A Tale of Two 'Marriages'

By Bob Hockett

Martha Nussbaum gave an interesting talk at Cornell this past Friday on the subject of same-sex marriage, a subject which figures into her forthcoming book on 'the politics of disgust.' (This was the endowed Stevens Lecture, named for the same distinguished former Dean for whom Mike’s professorship is named.) The talk afforded a nice opportunity to raise a question that often has struck me, and that might be worth raising here too.

Begin with this observation: Much of the rancor that surrounds present-day argumentation and politicking over same-sex marriage looks as though it might be traceable to a tendency, when speaking informally about marriage, to run together two distinct categories. I’ll call these ‘civil’ marriage on the one hand, and ‘sacramental’ marriage on the other.

In ordinary parlance, I think we tend to have both categories vaguely and simultaneously in mind when we use the word ‘marriage.’ But in a pluralistic polity where church and state both are and must be kept formally distinct, the conflation gives rise to needless conundrums and avoidable ‘culture wars’ disputation – disputation that might be avoidable only by keeping the two senses of ‘marriage’ just as distinct.

Now, what are these two senses of the word? I think they are these:

So far as state functions are concerned, 'marriage' seems to have only a very thin meaning. It seems to mean, more or less, 'civil union.' That is presumably part of why we often employ the terms ‘civil union,’ ‘civil marriage,’ ‘civil wedding,’ and cognates almost interchangeably when speaking of marriage under the aspect of state functions. And most such talk about civil marriage, for its part, understandably treats the phenomenon in question as a matter of the benefits conferred upon society by the prevalence of committed relations and stable households, and of the state's accordingly having reason to facilitate or at any rate not hinder the formation of such relations and households. Against this quite minimal backdrop, it’s hard to see what objection anyone could have to consenting adults’ deciding their partners-in-union for themselves, without interference from others purporting to ‘defend’ marriage.

Within most if not all of our nation's many religious traditions, on the other hand, 'marriage' of course carries a thicker set of meanings – meanings that typically reach back into religious and ethnic history, and even today often attempt to reach well beyond here and now. The fact that marriage in fact is a full-blown sacrament within some traditions is illustrative of how fraught with transcendent importance, hence how 'rich' in cultural and even ‘metaphysical’ meaning, what I am calling sacramental marriage as distinguished from civil union tends to be.

Now the more I reflect on these differences, the more I find myself wondering why it is that the same word – ‘marriage’ – is used for the civil and the sacramental cases alike. Is it perhaps simply a holdover from earlier, less pluralist times, when church and state, though formally distinct, were pragmatically speaking a bit less so? Or does it perhaps reflect some ‘deep’ truth in the ‘communitarian’ case against liberal ‘compartmentalization’? (I hope not! But more of that momentarily.)

Then when I further reflect upon how running these apparently formally distinct categories together might also underlie much of the distasteful 'culture war' lather that always foams up around 'the debate over same sex marriage,' I find myself wondering as well whether it wouldn't be salutary simply to purge the word ‘marriage’ itself, as distinguished from ‘civil union,’ from state offices altogether.

Why not, in other words, treat marriage in its civil aspect as some economists and ‘advanced bus orgs’ profs do – as a sort of ‘business organization,’ vide ‘domestic partnership’ – and reserve the concept (and word) in its sacramental aspect to synagogue, church, mosque, or functionally equivalent sacramental office?  In such case we would assign the proverbial 'justice of the peace' the task of conferring official recognition upon civil unions alone – when certain criteria that speak to matters of legitimate state concern are met, of course. And we would reserve the function of ‘marrying’ people to the synagogue, church, mosque or equivalent, of which there are more and more wondrous varieties each year, and which all have criteria of their own.

I should perhaps add that I am not here actually advocating these things, so much as wondering about and ‘Gedankenexperimenting’ with them. I am wondering whether such changes would be feasible, and whether they would be desirable if so.

