Last week President Obama finally did it. After several
years of an evolving position on gay marriage, he stated unambiguously that he thinks
people of the same sex have the right to marry; no compelling reason exists to
Why is the President’s opinion important anyway? If marriage
is religious, it should not be.
In the Catholic Church, marriage is one of the seven
sacraments. Like communion and baptism, marriage constitutes a religious ritual
conducted before God. It is led by a priest and witnessed by the entire
community, to be sure, but God is asked not only to bless the marriage, but to
sanctify it. In essence, God creates the marriage bond.
Although the Protestant Reformation did away with many
sacraments, marriage remains a religious rite unifying two individuals before
God in the witness of the congregation.
This understanding provides no place for government
officials and their views. Marriage takes place before God and the religious
community. Marriage belongs to the church, right?
Governments took over marriage centuries ago. It became a
way of keeping tabs on people. Today in North America and Europe, the church
wedding is not what makes one legally married. Legal marriage occurs only when
a person gets a marriage license from a government bureau and signs it before the
If ever there was a failure of the separation of church and
state, government control of marriage is it. While allowing churches,
synagogues, and other religious institutions to continue their rituals and
celebrations, governments took away their power to contract marriage.
Church weddings may take place before God, but in the eyes
of the state, a marriage is not legal until the papers are signed.
Over the past century, furthermore, many people’s religious
views have changed. It used to be rare to marry outside one’s church or
denomination, now it is common. And many people have given up official religion
altogether. In both cases, government control of marriage enables these individuals
to marry with ease. If religious institutions had retained control over
marriage, the ability to marry of people in these situations would have been
So the President’s opinion on this question is important. As
the head of state, his views have significant weight in deciding how the
government approaches marriage—probably more than the views of religious
organizations themselves. There is no separation of church and state here.
Undue entanglement of church and state? Absolutely.
That is clear in the political arena as well. Over the past
two decades, state laws and constitutional changes have been enacted around the
nation almost entirely in the name of “Biblical Marriage”—defined in practice
as the union of one man and one woman. Religious leaders and groups have worked
to establish their religious beliefs about marriage as the law of the land.
What the churches have failed to realize in this rush to
enshrine one man-one woman marriage is that when they ask the government to
define marriage, the government defines it for them.
The churches have not only lost control of marriage, but the
government now enforces its marriage requirements not just upon the gay
community but upon the churches as well. The churches gave to the government
any remaining power over marriage.
Was this wise? Maybe churches and other religious
institutions should try to get back their power over marriage before it is too
Since the debate over gay marriage is far from over, the
churches can use it to restore their power over marriage. They should insist on
the separation of church and state and get the government out of the religious
business of marriage.
How? In principle it is simple. The government should be
restricted to civil unions, which all couples would contract, straight as well
as gay. This addresses the legal aspect of the union of two people.
The part of a union of two individuals that takes place
before God would take place only in religious institutions. Each church,
synagogue, temple and mosque would enact the marriage before their god(s) in
the way they believed was correct.
Religions thus could define marriage according to their
principles and refuse to conduct ones that did not fit their definitions. Some
religious organizations would carriage out gay marriages, some would not.
Everyone would thus have access marriage who wanted it, and no religious
organization would have to go against its beliefs.