Marriage a la mode
Years ago, I was approached a time or two by young people who wanted to know if I would marry them “in the sight of God” without them getting a marriage license. They were living together as man and wife – cohabitating, as the saying now is, “shacking up,” as it once was called – but they didn’t think they were ready for the economic and legal and public consequences of being married. They were troubled by their actions, but not prepared to either refrain from them or to regularize them. They wanted to have their cake and eat it, too, without feeling guilty about it.
I gently refused. I told them that being married was about claiming each other publicly in the sight of God and everybody. It was about taking responsibility for each other, about accepting the consequences of your actions, about being who you claimed to be. It wasn’t for hiding away, or taking refuge in loopholes. Either be married or don’t be married. Your consciences will have to deal with it, but marriage is more than just sanctified sex.
Except it’s not, anymore.
The real sexual revolution that has taken place in my lifetime is the reduction of marriage to not much more than sanctified sex. Actually, the sex isn’t really the point now, either, just government benefits. Marriage as commonly practiced is now simply a civil contract that is revocable without notice by either party. Its only real value is the access it gives to government recognition (a certificate), tax benefits, insurance coverage, etc.
Nobody feels guilty anymore about living together without being married. I haven’t been asked to perform a marriage without a license in almost thirty years. And the vast majority of couples I have married have been living together – often owning property together – before they get around to planning their wedding.
For that matter, it’s been about as long since I had opportunity to counsel with persons going through a divorce. That used to be a very big deal. People felt terrible about it. They would try to salvage their marriage by asking for pastoral or other professional help. Not that it worked all that often – things were usually too far gone by the time they began seeking help – but still, people felt they ought to try to fix their relationships before giving up on them.
Along with that, I used to spend a fair amount of time and energy providing pastoral care and counseling to those whose marriages had failed, helping them deal with unresolved conflicts, with the grief of loss, with feelings of failure. Nobody does that anymore, either. The first I hear of divorces these days is when people start coming to church without their spouses. I start to wonder what’s going on, and then the person still attending starts signing the attendance register with a different name. And nobody bats an eye. Not any business of theirs.
In between, before and after, people drift into and out of relationships as they always did. That relationship failed, okay it’s over, now what do I do? Well, let’s start hitting the bars again and sharpen up our flirting skills. And soon we’ve moved in with another person -- no better, no worse, no different – from the last person, and we start the whole script over again from the top. Rinse and repeat. We have learned nothing, we’re just older than before.
And while we’re doing this, trying out relationships like buying lottery tickets, hoping by sheer luck to hit the big payoff sooner or later, we’re having kids (often by multiple partners) and dragging them through a parade of ever-shifting households, step-parents, half-siblings, “Mama’s boyfriends,” and whatnot. We talk of “blended families” without really stopping to ask those who have no say in the matter what if feels like to take a ride in the blender.
Now, I don’t want to point fingers at people or make them feel bad about things. I don’t want to condemn anybody. So, I smile and take people as I find them. But then, I preached a sermon on marriage last year, on “happily ever after,” taking the point of view that we should want to talk about what makes a marriage succeed, for the benefit of those who are growing up and putting their lives together. I figured, everyone can agree that we want our young people to have the best shot at success, including marital success, right? Wrong. I had people who had been divorced – often years and years ago -- come up to me with long faces, either making rueful jokes or being outright upset that I was excluding them. We have reached the point where you can’t even talk to the not-yet-married without the been-there-done-that crowd insisting that their experience must be validated, their errors excused, their lives justified, even if it means the chance of success for their own children is less. Better we should all fail together than that anyone should succeed at what I have not.
It is this reduction of marriage to “what makes me feel good – for now” that has made same-sex marriage possible. Anthony Kennedy’s otherwise incomprehensible reasoning admits as much. Marriage is about not being lonely. It’s about having a somebody in your life, and not much else. So, it doesn’t matter who that somebody is, because if this one doesn’t do it for you, you can always find someone else. Maybe someday you’ll get lucky and find one worth keeping. Or maybe you’ll get tired of the search and just settle for what you’ve got. And in the meantime, you’ll have the tax benefits and survivorship and whatnot to keep you warm.
The problem the Church faces is not what to do with gay marriage. It’s what to do with marriage, period. Rebuilding what we have allowed to decay is a project that will take generations.