Over the weekend, George W. Bush gave a radio address dealing with the proposed "marriage amendment" that is likely to be brought to a vote this week. His comments were fairly boilerplate; he spoke negatively of "activist" judges (never mind that without activist judges our schools would still be segregated), talked about the courts imposing an "arbitrary definition" of marriage on the people, and the need for a Constitutional amendment to save the institution from being "weakened."
What bothers me most deeply about Bush's comments - and the vast majority of arguments in favor of the amendment in general - is not the fact that it transforms the most sacred document in America into a political football. Nor is it the fact that the amendment would mean little more than a slap in the face to hardworking gay Americans. The thing that bothers me most is that Bush's comments underscore a complete lack of understanding of the theory behind the American political system.
The Constitution was the result of a collective effort of people whose religious beliefs ran from strongly Christian (John Adams, George Mason) to Deist (Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin). Both sides agreed on the importance of extending religious freedom to all Americans. Article XVI of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted by devoted Christians Mason and James Madison, stated that everyone was entitled to practice religion according to their own conscience. Jefferson went even further, suggesting that a "wall of separation" should exist between the church and the state. The "wall of separation" doctrine won out; by 1791 Mason and Madison were proposing the First Amendment to the Constitution which clearly forbids the establishment of religion. The Founding Fathers, more than anyone after them, recognized that one can still be Christian and serve a secularist state.
Now back to marriage. The institution of marriage has two aspects in modern life: the religious and the secular. (This is not to be confused with John Edwards' "two Americas.") The religious aspect is the one conferred upon a couple by a priest, rabbi, imam, etc. It joins two people in the eyes of God and the religious community. It is this perception that comes to mind when most Americans think of marriage; when Bush and the right wing talk about protecting the "sanctity of marriage," this is the institution of which they speak.
But there is a secular aspect to marriage as well. Secular marriage concerns the recognition of a couple by the government. It is secular marriage that confers upon you and your spouse the right to file tax returns jointly, the right to visit one another at the hospital, the right to leave each other belongings when you die, and a whole host of other legal privileges. This is the institution that the gay and lesbian community wants extended to them.
And this is where the misunderstanding begins. The Bushes and the James Dobsons and the Bill Frists of the world fail to recognize that, thanks to that "wall of separation" and to the Constitutional injunction against establishing religion, marriage must be thought of as two separate institutions. There is the secular institution, which is under government power, and the religious institution, which must be fully separate from governmental authority.
When the right wing claims that allowing gays to marry would "change the definition of marriage," they are only half right. The secular definition of marriage would change, but the religious definition - the one with all the "sanctity" that the right wing is so eager to protect with constitutional tinkering - must remain unchanged. Looks like the ever-threatened right-wing Christians have been bailed out once again by the separation of church and state they so love to hate.
For all the doubters out there, keep in mind that the Catholic church does not consider anyone married outside the Church as a married couple. The government, of course, does. This dichotomy can exist because of the inherent separation of religious and secular marriage. The government did not change the definition of marriage for the Catholic Church by allowing Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and atheists to marry. Similarly, the government cannot change the definition of marriage for any religion if it allows gay people to enter into secular marriage.
So conservatives, before you start playing around with the Constitution, get some understanding of the subtleties of the American legal system. Recognize that the separation of church and state can benefit church as much as state. Realize that secular marriage and religious marriage are two necessarily separate entities. The core values you save may be your own.