Friday, March 29, 2013

Should the church marry gays?

Actual un-ironic comment I saw appended to a Facebook post yesterday: 'The government can legalize same-sex marriage but I don't think the church should marry gays.' (This was on one of those Facebook posts that thousands and thousands of people follow and comment on in a big unholy mess.)

First of all, as we are not all mind readers, we do not automatically know what that commenter meant by 'the church'. In fact, I'm a little confused about exactly what sort of being would refer to 'the church' and expect thousands of anonymous Internet people to know what they're talking about.

After all, a person open to the idea of a multiplicity of faiths surely wouldn't post about what 'the church' should do in a context where it's not clear what 'the church' refers to.

And as for the opposite sort of person, the more you think that your church is The One And Only Way, and the more rigid and intolerant you are when it comes to religious pluralism, the more convinced you'll be that that other church over there, the one right down the road from your church, is just an express train to Hell for the deluded sinners who congregate inside. So you'd be specific enough to make that clear.

So now that we've got that cleared up, here's my response to that person.

1. I don't think the government should force any church to marry gay people.

2. I don't think the government should force any church to marry interracial couples.

3. I don't think the government should force any church to marry people who aren't virgins.

You see, I am able to mentally separate 'I don't approve of that' from 'I think that should be illegal'. I don't approve of churches denying marriage to any of the above, but I don't think churches should be legally prohibited from behaving in ways I disapprove of.

But that means, if people in the community get angry about a church's position on marriage and start protesting, the church is not allowed to complain that its rights are being trampled on,  it is not allowed (in the USA) to say 'What happened to the First Amendment? Freedom of religion? Huh?' or something similar, and it is not allowed to hint darkly that we are now all living in a land of tyranny.

(And of course, when I say 'not allowed' I don't mean 'banned by law'; my meaning is closer to, 'You're the one who insists I cook every night no matter how stressful a day I've had, so you're not allowed to complain when you get reheated leftovers!')

But I can extend this argument even further:

4. I don't think the government should prevent any church from marrying three, four, or five people.

5. I don't think the government should prevent any church from marrying a beetle to an ostrich.

6. I don't think the government should prevent any church from conducting a marriage where one member of the couple is deceased.

7. I don't think the government should prevent any church from declaring that I, Brendan, am now married to, I dunno, let's say George R. R. Martin. Without the permission or knowledge of either of us.

8. I don't think the government should prevent any church from marrying a grown man to a six-year-old girl.

Okay, I threw that last one in for shock value. But I mean it. In that last case, the man can't consummate his marriage without violating actual laws that actually exist. And the six-year-old girl is far too young to legally enter into a binding contract. And if the police hear about a bunch of weirdos marrying kids to grown-ups, they would still have every reason to be suspicious that maybe something very wrong and illegal is going on, and they would be fully justified in investigating further.

Basically, I'm sympathetic to the idea that the religious institution of marriage ought to be teased apart from the institution of legally binding contracts. That's from the point of view of the government, of course; a church can still require you to sign a legal marriage contract if you want it to marry you.

Let's face it: I am basically a civil libertarian. I'm very hesitant to call myself that, since I worry people will expect the next words out of my mouth to be something like 'If poor people want health care, why don't they just save their money so they can afford it?'

But I agree that the government doesn't necessarily need to be involved in every aspect of human society. If a pastor marries two people in a church, and the government validates the union by the signing of a civil contract, those are two different actions and one can exist without the other.

More to the point, the USA is a land of religious pluralism, where any bunch of kooks and creeps can band together and found a church that, unless God is willing to come down and render a decision himself/herself/itself, is not objectively any more legitimate than your friendly neighborhood church on the corner. Or the Roman Catholic Church.

So if you care about your church having the religious freedom to conduct its affairs in the way it sees fit, you'd better hope that the church down the street is also free to declare that the ghost of Benjamin Franklin is now married to the pastor's dog. Because while you might be serene in the knowledge that you're closer to God than those weirdos, you still have to live together in the same country.

And in case anyone read all that and still cares what I think, then as long as the government is inserting itself into the marriage business at all, then it ought to include same-sex couples in on it. Or interracial couples, or couples born on different days of the week. But I can't think of a good reason to include a provision allowing cactuses to marry cuttlefish. Your church can go do something different, for all I care.

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