Marriage and its Discontents

Posted: Jun 19, 2014 12:01 AM

There are good people on both sides of the current debate over letting homosexual couples get married -- and good people in between who aren't sure just where they stand. And may never be. Lots of them are all in favor of according homosexuals all the financial benefits that go with marriage, and the social and legal standing, too. From pension and inheritance rights to hospital visitation privileges. It's only right -- and about time. And they want to do the decent thing.

Yet many of these same people, fair-minded as they are, balk at granting homosexual couples a marriage license. They may not be able to say exactly why they draw the line at the word marriage. Which is why so many of them have embraced civil unions as a fair compromise; they envision it as marriage with all the benefits, just not the name.

Why won't they cross that last line, go that last step? They may say something about custom and tradition, or even mention religious scruples, but it's all very vague. You get the feeling they're still struggling with the question, that their opinion on this matter hasn't matured. They must sound uncertain and unconvincing even to themselves. They want to do the right thing by their fellow man -- and woman -- whatever the sexual proclivities involved, but they can't bring themselves to extend marriage to homosexual unions.

Why is that? Maybe because they realize somewhere in the back of their minds that a word is more than just a word, that it can carry all kinds of connotations and values with it, a whole history. Certainly a word like marriage does. Because it's not just a word. Marriage is an institution hallowed not only by the church but by time and custom and the whole culture we're part of and rely on, whether we realize it or not.

In the words of the old Book of Common Prayer, marriage is an honorable estate "and therefore is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God."

Yes, we can change the formal definition of marriage, and wave it over any personal arrangement we prefer, whether homosexual marriage or polygamy or you name it, but that doesn't mean our new definition will retain its old meaning and significance.

Those who think we can arbitrarily change the definition of marriage are making the same mistake the French revolutionaries did when they instituted a whole new calendar, with the months and festivals renamed and secularized to replace the old ones they saw as relics of a backward, superstitious age. Just as the Bolsheviks, in the first flush of their bloody victory, thought they could change not just the government and economy but the whole culture, and create The New Man at last. It's an old mistake: Change the name of something and the thing itself will be changed.

The new revolutionary names didn't last, any more than the revolutionaries' reign by terror did. Because the new, artificial designations did not reflect the wisdom slowly, arduously developed over time and experience, for which there are no substitutes. So it is with deciding that marriage, too, is just a label we can affix at will. And the whole culture will fall in line. Only a culture is more cunning, more subtle, more resilient, more enduring than that.

The advocates of homosexual marriage in their innocence wonder why we stubborn types hold on to its more traditional definition and limits. What's the big problem? Let the state be the state and the church the church. The state is the one that issues marriage licenses, isn't it? Why the fuss? Let the state define marriage any way it wants and the church can do whatever its conscience or tradition demands. Problem solved. See how simple that was?

It takes only a moment, or should, to see that the workings of society, especially American society, aren't quite as simple as all that. It's hard enough to keep church and state separate in this country -- see all those split Supreme Court decisions -- but to separate American society from its religious values is pretty nigh impossible, the two are so closely intertwined. As even a cursory review of American history demonstrates -- from the Puritans to every reform movement since, from those that were successful (like the abolition of slavery and the rise of the civil rights movement) and those that weren't, like Prohibition. Not to mention the nation's founding documents like the Declaration of Independence. ("We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights....")

Why are officials of the state from high to low required to take an oath of office? Presidents since Washington have been sworn in on the Bible, and so many have added the words "So help me God!" that it has become almost part of the inaugural oath. And what about chaplains in the armed forces? Who is their Commanding Officer?

The fabric of American life and government is not so easily rent into two clearly separated remnants. When a minister marries a couple, is he acting only as an official of the state, or of the church, too? Both, of course. Because civil and religious values are inextricably interwoven in our law, culture and lives.

Even the most secular-minded of couples may want a clergyman present at their wedding if only as a witness. And not just to please the old folks, but to satisfy something within themselves, their -- dare I say it? -- their very being, their souls. They want to make their marriage vows more than a civil procedure, to make their union if not sacred then at least not mundane. They want it to be more than just another civil contract, like a mortgage or housing permit or domestic partnership. They want to look into each other's eyes and promise each to the other: "You will be sacred unto me." Not just a contracting party.

I noted the other day that even one of the leading advocates of homosexual marriage here in Arkansas, a local judge and pastor in Little Rock, wore his religious vestments when he married a homosexual couple.

All of culture, indeed all of civilization, strives to maintain that connection between the holy and the mundane. When it doesn't, as in the French and Russian revolutions, it doesn't endure.

At the turn of another century, a British author who already was being dismissed as an old fuddy-duddy, Rudyard Kipling, had a word for these attempts to separate civil and religious values in a society. "Decivilization," he called it.

One literary critic, Evelyn Waugh, understood what Kipling meant because he shared the old man's fears. Kipling, he wrote, "was a conservative in the sense that he believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defenses fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms."

Kipling would live to see Hitler come to power, Stalin consolidating his terror, and his worst fears confirmed. All the subtle interworkings of man and God in a civilization's culture, the traditions and constraints that modern, "liberated" man may see no use for, would be tossed to the winds. With all too predictable results.

Civilizations do not collapse all at once with a peal of thunder and some sudden, dramatic fall. They don't so much fall as crumble, layer by layer, at first almost imperceptibly and then eventually their pillars give way and leave only ruins for tourists to gaze at. In the case of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the process took centuries. Rot grows slow.

So, no, despite what all the great simplifiers say, it isn't all that simple, the separation of the secular and religious in a civilization, the maintenance and transmission of a culture that involves both the temporal and the eternal. A culture is the work of centuries, and it would behoove those who would casually lay hands on it to beware. There is something holy there.