Mawage. Mawage is wot brings us togeder today. Mawage, that bwessed awangement, that dweam wifin a dweam…
I can’t tell you how many times I saw that line from The Princess Bride quoted after the recent Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v Hodges…you know…the marriage equality case. But I’m not here today to talk about marriage equality, even though I believe strongly in it. As one of millions who have benefitted from the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v Virginia, I feel that I have no honest choice but to support it. But that’s another issue for another time.
No…today I come to talk about the state’s legitimate interest in marriage.
I emphasize “legitimate” because just as I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve heard that quote from The Princess Bride, I also can’t begin to count how many times I’ve heard some cretin complain that they don’t see why the government has to get involved in what is essentially a private decision between them and their beloved. They don’t see why the government has any business getting mixed up in what is a religious arrangement between them and their beloved. And I have known people, straight people, who rather than spend the $40 to just get married already, spent hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars to have lawyers draw up contracts that would give them the same rights and protections as married people…all because they didn’t think the government had any place in their personal business.
I’ve joked that I’ve replied to this complaint so many times on Facebook that I might as well just save my response as boilerplate that I could paste in whenever someone said it; so that I didn’t have to write it from scratch every time. This is my boilerplate, and from now on, I’ll just be able to paste in the link to this blog entry and be done with it.
Before I say what I have to say, I’m going to recommend that anyone with an opinion on marriage, what it is, what it’s been, and what it should be, should immediately get a copy of the book Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz. If you are able to have your mind changed by facts, you’ll find that this book is full of facts that will change your mind about what a “traditional” marriage is and was, how “tradition” has changed over the centuries, and how “tradition” is not the same all over the world. I know that I learned a few things from it. But more germane to my boilerplate here, is the fact that you’ll find out that marriage has always been the concern of the community.
Let me state that again: Marriage has always been the concern of the community.
Whether it be the tribe, the village, the province, the religious group, or the country, marriage has always been the concern of the community, and hence the state or the government. Why? Because it’s how things like inheritances are sorted out, and how property is divided and custody is decided in the event of a divorce. When you get right down to it, a marriage is a legal contract between two people, giving each of them certain rights and protections, and outlining certain expectations.
I’ll admit that in an era when we’re so accustomed to seeing church weddings that we can hardly imagine anything else, it’s easy to think that religion “owns” weddings, but despite what the Catholic Church may say, it doesn’t. The community does, and religion has the option to put its own seal of approval on what the state has formalized.
There are places in Europe where you have two weddings. The first is the one in the city clerk’s office, that gets all the official recordkeeping done. The second is the one at the church or synagogue or mosque, that adds the religious veneer to it. But you can’t have the second without the first.
Here in the States, the religious and civil communities often overlap, and this is why you only need to get married once here. Clergy are but one group of people…along with mayors, judges, and justices of the peace…who are authorized under the various state laws to marry people. In fact, I know of a pastor who says that when he performs a wedding, he is acting as an agent of the State of New York, which gives him the legal authorization to marry people.
So now that I’m done with my boilerplate on the issue, I expect to use it often…and much more easily.