Get God Out of the Gay Marriage Debate

The government shouldn't tell churches who they should marry, but neither should churches tell the government which marriages it can recognize.


One of my favorite stories growing up was the Sherlock Holmes tale involving the disappearance of the racehorse Silver Blaze. The great detective memorably drew Dr. Watson's attention to the curious incident involving the guard dog on the night when the horse was stolen. "The dog did nothing in the night-time," Watson replied. "That was the curious incident," Holmes noted. In the absence of reaction, he was able to divine crucial information (specifically that the crime had to be an inside job because the dog recognized the thief).

The dog that has failed to bark in the 2012 presidential race is the opposition to gay marriage. The campaign bombshell that President Obama's support for marriage equality was supposed to be has instead fizzled. Republican leaders such as nominee-in-waiting Mitt Romney and House Speaker John Boehner did ritually denounce the notion, but they moved away from it as quickly as possible. In the GOP's relative silence on the issue—especially as compared to 2004, when it was a critical wedge—we can divine a seismic political shift, one summarized in a memo that GOP pollster Jan van Lohuizen, who worked for George W. Bush eight years ago, wrote after Obama's announcement. Public opinion on the issue is shifting "at an accelerated rate with no sign of slowing down," he said. That shift toward approval of marriage equality, he wrote, "is taking place among all partisan groups."

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

With the party's mainstream leadership abandoning the fight, the remaining opponents hail from the GOP's religious wing. This is unfortunate because they tend to frame the debate as a religious one.

And really, we should leave God and religion out of the gay marriage debate.

But, but, but … I can already hear the sputtering responses. Surely marriage is a fundamentally religious issue. It is a holy sacrament! How can one remove it from religion or vice versa?

For starters, marriage is not a strictly religious institution, and has never been one. "The early church had no specific rite for marriage," historian Garry Wills wrote in the New York Review of Books earlier this month. "This was left up to the secular authorities of the Roman Empire, since marriage is a legal concern for the legitimacy of heirs." Even after the empire became Christian, marriage was not a matter for the church, he wrote. "When the Empire faltered in the West, church courts took up the role of legal adjudicator of valid marriages," he added. "But there was still no special religious meaning to the institution." It was not until the 12th century—more than 1,000 years after Christ performed his vinous miracle at Cana—that marriage became a sacrament.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

And to this day, marriage retains a fundamental duality that is too often overlooked. One does not need the approval or cooperation of a religious institution to get married. Marriage today remains a civil institution as well as a religious one.

Thanks to the protection of the First Amendment, there is no debate about the government imposing its will on the latter. No one on the side of marriage equality is suggesting that, say, the Catholic Church should be forced to perform gay marriages. The government may not and should not tell a religion upon whom it should confer its marriage sacrament.

By the same token, neither should the government proscribe who a church can marry—something 30 states and the federal government currently do with the Defense of Marriage Act and other laws defining marriage as being between one man and one woman. These laws deny legal recognition to gay marriages currently permitted by institutions like the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, the United Church of Christ, and the Metropolitan Community Churches.

[See the 10 cities with the most same-sex partners.]

But as surely as the government should not dictate the parameters of the religious institution of marriage, neither should a church impose its views on the civil institution.