One objection I can imagine would be that matters of political life on the one hand, and of culture on the other, are not as readily disentangled in our lives and self-conceptions as what I envisage here would require. A related objection might be that we – on some relevant understanding of who the 'we' here are – would not want to work such a separation even if we could, in that it would force a sort of multiple schizophrenia or 'compartmentalization' upon us that just wouldn't be good for our mental health or our persons. These would be ‘communitarian’-style objections, I suppose, and I suspect they would mainly come from the right (though of course they might come from the left or the center as well).

A third objection I can imagine might be thought communitarian-reminiscent, but would perhaps be more apt to come unambiguously from the center or left. It would be that if the change I am contemplating came in apparent response to attempted ‘Defense of Marriage Act’-type manouevering, its social meaning would be tainted with a whiff of recognition-denial effectively vindicating contempt. (Dr. Nussbaum brought a related point out nicely in response to my question after her lecture.) Just when a long-subordinated group is poised to gain some public recognition of the dignity of unions formed within it, the objection would run, this proposal would allow the taking of it away from them through a taking of it from all – a sort of cutting off of the nose to spite the face.

I am of course sympathetic to these possible objections, especially the third. But because so much of modern life, especially in a pluralist polity, involves so much 'compartmentalization' already, it isn't altogether clear to me that simply disaggregating currently muddled 'marriage' into state domestic partnership and ecclesial marriage components reserved to their respective spheres would appreciably increase the degree to which we already fall short of 'seamlessness' in our 'modern' lives. It also seems to me that we could easily enough take measures to make clear that the disaggregation is meant to afford long-overdue and now unavoidable recognition to church/state separation in the realm of domestic relations, rather than to afford state sanction to bigotry. But again these thoughts are tentative.

Perhaps I can make these points less abstractly by reference to a respectful email message I recently received from someone I do not know. He charged me with holding a ‘watered down’ conception of civil marriage, and went on to write:
Civil marriage is an institution derived from the complementarity of the sexes that exists when one man and one woman commit themselves, before the community, to each other and the possibility of children. Because the institution is rooted in the community and serves as the basis of the family, it is an essential component of the common good. The State has legitimate, indeed compelling, interests in ensuring a stable legal and societal framework for the creation of healthy families, providing a suitable environment for the development of children and in promoting social investment in the community.
Here are my tentative reactions:

On the one hand, the points are well taken, at least in relation to where American society seems largely (though as I’ll observe in a moment far from universally) to have stood in times not all that distant. It feels so familiar, and even comforting, to read these words; for they seem to close a breach that we generally experience as members of cultural or religious groups on the one hand, and citizens of a vast, polyphonic and secular polity on another.

But one riposte I am tempted to make is that as a political society the U.S. simply no longer has (assuming it ever had) that form of ‘unity’ upon which is predicated any ‘community’ that can reasonably be expected to share a thick, non-watered-down conception of civil marriage, and it is hard to see how we might make things otherwise without subordinating fellow citizens and ignoring our own constitutional values. The man/woman complementarity and possibility-of-children understandings, for example, might be thought by some to exclude marriage between people too old to bear children, while permitting committed polygamy of the Biblical variety. Yet U.S. law seems never to have been less than friendly to marriage between people with no intention of bearing children, while also being markedly hostile to Biblical-style polygamy. (As Sally Gordon, who spoke here recently in connection with Steve Shiffrin’s new book about which Mike has here written, has very well documented.)

I remain a bit less than certain, then, that civil marriage in the U.S. ever has been other than either watered down or expressive of the sacramental conceptions of some (principally mainline Protestant) religious traditions, at the frequent expense of other, quite venerable religious and philosophic traditions. And so it’s not clear to me that it wouldn’t be both politically preferable, and truer to our constitutional values, simply to recognize that as a civil category marriage is no legitimately thicker, values-wise, than domestic partnership, while all additional thickness that marriage bears is supplied by the married parties themselves and the ethical, religious, or cultural meanings they elect to invoke.

