Saturday, September 8, 2012

Disagreeing with Rachel Held Evans, but loving her anyway

One of the blogs I enjoy reading belongs to Rachel Held Evans. She’s a terrific writer and I like her take on things in the world of faith in general and Christianity in particular.

She made a brief remark recently, however, about which I disagree. She said, “I believe that marriage is a civil right in this country.” I am not, in this limited space, attempting to address the larger issue of same-sex marriage, except to the extent that I think its proponents base their arguments on a faulty assumption.

Marriage is not a civil right.

Let me explain: When I got married a zillion years ago, there were certain requirements I had to meet in order to marry my fiancé. First, we had to affirm that we were not already married to someone else. Even back in 19blah blah blah, polygamy was frowned upon in US society. Second, we had to get blood tests to prove that we didn’t carry communicable diseases and end up spawning mutants and then infecting all our neighbors. Third—and this is the one that still outrages me—I had to get written permission from my parents in order to get married. Back in the olden days, you see, a woman could get married without parental consent at age 18. Men had to be 21. My fiancé was 19 and I was 20, so I had to get a note from Mom and Dad. Nevermind that I was in the US Navy at the time and could, theoretically, defend the nation for the sake of democracy; I still had to get a note. If my folks said no, then I’d have to wait a year.

Once we satisfied those requirements, we could get married. But it was not because it was a civil right; it was the recognition by the state of California (and also our church) that something existed between my fiancé and me that could be recognized and declared as a union called “marriage.”

We didn’t have a right to get married. We did, however, have a right to request that our life together be affirmed as such. And we could, potentially, be refused.

Two ten-year-olds can walk into the County Recorder’s office, pick up the form that requests a marriage license, fill it out, and submit it. It will, of course, be turned down. In our society, even children can ask to get married, but we won’t let them do it. It’s their right to ask, but not their right to actually tie the knot.

While the requirements are not quite as rigid today, the point, I believe, still stands. I’m wondering what would happen if the debate about marriage moved away from the assumption of a “right” to the exploration of marriage that is recognized and declared by the communities in which we live. This is not just an issued related to same-sex couples; it has to do with the whole idea of marriage in a culture that can deconstruct and reconstruct lives via medical technology in ways that were unthinkable a hundred years ago. Marriage and sex assumed, at one time, procreation. No longer is that assumed, even with heterosexuals (read this interesting blog on the topic). On top of that, we heterosexuals have pretty much redefined marriage as something that only works half the time anyway, so maybe some fresh and new reflection is in order.


Howard Wilson said...

Marriage is more of a contract than it is a right. The two parties in the contract take on mutual obligations and agree to share benefits. The state has played a role in determining how the contract is established. I do think the state should play a role in establishing the benefits and obligations of civil unions. What's interesting is that in places where homosexual marriage is permitted legally, there has been an initial spate of weddings, and then the rate of marriage declines.

Brian said...

Mike - it is a rare day when I disagree with someone as right on as you, but...

The Supreme Court has said that marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man" and that marriage is "more than a contract... giving character to our whole civil polity". The liberty associated with a civil act is not diminished because it comes with prerequisites. For example, I have the right to vote because I meet the voting requirements established by law and if I were convicted of a felony or renounced my citizenship, I'd lose that right.

When the state says someone can't get married it denies, without due process, the benefits and rights associated with marriage. Like mixed-race marriage, the Constitutional question of same-sex marriage is whether it violates the principals of equality found in the 14th Amendment. I believe this is what makes same same-sex marriage, no matter how you fall on the issue, a question of civil rights.

Mike McNichols said...

Brian - you're certainly correct about the issue of law. However, marriage is not an individual action that bears the weight of itself in isolation; it is a relationship that impacts, potentially, many other people, including the community in which it exists. I would add to Howard's comment that marriage falls into the category of covenant, moving even beyond the legal framework of contract. Does the Supreme Court's determination of marriage as a civil right alter the character of marriage at its essence? In a society grounded in the perception of individual rights, it should be no surprise to us when claims to "rights" are made on almost all demands for change.

Mike McNichols said...

Brian, I would also add that the pursuing of the prerequisites for certain acts are, in our society, the real rights. We have the right to request to be registered as voters, to ask that a relationship be deemed a marriage, or to seek to have our name placed on a ballot to run for President. We don't necessarily have a right to the outcomes. Those outcomes are not universally available nor are they guaranteed.