civil defense

I’ve long been in favor of separation of church and state when it comes to issues like prayer in schools. (Christians seem to forget it doesn’t automatically equal prayer to the Judeo-Christian God. Force their kids to pray to Allah for a couple of days and the debate would change.)

On this Valentine’s Day, at the beginning of “National Marriage Week USA,” and in the wake of recent legislation on same-sex marriage, I have some other questions to ask about the church’s love/hate relationship with government interference.

Why do we need the government to validate our doctrine?

Christians opposed to gay marriage often say it’s because God created the institution and intended it to be only between one man and one woman. Fair enough. But that is, by its very definition, an appeal to a specific set of beliefs. Many Americans don’t believe in that God or His purpose for this ancient social institution, and this is the real issue—Christians want laws to reinforce this belief and require compliance with it.

To be fair, some members of the homosexual community could also be accused of pushing the government to legislate moral positions.

Which raises question two: what business does the state have defining marriage—for anyone? Isn’t their real concern the legal agreement?

Whether the church likes it or not, people are not legally married just because a pastor says so. There is a license, a process, and paperwork involved to make it official. (And even more to finalize the divorce.) While different faiths are free to  legitimately ascribe deeper meanings to the institution, as far as the state is concerned it is a contract affording each participant a number of legal and financial rights.

So why not let the state do their thing and the church do theirs?

Here’s an idea: civil unions for everyone, male and female, straight and gay. The real issue is not whether there should be gay marriage, because that depends on a personal definition of marriage and its religious significance. The issue is whether two adults of either gender should be able to voluntarily enter into a legal contract that gives each one rights and responsibilities. (Another issue is the difference between the two in our legal system; for this idea to work, the benefits and protection of a civil union must match what we currently give only in marriage.)

This means not only that two men or two women with romantic feelings for each other could choose this course, but so could two people without those feelings. For instance, shouldn’t two women who have been best friends for decades and shared a house in their declining years have the option to participate in a legal contract that will allow them to care for each other until death?

This is potentially a win for everyone.

Faith communities of every kind would be free to define marriage according to their beliefs and, I would argue, would be free to leave some groups out of that definition based on their religious convictions.

Meanwhile, gay adults with different beliefs would still enjoy exactly the same benefits and rights as a heterosexual couple. They may or may not choose to protest the religious group’s beliefs, but at least both sides in this debate would be focused on the same issue without the distraction (smokescreen?) of civil liberties.

The politicians and courts win because a divisive issue is dealt with definitively and fairly. And the rest of us win because we don’t have to devote any more newspaper front pages or taxpayer dollars to resolving the battle.

Christians often lament separation of church and state as a loss of freedoms, but it’s actually empowering—and a lot less messy. Refusing to mandate that our children pray to any God as part of public education (which is paid for by people of many faiths) also means our children aren’t forced to pray to a God we don’t believe in. Redefining marriage as a religious institution and civil unions as a legal agreement means each faith community has the freedom to determine what “marriage” is and why it’s important.

Of course, it also means we can’t legally force others to pray to our God or accept our beliefs. It means all of us must stop fighting religious battles in courtrooms. It means accepting tradeoffs: if we want the government to stay out of our church services, we cannot bellyache when the local courthouse does not display a Nativity scene at Christmas and the state legislature does not open with prayers to Jesus.

For too long we have tried to use laws to compel the behavior we find moral instead of doing the much harder work of influencing the world around us with character and compassion. An acceptance of civil unions for both gay and straight couples does not redefine marriage, but it has the potential to redefine the real issues for a nation whose wars grow less civil every day.

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