The religious right isn't retreating — it's reforming

And that's a good thing for people on all sides of the gay marriage debate

Late last month, First Things magazine published a brief article arguing that pastors whose beliefs do not permit them to officiate same-sex weddings should withdraw from participating in government-sanctioned marriage entirely, thereby drawing "a clear distinction between the government-enforced legal regime of marriage and the biblical covenant of marriage." The conservative publication also hosted a pledge to the same effect. Hundreds of pastors have signed, agreeing that preservation of religious liberty and biblical faith requires such abstention.

Predictably, the pledge made headlines. Christianity Today conducted a follow-up poll, finding that about a quarter of Protestant pastors agree with First Things' proposal, as do about a third of all Americans. But despite this significant agreement, many — even those sympathetic to First Things' politics and theology — saw the pledge as a retreat, a too-soon abandoning of Christian influence in the broader culture.

Russell D. Moore of Southern Baptist Convention argued that pastors should continue to participate in government marriage unless and until doing so required them to perform marriages they believed to be unbiblical. Similarly, here at The Week, Damon Linker called the pledge "an unprecedented retreat of theologically conservative churches from engagement in American public life," heralding the end of the religious right as we know it.

What such responses fail to recognize (and what even the original First Things article fails to note) is that divorcing religious and civil marriage is not retreat but reform. It is not a new idea, but a return to the way Christian marriage operated for 1,500 years. And it is thoroughly orthodox, if the endorsement of no less a figure than C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity carries any weight.

It wasn't until the 16th (or even 18th) century in Europe that the government had any involvement in deciding who was or wasn't married. In early American history, too, marriage requirements were largely decentralized. Couples typically wed in church and were supposed to register their marriages with the government, but "common law marriages," a sort of automatic marital status based on long-term cohabitation, were widely recognized.

In the years after the Civil War, however, marriage laws in the United States changed dramatically, as marriage licenses were introduced as a racist method of social control. Nearly 40 states used marriage licenses to outlaw unions between whites and non-whites, legally reinforcing the racism of the day. Likewise, some states refused to grant licenses to prisoners, divorced people, addicts, and those deemed mentally ill.

Thus, when the First Things article states that, "In the past, the state recognized marriage, giving it legal forms to reinforce its historic norms," it operates from a post-Civil War view of an institution which has existed for millennia.

And while First Things worries about allowing the government to "redefine marriage," I'd suggest that redefinition already happened — and it started hundreds of years ago. What was supposed to be a covenant between two people, their families, and God has become a legal formality that can only occur with the state's permission.

By putting marriage in the hands of the government, we've already said that God's perspective isn't the last word. By taking marriage out of the church and into the halls of Congress, we make a sacred covenant into a secular contract. And by legislating marriage in any way, we cede this holy ground to the state.

But theology aside, there is a strong political argument for re-privatizing marriage, which we libertarians have been making for years. If we take the state out of marriage entirely, we allow each side of the gay marriage fight to make their own decisions for their own lives. Neither side is required to recognize relationships they don't support. Neither side is able to tell the other what to believe. Neither side "wins" the culture war — and neither side loses.

On a practical level, this move would require decoupling marriage from the many legal shortcuts it boasts today, on issues like taxes, parenting, and hospital visitation. These have become issues which, understandably, motivate much of the push for legalizing gay marriage. This is a significant project, certainly, but it should not be an overwhelming objection. Plus, those wishing to include a legal contract in their marriage could still do so; standardized, legally-binding forms would undoubtedly be just a Google search away.

But more importantly, peaceful coexistence becomes an option when both groups stop trying to use the law to override each other's choices; indeed, with re-privatization, "all the disputes over gay marriage would become irrelevant. Gay marriage would not have the official sanction of government, but neither would straight marriage."

For the LGBTQ community and their allies, privatized marriage offers a much faster route to full equality, no longer making the legitimacy of any relationship something that can be decided by millions of strangers at the ballot box.

For Christians of any conviction about same-sex marriage, there's no real loss here: The government's approval isn't what makes us married now, so we wouldn't be any less married without it. And rather than the much-feared government redefinition of marriage, we'd have something of an un-defining — a reforming return to a much older model of matrimony.

As David Boaz summarizes, "Marriage is an important institution" — especially for those of us in the church. "The modern mistake is to think that important things must be planned, sponsored, reviewed, or licensed by the government." Whether you want to protect the sanctity of Christian marriage, pursue equality for gay couples, or both, the first step is kicking the government out of the marriage bed.


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