I increasingly question the hybrid sacred-secular conception of “marriage” in the United States.
Is marriage a sacred institution? Then why should the state be required to ratify it? Faith fellowships of any stripe should be free to marry individuals in a manner consistent with their understanding of the sacred. This is the freedom of faith and conscience embraced by the early Brethren, an unfettered freedom of discernment for faith communities.
Is marriage a legal relationship entered into voluntarily by citizens? Then why should church people object to the extension of equal rights to all? If marriage is a civil status, then justice compels us to reject anything short of its universal application. The days of justifying slavery, denying women the vote, denying employment to persons with disabilities, and other class-based conceptions of civic life are long past.
The mixing of the two — marriage as legal status and sacred ordinance — is like mixing oil and water. We wind up attempting to impose our own conception of the sacred upon others in the public sphere. Like the Volstead Act’s vision of a dry America, and conscription laws with no provision for conscientious objection, this is a bad idea. If marriage is really sacred, then our Brethren heritage calls us to grant others the same freedom of conscience that we sought for ourselves when our understanding of “Christ-like” departed from the cultural norm. Whether we do so within our own faith fellowship is an open question, but we should always grant others the right to conscientiously practice their faith within their fellowship. (Being in communion with someone is different than respecting their freedom of conscience.)
I’m inclined to think that “legally married” is a bad idea. Let’s have “domestic partnerships” or “civil unions” for all in the legal sphere so that civil rights may be universally applied. Then “marriage” (who marries whom and under what circumstances) will be a matter for religious communities to decide. Or let’s acknowledge that in this society “marriage” is a legal rather than a sacred designation and therefore cannot be circumscribed by one group’s understanding of the sacred.
As a heterosexual in a covenant relationship, I resent the fact that the state’s blessing is required to formalize my marriage. I also resent the fact that the state selectively grants this blessing to a favored class of citizens while denying others. That isn’t the kind of religious freedom that the Brethren and others sought in the Americas. It seems as un-American to me as segregated schools and swimming pools.