It might just be that a contemporary, more even-handed American society that’s true to its constitution would be more aptly characterized less as a ‘community’ than as a sort of confederation of communities (a Rawlsian ‘union of social unions’?), each of which is founded upon an ecclesial or other ethical subculture which speaks to those matters of heart, mind and spirit that are often – but not exclusively – the province of our religious traditions. In such case that which would unite our multiple communities would be a shared core of values of mutual respect, with which values many differing views of sacramental marriage, but only a fairly thin view of civil union, might be consistent. We could ritualize civil events in a manner reflective of the august dignity of our polity of equals, perhaps along lines suggested by Rousseau in his advocacy of a sort of ‘civil religion.’ But this would have to be a liturgical rather than doctrinal ‘religion.’

On that Rousseauvian note, let me close with an anecdote, from which the title of this post derives. The anecdote for its part derives in a sense from a sequence of historical events inspired in part by Rousseau, and narrated in the Dickens novel on whose title I’m riffing with the title of this post: the French Revolution, which serves as backdrop to Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities.

By a strange quirk of fate, I’ve been in attendance at a large number of weddings in France. And as many of our readers will know, French weddings since monarchy’s end typically come in two parts: First there is a civil ceremony, where a minister of state wearing a business suit and an impressive red sash unites the couple for purposes of the state. Here’s a clip from a favorite film that affords some indication of the setting for a civil ceremony:

Then there is an ecclesial ceremony, where a minister (or ministers) of synagogue, church, mosque or what-have-you perform(s) the appointed ecclesial rites.

Now as it happens, one of the French weddings I have attended was for ecclesial purposes (sort of) an ‘interfaith’ wedding between one of my two oldest and closest friends, who is American and secularly Jewish, and his fiancee, who is French and more or less secularly Catholic. (Do not let it be thought that I hold any attitude about their being secular. The fact is relevant only to what I shall presently relate of the ecclesial ceremony, and I am quite certain, in case it’s of interest, that my wonderful friends stand much greater chance of entry into any next world than I do.)

Now the ecclesial wedding ceremony for my friends, at which I read, was a somewhat awkward affair in the sort of embarrassed half-heartedness with which Rabbi, Priest, bride, groom, and most of their families recited the appointed texts. Not even the great antiquity of the impressive cathedral quite managed to dissipate the feeling of ‘dry ritual’ that pervaded the affair. I found myself almost wishing my friends had composed their own ritual, as many other friends of mine have done with great care and beauty.

My friends’ civil ceremony, on the other hand, seemed much more dignified than the ecclesial, if for no other reason than that there was no ‘just going through the motions’ involved. (And the sash was very impressive!) For these two close friends of mine, it was their deep personal commitment, and the French state’s constitutionalization of equal respect for persons irrespective of ecclesial affiliation or background, that mattered most. And the civil ceremony, though not associated with any thick conception of marriage as distinguished from civil union, was accordingly rich and liturgically meaningful in its own right – much more so in this case, I thought, than the ecclesial ceremony, which felt simply vestigial. Moreover, had my friends both been women, or both men, it would have been identically dignified – as would any ecclesial ceremony, I reckon, in a faith tradition that recognized same-sex unions.

Intriguingly, my other oldest best friend, who also is American and (Reform) Jewish but is practicing, also took part in an interfaith wedding – just this past summer, with his practicing Episcopalian fiancee. This wedding was officiated jointly by my friend's Israeli Rabbi and his fiancee's mother, who is an Episcopal priest.

The earnestness with which all parties in this case approached their appointed tasks, and the eagerly, even anxiously helpful efforts each officiant made to explain the meanings and histories and traditions of all liturgical elements contributed by each to this beautifully thought-out, ‘custom made’ yet tradition-redolent ceremony, were profoundly moving. Godliness seemed to be present at this beautiful wedding with a fullness I've rarely experienced. The civil ceremony, by contrast, was altogether bureaucratic.

And there, perhaps, you have in a nutshell the difference between paired church/state marriage ceremonies in pluralistic America on the one hand, and once monistic France on the other! Why not combine the best of both by according august but minimalist meaning to the civil unions available to all citizens, and recognizing privately adopted, synthesized, or even fresh-formulated meanings assigned by the parties themselves to more sacramental marriages?