Thinking Outside the Box.
Stateless Marriage_Barnabas-Thinking Outside the Box.
“We can add gay marriage to the short list of controversies — abortion, affirmative action, the death penalty — that are so frozen and ritualistic that debates about them are more like Kabuki performances than intellectual exercises. Or we can think outside the box.”
—Michael Kinsley, Washington Post, July 3.
Kinsley thinks outside the box by saying that the state should get out of the marriage business, thus privatizing the administration of marriage. I have said something like this in a “Ha, ha, just kidding” tone of voice for several years now, ready to back away if it was a heresy too gross for the ears around me.
But I really wasn’t kidding, and Kinsley gives me the courage to admit it.
I agree with him from my own experience in the marriage business. I am empowered (nearly anyone can be where I live) by the state to officiate at marriage and sign the license. I jump through the hoop of the state, fussily signing in black ink as instructed, and delivering it promptly to the Register of Deeds within three days. This arcane exercise continues, though our culture today
- has no sense of marriage as licensed sexual activity,
- calls no child “illegitimate,”
- takes no responsibility for marriage partners to meet minimal public health standards, and
- often recognizes no fault in marital failure.
States expect us to take their license seriously, even though they no longer themselves take marriage seriously or even demonstrate that they understand it.
If the state were to get out of the marriage business, people would be free to call themselves married if they wanted to, and others could call them “not married” if they wanted to. If you find the latter offensive as lacking respect to gay people, get used to it. It’s not essentially different from what The Roman Catholic Church says to Protestant-Catholic couples who were married by someone other than a Catholic priest.
In brief, if the state were to get out the marriage business, secular marriage would become in law what it is today in fact—a matter of personal opinion, definition, and preference.
But what about property rights, custody rights, divorce, blah, blah, blah? What about them? Stateless marriage would take some getting used to, but it’s hard to imagine how it could be worse than the directionless mess that secular marriage has become. If you want your marriage to be a legal contract, go to a lawyer and write one you will both agree to.
In stateless marriage, those who want moral and religious discipline will submit, as they have always done, to the definitions, limitations, and rites of the religious bodies to which they belong. For these people, marriage would continue to be historically and theologically rooted. This is the only kind of marriage that I want to perform. Those unwilling to submit to such discipline and want a ceremony may put on pretty clothes and ask anyone who is willing to mumble words over them. In any case, religious or not, No license will be necessary and no legal status will be conferred by marriage as such.
Without integrity and commitment on your part a license alone guarantees nothing . To those whose word means something, or to whom religious commitment is primary, legal status is secondary at best. But if you cannot be trusted and have no religious commitment, you’ll want a lawyer more than you will want a pastor.