The Sacred Institution of Marriage vs the Civil Institution of Marriage

Way back when I was young and foolish, I thought the only way I would care to get married, officially and technically married, was if it gave me a financial or tax advantage somehow. This was not popular with anyone I admitted it to. But what does an atheist or an almost-anarchist care about going through a religious or political ceremony? If I decide to commit to one person, that's between me and her. What would it matter whether the church or government certified our commitment?

It never occurred to me until a few years after I got married that the thing I liked about our justice-of-the-peace wedding was making the promise in front of our friends and relatives. No matter how much you hate school or think it's useless, anyone who sticks it out to the end appreciates parading their accomplishment in front of family and friends. You don't need to believe in god to like the idea of publically proclaiming your relationship in front of everybody who's close to you.

So you'd think I could keep my mouth shut about the sacred institution of marriage when I don't have faith in any of the usual sacred things. My own marriage was just a secular, legal thing, and I've had relatives ask if we planned on getting married in church later. Some of them might not recognize what Melinda & I have as a real marriage, or they might hope that we'll eventually come to our senses and get some churchin.

That got me wondering: why doesn't our secular marriage outside of any church piss off a lot of religious folk? It probably does. If it bothers people to see gays married, then doesn't it also bother them to see non-church weddings like ours?

The easiest example off the top of my head (not to single-out my late Grandma Northrup's sect, but it's one I know a little about) is the Catholic view of marriage. They have some fairly strict rules about getting married, and some of them feel that it doesn't count if the ceremony is not performed by a Catholic priest. That's why my parents had an Episcopal priest and a Catholic priest perform parts of their wedding service -- kept all their parents happy. No one who has been divorced is allowed to get married in the Catholic church again, last I heard. This results in some absurd behavior to meet the word of the law without following the spirit of the law. I know someone who had his first marriage annulled in order to have his second marriage in the Catholic church. This in spite of the three kids from his first marriage. (Obviously I don't understand annulment Catholic-style, but I thought it was some kind of emergency thing to cancel the marriage if you haven't "consummated" the marriage. This sounds like something a lawyer would think up to avoid the nasty word "divorce" just by changing the wording and getting a church official to sign off on it. My ma's protestantism must have infected me a little too much.)

These are examples of one sect of Christianity that does not accept weddings performed in other sects of Christianity. But apparently if they really hated to think about people acting married who hadn't done it their Officially Sanctioned way, they at least got over it. I haven't heard Catholics criticizing the government for recognizing non-religious marriages or marriages by mail-order priests. They might keep you out of the Catholic church, or tell you that your marriage isn't really right until you've done it their way, but I haven't heard them claim that Lutheran weddings damage the sacred institution of marriage. Maybe some people do say that, and I'm just not hearing the right sources.

Here's my little leap of logic. If secular marriage doesn't bother religious people enough for them to badger the government to stop, and if marriages performed or endorsed by other sects don't bother them enough to badger the government about it, then why would gay marriages harm the sacred institution of marriage more than that? How sacred is the institution if they've been letting all these secular or heretical practices settle over it?

Of course, your marriage can't be very strong in the first place if it's damaged or lessened by other people trying new things with the institution. If four people want to try living in a committed relationship and call it marriage, how does that change my marriage? I probably have relatives who right now wish my false marriage by the Justice of the Peace were legitimized by a proper priest or preacher. That doesn't change my feelings or the importance of my marriage.

Next time you hear someone bitching about gays damaging the sacred institution of marriage, ask them whether my civil marriage damages their church or any of their sacred institutions. What the government did was put a civil layer over the religious ceremony. When they allowed judges to do it, they were making it a strictly civil ceremony, nothing religious left to it.

Those who object to homosexuality have the right to keep gay marriages out of their churches, but they can't dictate that a civil ceremony must conform to their religious beliefs, something that has been a civil ceremony for a long time now. How long? Hundreds of years? Ever since some parents bitched at their kid to get married in a "real" church, the institution of marriage has been skimmed of its sacred aspects. By worrying about gays co-opting the institution of marriage, they're trying to reclaim secular territory that was lost to them long ago.

Sorry. No give-backs.


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