by The Other Katherine Harris
glitzqueen’s blog post
Aug. 11, 2007
In the Democratic presidential candidates’ forum on LGBT issues last night, Mike Gravel struck a novel note by harking back to antiquity. (The snide might say he recalled the era.) His point was that marriage, in its original form, predated any organized religion. He further noted that civil governments freely use the word to identify the site where couples meaning to unite go to be licensed — saying, “It’s not called the Civil Unions Bureau,” or words to that effect.
These don’t seem like brilliant insights, per se, but are within the context established by others in public life who use the excuse of faith or tradition to hand over the whole marriage concept to clergy.
I’ve been guilty of that knee-jerk deference, myself, in suggesting that we might reserve the word “marriage” for rites performed by ministers, priests, rabbis and so forth, while employing the term “civil unions” for ceremonies conducted by judges, JPs, ship captains and such. Assuming the distinction applied to ALL, both gays and straights, and the resulting rights and responsibilities didn’t differ, this would be one path to equality. Doing away with discrimination is an aim I’m extremely keen on, not only because it’s fair but for the sake of my son and his partner, as well as for many gay friends (some of whom have been together for decades — far longer than I ever stayed with one man).
But is there really any reason to abandon marriage as a secular construct? That’s what it was, when Ug threw Ugette over his shoulder and warned the other cavemen off with his club. If push came to shove, his clansmen would have helped enforce his claim to her, since the community had a stake in mating decisions, too.
No doubt the force of familial clubs and spears also featured, if the pair were judged an unsuitable match by one tribe or the other — but the notion that any religious cult’s representatives could say who belonged together and on what terms was a much later development that, even now, applies to the larger society only if it’s a theocracy.
For instance, one of my ex-husbands is regarded by his church as a life-long bachelor, despite having legally wed three wives. Catholic dogma doesn’t count marriages not performed by a priest (and don’t even get them started on divorces), although our government duly counts them all.
Somewhat similarly, the Church of England won’t marry divorced people with living spouses. That’s why Princess Anne wed her second in the Church of Scotland, which doesn’t mind. And the British nation would have considered them just as married, if they’d gone to a London registrar’s office, instead of the vicar at Balmoral.
In these and countless other examples — including recent decisions endorsing same-sex marriage in The Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and Spain — we see secular countries recognizing marriages without reference to religious views. Given that democratic societies routinely regulate marriage and divorce in that way, it’s actually a dangerous departure for ours to bow its head to pushy fundamentalists who place their disdain for gay and lesbian couples above respect for equal protection under law. What further rights over family life will they try to usurp next, if we compromise with them on this one?
So here’s my new view: Religious authorities rule supreme only within the confines of their enclaves. They needn’t admit to their fellowship and sacraments anyone who doesn’t share their creed regarding marriage and a thousand other things — but they’ve no business imposing their will on outsiders to whom that group’s perspective is immaterial. A given faith’s definition of marriage is just one among many and merits no special consideration by civil society.