parenting, joint property, divorce, inheritance that, as long as there are not too many complicating factors, simplify things for the rest of us.  We don’t need long explanations of what the intentions of the two parties are because they have defined it using this legal umbrella term of “marriage.”

Not including same sex couples who have similar intentions in our legal category creates a lot of extra headaches, litigation and work for our system.

What is interesting to me about the panelist’s tradition argument is that he believes gay couples should actually be entitled to the blessing, the honor and the welcoming embrace of community. He would open all of the tradition to them, as he has no problem with them having wedding ceremonies and living as committed couples with all of the community acceptance of their status.

Listing a person of the same sex as spouse on an insurance form, however, seems to be the problem.

The fact of the matter is that “marriage” is not one thing. There are legal aspects and social aspects to marriage. Marriage is a property arrangement and can also be a spiritual bond. Even though we call everyone we’ve given this legal status “married” no two marriages are alike.

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