The Outward Appeal of Privatizing Marriage
Before I go any further in my responses to my young friend who asked about privatizing marriage, I want to acknowledge one thing: this proposal is outwardly appealling. I recently received an e-mail from an earnest young man, who wanted my opinion of his proposal to essentially privatize marriage. His idea was to have government create a new institution called civil unions that would be the same for all couples, opposite sex or same sex, and leave the idea and institution of “marriage” strictly to religious bodies. This position is becoming the “default” position in my quarters, so let’s acknowlege its attractiveness.
The proposal to privatize marriage in some form or fashion is appealing for two reasons.
First, it seems to remove marriage from the realm of political contentiousness. We could mimic a market-type solution, in which individuals can make their own decisions about the meaning of marriage. We need not make any collective decisions. We need not commit ourselves taking a public stand on the crucial issues of the meaning and purpose of marriage, how marriage serves the common good, what the common good actually consists of, and many other deeply contentious matters.
The second appealing feature of this proposal is that the state appears to be neutral and even-handed. The state is not favoring any one religious group, or any particular form of relational contract. A couple could have any house of worship bless their union, on any terms agreeable to the couple and to the house of worship. We could have a Muslim contract that mandates that the bride be a virgin, a Las Vegas drive-through wedding contract and anything in between. Religious bodies could only impose religious penalties, such as banning offenders from the sacraments or temple worship.
I believe these appealing features are illusory. I asked him a series of questions about issues that might change his mind about his proposal. In a series of posts, I will be addressing each of the questions I raised with him.
1. If you believed that it is not possible for the government to be neutral in the definition of marriage, would that change your view of the desirability of your proposal?
2. If you believed that your proposal would undermine one of the essential purposes of marriage, would that change your view?
3. If you believed that your proposal would lead to an expansion of the power of the state, and an increased intrusion of the state into the lives of ordinary people, would that change your view?
So far, I have addressed the question of whether marriage equality is even possible.