When Vice President Joe Biden said earlier this week that he’s in favor of gay marriage, it made headlines. The subject polarizes two groups of people, each certain that their position is morally correct. But what if the question is irrelevant?
Marriage has been a religious institution for a very long time, at least in countries with Christian roots. Centuries ago, churches held records and married people. Eventually, as societies became more secular, governments took over that role — keeping records and granting licenses.
Why exactly does government need to be involved? Why shouldn’t a marriage be whatever people decide for it to be? Two people can enter into any other partnership in life for their own reasons and with people of their own choice. Why does marriage need a legal status? Why shouldn’t it simply be a private thing?
For people who want it to be a religious institution, it can be between them and their church. For those who want it to be something else, they can make it what they want it to be.
Conservatives and churches who are fighting to defeat gay marriage are looking at this all wrong. If you demand that government define marriage in a certain way, you are agreeing that the government has the legitimate right to define marriage. Churches who take this approach are ceding authority to the state. Governments don’t decide who can be baptized or take communion. Churches decide that for themselves. Why should the state decide who can marry?
North Carolina amended its state constitution Tuesday to define marriage to be between a man and a woman. Many conservative pastors and religious people cheered. I don’t think they understand that they’re sanctioning the idea of giving power to government that it doesn’t deserve to have. I don’t think they understand that those who oppose gay marriage are in a minority that is starting to shrink. I don’t think they realize that as they stamp their definition on marriage now, they’re giving moral legitimacy for others to stamp their own definitions on it in the future — and force their definitions on everyone through the same kinds of majority votes.
It’s time to get government out of the business of granting licenses. If churches want to keep records of marriages they approve of, they should do that. If other people want to set up some way for others to register legal partnerships, there ought to be a way to do that — just as agreements between two people can be recorded in any other way. But there is absolutely no reason for government to define what a marriage is and grant someone permission to enter into it.
The debate shouldn’t be about “marriage equality” or “protecting traditional marriage.” It should be about individuals and religious bodies making their own decisions about what they want a marriage to be. The state should have no role in that decision. It’s time to get the government out of the business of regulating who can marry.