Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Marriage, religion, and socio-politics 

"I very much feel that marriage is a sacrament, and that sacrament should extend and can extend to that legal entity of a union between -- what is traditionally in our Western values has been defined -- as between a man and a woman. So I would support the amendment."

Bill Frist, the Republican Senator from Tennessee and Majority Leader, not long ago shared his feelings on marriage, religion, and a possible constitutional amendment to expressly forbid same sex unions. In a religious sense, marriage denotes a specific sacrament to a great many people. Sacrament, of couse, is a strong concept. In the Christian tradition – summarized in the Baltimore catechism, parochial though it is, it indicates an act that contains an outward sign, was somehow instituted by Jesus, and is grace-giving in the moment – or efficacious. In a sacramental sense, it is far from obvious, though, that marriage can only belong to certain unions any more than others. Really smart theologians do dispute this. Perhaps Frist should join that chatroom, because in the political realm, his deeply held sentiment is irrelevant.

Sacramental marriage should no more bear upon the evident political necessity of sanctioning some unions and forbidding others than a sacrament such as baptism should upon the exercise of the freedom to assemble or affiliate within society. While Christian baptism may mark membership in a certain Christian community, it is nevertheless apparent that discrimination on this basis is wrong in a societal context. Just because Christians believe that one cannot be saved without it, with good reason other communities receive legal protections to pursue salvation or bestow the gifts of membership in their own way. The absurdity of politics wading into that sacramental discussion should be clear. Marriage is no different.

Politics is not the place to go about sanctifying the things that matter most to people – this is everyone's own right, a foundational one at that. At best, a state can assure that those things deemed holy in our lives are somehow protected and accessible. After all, you may think the bread and wine is really body and blood while I may be indifferent, but deciding such a dispute by appealing to political consensus is wildly inappropriate. Akin, I think, to deciding it on the basis of force. It may feel more civil to talk it out and then tally the votes, but that doesn't mean it's any less coercive.

It is for this reason that in this extremely heterogeneous world we owe ourselves a secular political culture. This is not a nod toward moral relativism nor does it imply that one's views cannot be informed by one's own faith commitments. Nor even that one cannot be an open believer in God or whatever else people believe in. But it is to say that political imposition of the content of these belief systems is not provided for in just social arrangements. If Frist believes that only men and women can marry one another, then he can try to persuade people not to try other arrangements, but to impose it politically crosses a crucial line.

One last observation: we seem to be talking about religion and politics more and more. I'm concerned where it is heading. A recent piece in Slate serves only to increase my concerns.

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