We live in an era that routinely makes a mockery of the sanctity of marriage. Celebrities marry to get on television. Divorce rates make even the least reverent of us uncomfortable. The ceremonies themselves, once replete with careful traditions full of symbolism and meaning, are often little but expensive parties for friends.
That’s not to romanticize what once was. It’s to mourn present reality.
In our national discourse, we speak about preserving marriage’s sanctity with a fervor saved for few other issues. In today’s parlance, that means we must prevent same sex couples from being granted civil marriages. If we allow the gays to marry, the logic goes, we anger God and ruin the sanctity of the existing institution. And frankly, I sympathize with that argument…to a point. In the sense of going into a church and saying vows before a crowd, your minister, future partner, and God, there is something sanctified about marriage. The Church should have full control over who can be married within its traditions. If the Catholic Church refuses to give its blessing to a loving pair of men or women, that’s its prerogative.
But civil marriage is not religious marriage. Confusing the two perverts both the purpose of the state and the institution of marriage itself.
Civil marriage matters because it conveys legal rights not available outside the institution. Being a legally wed couple means access to favorable tax rates, inheritances, the pensions of your spouse, custody rights, and on and on. These rights are given because it is assumed that to be wed makes couples more responsible and is the best environment for the rearing of children. Those are things the state would find valuable with or without religious involvement.
So when we talk about sanctity and civil marriage as if they’re the same thing, let me be the first to assert the opposite. The state cannot convey sanctity. There’s nothing sacred about laws and institutions. This is especially true in a nation that purports to have at least a token separation of the church and state. If we had a national church or religion, it’d be a different discussion.
But we don’t.
Perhaps I’m too deeply biased to talk about this issue with the disinterest most would require. A close relative of mine has been with her partner for as long as I can remember. Their relationship is one of the most loving and stable I have ever seen. Seeing them presented with the option of civil marriage and the recognition from the state such a right conveys would be one of the happiest moments of my life. That’s nothing to do with degrading heterosexual marriage or the sanctity of the institution.
It’s everything to do with love, sacrifice, and commitment. That’s what marriage is about. Leave the gender and sex of the individuals out of the equation.