Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Marriage Rites and Wrongs

Oooh. Prophet or Madman is returning to political commentary, ever so slightly. Please note that I borrowed the title of this post from the appearance of William Raspberry's 12/13/2004 column in the Washington Post. In my local paper, The Intelligencer, the very same column appears under the title, "Of Church, State and Marriage." It's not included on their website. So here goes... When William Raspberry is right, he's right. And I've found that his arguments on so-called controversial issues can hit you square between your eyes such that you wonder how there can be any controversy at all. Yesterday, he enlisted the aid of C.S. Lewis, the British essayist and novelist who was also a brilliant Christian apologist (see here, here and maybe even here), and quoted a passage from Mere Christianity:

"I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused," he wrote. "The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is the quite different question -- how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. "A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans [followers of Islam] tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. . . . "There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not."

Although Lewis' subject was divorce, you can see how this same logic can be applied to today's discourse on same-sex marriages. Religious marriage, you see, is a sacrament and government has no business poking its nose into it. Raspberry expands this thought:

But marriage isn't only sacrament. It is also the basis on which we decide who may inherit in the absence of a will, who may make life-or-death decisions for loved ones, or who is eligible for the advantages of joint tax returns. And because it has these secular implications, the state has a legitimate role in determining who is married and who isn't.

The church has no interest in joint filings, and the state no interest in declarations of love or religious affiliation. To the one, marriage is a sacred rite; to the other, it is the sanctioning of a contractual relationship. The church may care whether he is a philanderer or she a gold-digger, or whether there's too great a gap in their ages. The state's interests run to the validity of the contract.

And what has any of this to do with same-sex marriage? Maybe if we can get past such churchly considerations as God's will as expressed in Leviticus, we can make peace with the bifurcation Lewis urged in his 1952 book: [Emphasis mine] Let the church handle the sacrament, the state the contract.

Perfect. Beautiful. And I don't see how the Republicans (mentioned only because it is their party that is so driven for banning same-sex unions) cannot embrace this as policy. Are they not the party who embraced laissez faire? Well, how hard can it be to move from "the government of business is not the business of government" to "the government of marriage is not the business of government"?

Yeah, I know. Probably too far to stretch.

And what of C.S. Lewis? What would he make of the stretch that William Raspberry has applied to his work? Well, Raspberry admits:

I don't know where Lewis might have stood on gay marriage. For all I know, the cleric might have opposed any marriage except between one man and one woman. He might have urged such a view on his church. But he wouldn't have urged it on the state. His fear of government intrusion into matters of faith would have kept him from doing so.

I encourage you to read the column. Here is the full URL (may require a free login): http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A60180-2004Dec12.html

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