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Tuesday, November 03, 2009  

That Bwessed Awangement

The only thing that really bothered me about the late administration's marriage promotion agenda was the transparent shoddiness of the science on which it was based. It took marriage to be a treatment, like Prozac or thirty minutes of daily exercise, and then spun all sorts of fanciful conclusions about the effects of this treatment. But as Yglesias points out today, marriage is a bit of a red herring in family policy. Family stability, and the emotional and material support for children implied therein, are the main things--regardless of whether the parents have gone to a courthouse, church, aboretum, or waterslide park to have their relationship formalized. Moreover, a society that is serious about attacking child poverty--as we once were and as the UK has been over the last twelve years--can make real gains in that area even without trying to re-engineer people's domestic lives.

Consider it this way: what would happen if the government decided to declare every cohabiting couple with children to be legally married and sent them notice? Or more realistically, if the government decided to "promote marriage" by radically dropping the barriers to entry--say by making marriage licenses available wherever lottery tickets are sold and certifying clerks to sign them? It's pretty obvious that such moves would do nothing to foster family stability or lower child poverty.

This is because marriage is not a treatment. Maybe your view of marriage is religious or sacramental (whether or not your tradition considers the rite itself a sacrament), maybe it's something else. Maybe you're reasonably compatible and possessed of the economic and familial resources needed to weather difficult times, maybe you're not. Maybe you're foolish and impulsive, under the sway of infatuation and sexual charisma, or maybe you're truly dedicated to the institution. Maybe you and your spouse have clear understandings of when and whether to have children and how your life together will work, or maybe you trust love to conquer all. Maybe you've learned good conflict resolution skills, maybe you're still immature. All such couples, once they leave the justice of the peace, are equally married.

That's hardly to say that the success or failure of a marriage is inevitable before the vows are even said, but only that we have no consensus on what marriage means, no material or legal mechanism for enforcing a consensus we had one, and no groundswell for the kind of distributive economic policies that would help stabilize marriages, however the couples understand their relationships.

So marriage, like so many other things we fight over and politicize, is much more a cultural than a legal or political issue. I've argued this both from the left and from the right. Talking to a group of colleagues recently, the question of how to handle requests to preside at same-sex blessing services in our churches (Illinois has no marriage equality or civil unions) came up. Most of us in this group were generally supportive of blessing these relationships, but I was the only one anxious for some guidance from the ELCA about how to do it. In our rush to stop excluding people, we gave a lot less thought to what the law and gospel proclamation for a same-sex union would be (not that there aren't plenty of proposed answers, but none that can remotely be called the voice of the church). At the same time, this gap between what we've decided to allow and what we're yet willing to say is part of a larger problem with wedding ceremonies becoming just another consumer experience. When a pastor--a real one, with a church and everything--is being asked to dress up as Elvis to preside at a wedding, would a thoughtful traditionalist be relieved to know that the couple is heterosexual?

Protestants have typically de-emphasized the role of the church in making a marriage, rather than merely acknowledging and blessing it. That is to say, we think of marriage first as a natural and civil bond and second as one that displays the redemption of the world in Jesus Christ. So there's no need for us to be killjoys like the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, who want to keep people from being married outdoors and so forth. All the same, we clergy have a role to play in helping form what people understand marriage to be. As a pastor I am less interested in herding couples toward the altar than I am in preaching a Christian ideal of faithfulness that would, I hope, have some small voice in a couple's decision to wed. This is likewise how I understand the task of counseling, whether before a wedding or after it. What is the place of faith in your relationship? What will your life together express beyond the love you feel for each other? What about your wedding/marriage is really enduring and bigger than you? And no, I'm afraid I can't wear that Elvis costume.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:20 AM
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