I had a very interesting discussion on Facebook last night that I thought perhaps I would open up to a wider audience. The topic of gay marriage is always sure to bring lively debate, and one of the issues that continually comes up is “why not just call it something else, like ‘civil union’, to avoid the religious connotations; after all, what does it matter what you call it?”
This of course has been brought up and argued back and forth numerous times in the last many years, and of course I include my own take on it, but I would really like to see some other takes on this matter. Please read the edited conversation below, and add your own comments (and please keep it civil; I’m looking for reasoned arguments, not rehashing old talking points):
John Cline: From my new FB friend Jonathan: On Wednesday, March 1, 2006, at a hearing on the proposed Constitutional Amendment to prohibit gay marriage, Jamie Raskin, professor of law at AU, was requested to testify. At the end of his testimony, Republican Senator Nancy Jacobs said: "Mr. Raskin, my Bible says marriage is only between a man and a woman. What do you have to say about that?"
Raskin replied: "Senator, when you took your oath of office, you placed your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. You did not place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible." The room erupted into applause.
Stacy: Good point. Government should not be in the business of marriage - any marriage. The government should be dealing with the legal and contractual side (civil union contracts for everyone), and leave the sanctification of the union in a religious sense to the churches since marriage is a religious institution. That would solve the problem. Couples (or groups for that matter) of any type could enter into a standard definition of a civil union as defined by state governments, or customize a contractual relationship to suit them. Everything would be nice and equal as far as the government was concerned. It would be up to the individuals and their religious organization to define marriage. If the individual doesn't agree with their religious organization's stance, they can work to change it or find another religious organization. No need for intervention by the government or the general population. It would be all inclusive since agnostics and atheists could do the civil union and just skip the whole marriage bit.
Then we could forget the whole debate and get on with our lives.
John Cline: @Stacy, unfortunately too many people seem to think that marriage is a religious thing, which is 180 degrees backwards. Marriage in the United States is and always has been a civil issue, and the religious element has always been optional (except where the government and the religion are one and the same, such as the first Pilgrim communities, and even then it was recorded as a secular act which wasn't "official" until it had been sanctified before God). Somewhere along the way, folks here got the two mixed up, and now the very idea of "marriage" is intertwined with "before God", even though if you get married by a Justice of the Peace, or out at sea by a ship captain for that matter, you're still just as married in people's eyes (as long as you're heterosexual). The right-in-your-face hypocrisy of the whole "married before God" crowd when it applies to secularly-married folks seems to elude people. I'm not sure when in history all this changed, but I think you're basically right... until we get the word "marriage" either back to meaning the secular sense as it used to, or we find a new term to describe civil unions that doesn't sound so bureacratic, then we're all going to be arguing past one another over what should be a really simple concept.
Stacy: Who cares what it is called as long as the legal status is equivalent?
Heidi: I keep asking this question of everyone. If you and your partner are joined in a Civil Union then what is the term for your relationship? Are you married are you unioned , what term is used to describe it ? I think this is the hang up , we have to have a word to describe the relationship and from than we can get the word for the contractual act. Any suggestions?
Stacy: Spouse, husband, wife to describe each other. Pick whatever you like for the union. As a society we are WAY to focused on labels and pigeon-holing everyone and every thing, most often into two opposing categories. Politics is a perfect example. Little in life is binary, most thing in life are best represented by a continuum.
Heidi: It can't be pick whatever we like. One of the whole points of having a public commitment ceremony is to allow our friends and family to celebrate our ........?????? Our what? Our unioning, our marriage , our committal ...... While it is true that language can be used to label and pigeonhole but by far its most important function is too create common meaning and understanding. So if we all have Civil Unions then what is our common language to describe the relationship?
Heidi: Stacy this question is not directed at you, I would love to have input on what we should call this. I think by default people who are in civil union relationships call themselves married, as that word is the best one in our language that conveys all the nuances of the relationship. If we create civil unions as a state function for all and leave marriage as a religious ceremony then are those who are in a Civil Union married ? I don't know so I keep asking. Anyone have an idea or opinion?
John Cline: @Heidi: This name-issue is a universal problem, stemming back hundreds if not thousands of years.
Marriage is and always has been a civil issue. But throughout world history, until the establishment of the United States, civil/secular and the religious establishment were, if not one and the same, then in close proximity. In much of Europe until the late 1800's, and in some parts even today, ALL marriages occurred in churches with a priest or pastor residing, with few exceptions. Justices of the Peace or their equivalent existed, and could perform marriages; some nations had laws that allowed captains at sea to wed couples. But these avenues were rarely used, and were exceptions intended for when a pastoral presence was not available. Even then, the "accepted" route to take would be to get a civil ceremony, then "make it real" later in a church when possible. Legally, this never had to happen, but most often it did.
The same basic idea applies to marriages performed in non-European countries, going back to ancient Egypt, Rome, China, Japan, etc. Pretty much the only places you find civil ceremonies being the norm and religious recognition of same was more or less left up to the couples were in more tribally-based communities; in Great Britain, for instance, the ancient Celts and Welsh largely just tied a rope around the couple's wrists, pronounced them married, and off they went.
The birth of America screwed with this whole program. Suddenly we have a separation of church and state, but the institution of marriage has, for most of human history and in most cultures, been an inextricable linkage between the two. Even though civil-only marriage grew enormously in the 19th century and beyond, and was more and more accepted as "just as good" as marriages conducted by a religious leader, the idea that whether or not it was done in a religious setting the couple was still married "in the eyes of God" just never quite left the definition of marriage in the common understanding of it... even two athiests marrying were, according to the rest of the community, still married "in the eyes of God", even if they themselves didn't acknowledge it.
So semantics is part of the issue, but it goes deeper than that; despite the "legal" definition of marriage as a secular, civil affair, the psycho-social definition of marriage in most of the world is still inextricably intertwined with religious connotations, even within societies that are now largely secular or even leaning towards the agnostic. Therefore, to answer your original question of what to call it if not "marriage"? There simply ISN'T any other word to call it that has the same psycho-social cultural value. We would have to make up a word and try to promote it as the "new marriage", but it would take generations before that new word would not play second-fiddle to the word "marriage".
So to answer folks like Stacy and others who just say "who cares what you call it", it matters very deeply to just about everyone. Words like "marriage" carry more weight than mere definitions; they carry the baggage of our entire cultural history along with them, and so the only real answer is to let marriage be marriage, and quit trying to make up alternatives to marriage like civil unions, domestic partnerships, and acts of commitment. Those will never be, to most of society, on par with the simple word, MARRIAGE.
Jonathan: John, thank you for taking the time and the energy to write such a wonderful, sensitive rationale for universality of "marriage." As as gay man, I could never verbalize what you said, though the comments about "call it something else" aways bothered me. Thanks for laying this out in such a reasonable, calm and respectful manner.
Heidi: John I absolutely agree. I ask that question to get people thinking and I also wonder what they call domestic partners and civil unions, If they refer to such couples as married then why not call it a marriage?
Also remember our concept of marriage is culturally constructed and has changed over the years from a property transaction wherein the bride alone (the goods handed over) was blessed to the idea of companioship and love and the blessing placed upon the relationship. When it was a property transaction two free men could not get married because one could not be master of the other, now that it is for companionship and love, now that heteros have the same idea of the relationship that same sex couples always have had, that barrier is gone.
I could go on but I will simply suggest the book Same Sex Unions in Pre Modern Europe by Yale Historian John Boswell.
That was where we left off; now it's your turn. What do you think we should do about this issue?