You may have heard that Starbucks has recently announced its support for gay marriage. The issue is up for a vote in Washington State and is almost sure to pass. As you can read here, a pastor is asking customers who disagree with this position to boycott the company. A small bit of a larger nation-wide controversy. No matter who you are, you have an opinion
Part of the problem in this whole debate is the use of the term “marriage.” I understand marriage, strictly speaking, as a religious covenant. By this definition churches are free to “marry” whomever they like and not perform ceremonies that violate their particular theological convictions. You can debate the merits of their theology, but not their right to make their own theological decisions.
A nation such as the United States that enshrines a separation of Church and State may not have such legal latitude, however. It stands to reason that two people who choose to enter into a binding contract/covenant with all the privileges and drawbacks that entails should be legally allowed to do so. Properly speaking, this action of the State should not be called “marriage,” because that is an act done only through a religious community. A number of states have taken to calling this new arrangement a “civil union,” which I feel is as good a name for it as any. Strictly speaking, the government should have no say in marriage whatsoever. We don’t let them have a say in communion or baptism, so why marriage? Whatever else it is called, the process by which the government legally binds together two people is NOT marriage.
The conflation of marriage in the United States to mean both the religious ideal and the legal arrangement complicates matters. Ever since the Church/State were united under the Constantinian establishment (with the 4th century conversion of the Roman emperor to Christianity) the (State) power of legal arranging (religious) marriage began to be shared by Church. You know the line–”By the power vested in me by the state of….” In a world where the Church and the State work hand in hand, this makes great sense.
But this is not the world that we live in anymore, and it is definitely not the world of the United States. The separation of Church and State (strongly championed by early Baptists) has been a reality in America for a long time. Our head of state is not the head of the “Church of America,” like in the United Kingdom. Our taxes do not go to support the State Church, like in Germany. Things are different here.
It is my understanding that Christians in the era before Constantine were united by the State in union and then went to the Church to have that union blessed. This spoke to the differences between the two acts and made sense in a world without an established Church. Why, then, do we keep arguing about marriage here in America? Is there any legal reason why two men should not be allowed to enter into a civil union? It seems a difficult case to make.
Are there reasons to limit marriage as a Christian institution to one man and one woman? There is and will continue to be theological reflection on this issue, as is appropriate. My feeling, however, is that no matter how strongly you feel for or against the issue of gay marriage, the State’s right to perform “civil unions” (not marriages) seems much harder to deny. If we want an established Church in America or argue for an “unofficial establishment” as some do, that is one thing. But barring this, civil unions as legal arrangements seem a logical conclusion.
Consider this a plea for consistency, not a theological or political position. Thoughts?