It’s been a tumultuous year in the battle over marriage. We’re losing, and we need a new strategy. The good news is, almost everyone has now seen this need. The bad news is, just as we are leaving behind the dangers of overconfidence, we are facing the dangers of discouragement.
At this tough time, we must be especially careful to avoid wishful thinking. More and more Christians think they have found an easy way out of our marriage dilemmas through a “separation of marriage and state.” The idea is to avoid a political debate about marriage by removing that question from the realm of law, policy, and regulation. Let anyone who wants to call themselves married call themselves married, and keep government entirely out of it.
Don’t get me wrong—such an approach would not be the worst possible outcome of the current debate. It would probably be better than full-blown legal institutionalization of gay marriage. Politicians and activists need not fight to the death for perfection; their job is to obtain the most palatable result from a menu of alternatives that is always imperfect and often downright unappetizing. In the coming years, something like a separation of marriage and state is likely to be the least-worst among the bad selection of possible outcomes in many localities.
But many supporters of natural marriage are starting to think a separation of marriage and state is actually the most desirable policy on the merits. If that view prevails, we will have made a considerable error; one that will tend to lead us into even worse errors far beyond the marriage debate. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” is sound advice. But it is equally important not to mistake the good—still less the only-sort-of-okay, or even the lousy-but-it’s-the-best-we-can-get—for the perfect.
To begin, a separation of marriage and state would not end the political battle over marriage. The vast legal and regulatory apparatus of the modern state does millions of things every day that require it to make assumptions about who is married. From divorce and child custody courts to health care policy to government employee benefits, any serious attempt to make government agnostic about marriage would require policymakers, bureaucrats, and lawyers to make literally millions of decisions about how each of these specific questions would now be handled under the new rules.
There is no way to make those decisions without creating unpredictable and intensely painful disruptions in the lives of large numbers of people. Inevitably, neither side of the marriage debate would be satisfied with the results of the process. Each side would demand that the questions be settled more favorably for its constituencies. And none of these decisions would ever be permanently settled, because both sides will always have opportunities to reopen areas of debate and keep fighting for more turf.
The fact that you can’t actually avoid a political battle over marriage points to a deeper problem: the attempt to separate marriage and state would institutionalize a false view of reality. The existence of civil government presupposes the existence of natural marriage. People form political communities to serve social needs that only arise after households already exist.
This is not an exclusively Christian teaching. Until just the other day, it was the prevailing view in every human civilization, including those in which homosexuality was accepted. For ancients like Aristotle and Confucius, political society exists essentially to mediate between households. For moderns like Locke, the natural law that human life is to be protected and increased leads us first to get married and have children, and only later to form governments that help us protect and increase life more effectively.
A separation of marriage and state would institutionalize the view that government need not presuppose natural marriage. That error would probably be less damaging than the error of gay marriage. But it would still have bad consequences.
All About Individuals
For all the important differences between ancient and modern views, they agree that the political community is not something we create because we want to get something for ourselves out of it; it’s something we create because we want life and justice to increase. A society that really practiced a separation of marriage and state would come to think—even more strongly than our culture already does—that politics is not about how a community can order its shared life for justice and flourishing. Politics would become, even more than it already is, all about how individuals can satisfy their desires. This is a major contributor to almost every public problem we have today, from the economic crisis to the breakdown of the family to the inability of government to perform even its most basic tasks.
The attempt to make government neutral regarding marriage would also encourage the broader cultural illusion that government is, or can be, morally neutral. People want to be able to live in peace with their neighbors, but public moral commitments that are shared in common make them uncomfortable. The desire for morally neutral government is an attempt to have our cake and eat it, too. It is what lies behind both the collapse of integrity in public institutions and the relentless campaign to force believers to live like secularists whenever they are in public. A separation of marriage and state would encourage this cultural environment further.
For all these reasons, a separation of marriage and state would not be a stable, permanent solution to the marriage dilemma. It’s not clear at this point what would be, although some promising ideas have been proposed. We do have to find a way to live in peace with our gay neighbors, accepting them with love as equal citizens. In time, their cultural narrative will fall apart. Until then, we have a messy political problem to navigate—and it does no good to try to avoid the inevitable.