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Monday, November 21, 2011

If you Can't Play Nicely Then None of you Get the Toy

 Big warning, I think that this is the most political and potentially divisive post I have written. Or maybe not. It's certainly on a topic for which I have little to no awareness of public opinion. To wrap up the waffling and prevaricating, I have no idea what you will think of this.
While I was growing up I was in the habit of getting into fights with my siblings, especially my younger brother. Many of those fights were over who would get to play with some much coveted toy. I am reasonably certain that at least once, my parents resolved the situation by confiscating the toy and informing us that if we couldn't play nicely with it then we wouldn't get to play with it at all. If that didn't actually happen to me then it did happen to so many friends and TV characters that I have adopted it into my own experience. Before anyone throws my parents (or some now-nameless TV parents) under the bus for this atrocity, let me suggest that it worked pretty well. I have very clear memories of making efforts to resolve fights over various toys before they escalated to the point that my parents would take a hand.
Yeah this was pretty much

I want to suggest that we take the same approach with marriage in this country. For quite a few years now, we have been fighting over who has the right to get married. The conservative crowd wants the government to define the word in such a way as to exclude certain times of lifetime monogamous commitment and the liberal crowd wants the government to step in and guarantee everyone the right to call their relationship marriage (and thereby receive the important social and legal benefits that married couples enjoy). So as a starting point I want to suggest that the kids have been fighting over this too long and it is time for us to take marriage away from the conservative and liberal politicians.
But that is really just a starting point. As I reflected on it, I realized that I don't think the politicians have any real right to claim power over the term in the first place. Historically it looks as though marriage first became an important legal term to the government (state governments I believe) when they decided to write bigamy laws. After that the federal government got involved with the income tax. Various child welfare and adoption laws joined the mix at some point as well. But all of this, with the interesting exception of bigamy which I am not going to touch, worked without any technical definition. A marriage was what everyone knew a marriage to be. No point in defining it.
Now we have various political interest groups trying to get their representatives to define a word in one way or another. Which is really silly. Can you imagine a campaign to define a chair as a "tool for sitting involving no more or less than four legs and a back"? The stool lobby would be up in arms. Why should the government have the right to define a marriage? The only answer I can come up with is that it is an important term in several tax and legal codes. But surely those codes would work just as well with the phrase "committed-cohabiting couple" substituted for marriage.
I like this document

And on further reflection, doesn't the idea that the government has the right to define marriage violate the free exercise clause of the first amendment? Historically, marriage is a religious concept. At least in western civilization, we hold that God makes or at least recognizes a marriage between two people (possibly more if you are an old school Muslim but again - not going there). And if that's the case then aren't my fellow religious people out there a little offended that our government has even thought about giving itself the power to define one of the sacraments - even if they want to define it in a way you like? After all, if they get to claim that power today what assurance do you have that they will use it well tomorrow. Today they define marriage as only between a man and a woman, tomorrow they define the Eucharist as the ceremonial partaking of cotton candy and soda pop.

Now it certainly is the government's job to protect contracts (see my earlier two posts on capitalism) and if Uncle Sam wants to give tax breaks and extend insurance benefits to people who commit to act as one unit for the rest of their lives, I say let him (I am generally in favor of tax breaks and insurance benefits for people who care about each other and are willing to make life-long commitments to one another, in addition to visitation rights and other basic rights of attorney and so forth). So my "solution" is to replace the legal concept of marriage with a number of standard domestic partnership agreements. Then those people who are legal domestic partners can go to the religious (or non-religious) institution of their choice and take part in whatever ceremony they think will create a spiritual union between them, and call their union whatever it is that they want to call it - probably marriage.

Update: Same sex marriage is now legal throughout the United States, a situation I thoroughly support (though I would not be sad to see the implementation of my recommendations above). You can read my series in support of LGB folks within the church starting HERE.


  1. I'm totally okay with this. I've always thought the term "marriage" should be left out of the law books since it's a sacrament. Let all civil unions be "civil unions" or "domestic partnerships" or whatever, and let "marriage" be a status bestowed upon couples or groups by their churches or whatever, and let it have absolutely zero effect on the involved parties' civil rights and social benefits. Then, if you are a gay couple, hypothetically speaking, and have an issue with your church not being willing to marry you, you can take it up with your church or find one that will. There's no need for social reform and religious reform to be one and the same.

  2. Hey Bill (hard for me not to put the ¨y¨ on the end, last time we actually talked you were still Billy!). I have read a lot of your articles and really appreciate your perspective (even if I´m in over my head most of the time!). This is about the conclusion I´ve come to as well, but would never have been able to word it as well. And for the record, I do remember your (and my) parents breaking up a few McCracken/Hoard feuds by removing the toy in question!
    Sarah McCracken Castillo

  3. Oh, I was going to add that where we live, in Guatemala, a couple has to have a ¨civil marriage¨ to be legally wed. If they then choose (which most do) the have a religious ceremony. But the relegious ceremony is just that, a ceremony before their god giving them the spiritual weight they desire, while the legal document from the civil marriage is what holds weight in a legal realm. Then the government is free to define/re-define to their heart´s content without upsetting the religious rituals.

  4. This reminds me an the incident I think of fondly - when you and Ashley talked about getting divorced just so you could prove that two people could commit to one another without needing a piece of paper to prove it. As I recall, she wasn't a big fan of the idea....

  5. I recall a moment where I was watching "The Daily Show." It was when the big hoopla about gay marriage started to really ramp up, maybe three years ago. On the episode, Jon Stewart gave a straight-faced mention of the issue, then stopped and looked at the camera as if in great confusion.

    "They. . . they aren't try to make us ALL marry gay. . . are they?"

    I laughed and laughed. My wife and I looked at each other and said, "WHY is this even an ISSUE?"

    Well said, sir. Just take the toy away.