Marriage once was more spiritual than legal

Published 10:00 am Friday, October 5, 2012

Column: David Behling, Notes from Home

Two weeks ago my oldest daughter got married. It was a — belatedly — emotional experience for me (read last Friday’s column). But the event also made me think more about marriage in general, including the legal situation created by wedding ceremonies and marriage certificates.

My views on the legal dimensions of marriage have evolved. Once upon a time, I thought civil unions should be the legal foundation for all partnerships, including those involving adults of the same sex. Civil unions dealt with issues like inheritance, medical decision-making and parenting rights. Civil unions would be good enough for homosexuals who said they wanted to be “married” to each other.

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Call me a romantic or an idealist, but I saw marriage as something that wasn’t about legal rights or even about parenting. Instead, marriage was a spiritual bond created by a couple making promises about a life together with God as their witness.

To paraphrase what Jesus said, a marriage happens when a man leaves his parents’ house and joins with a woman. Marriage described the depth of the relationship between the two people involved and God, and the rest of us were only present as witnesses; we needed to acknowledge and respect that new relationship.

That’s not the way I see things anymore. Marriage, the way I see it now, inextricably carries legal rights with it and civil unions are just wimpy alternatives. The reason for the “evolution” of my thinking lies mainly in my response to the way that the religious right has framed the definition of marriage in our country.

As these groups have been victorious across the country in their attempts to make marriage between one man and one woman the only kind of legal marriage, I learned two important things from their spokespeople. First, instead of the spiritual dimensions, they are focusing on marriage’s legal status. Second, for them, marriage is primarily about making babies or providing a home for babies. The quality of the relationship between the breeders who produce the babies doesn’t seem to interest them.

In short, traditional, heterosexual marriages are being “protected” by constitutional amendments mainly because conservative Christians (and conservatives in other religions) don’t want gay men and women to have the same legal rights to establish or maintain families as straight men and women do.

In fact, I think the whole “ban” campaign here in Minnesota, that all of those successful campaigns are red herrings meant to distract citizens. Banning gay marriage more-or-less permanently is really about something else: Placing controls on the choices and behavior of “wayward” members of the conservative churches that are spearheading the gay marriage ban.

The leaders of these churches, particularly the Roman Catholic church, have not been successful in “making” their members obey church doctrines using their own pulpits. So they are turning to the constitution to make these members more compliant, along with everybody else.

We are having a debate about families and marriages when we should be having a debate about when, or even whether, it’s appropriate to impose a specific religious orthodoxy on millions of people — including those not yet born — who do not believe in those doctrines.

It’s uncertain whether or not the ban on same sex marriage will be written into the constitution next month. If it does happen, gay families will not disappear and heterosexual marriages will not suddenly become stronger. With so much attention on baby making, there might even be heterosexual, childless couples who feel that their marriages have now descended to a second class status because they can’t or won’t make babies together.

Acknowledging the gay families in our communities and extending to them the legal rights that marriages bring will not undermine my marriage or my neighbors’ marriages. Threats to marriage — all marriages — come from tensions and problems that constitutions can’t do anything about.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.