When talking about Marriage (mostly constraining the conversation to the USA), it was understood as a Christian Marriage, which was defined as between a Man and a Woman. Today, we see arguments and desires to change that definition, to include two Men, or two Women (and transgenders).
But there is a strange aspect to all this that is missed in the larger discussion. Christian Marriage is still the way it was. The Supreme Court didn’t say that the bible’s definition of Marriage changed, only the definition that the government recognizes for writing Marriage certificates. Those certificates ultimately have lots of benefits, from financial, to liberties, to even the badge of social acceptance of that couple.
But why is it that so many are calling this an attack on Marriage, rather than the attack on Christian Marriage? Well, for one, because many Christians are unable to separate what the government sanctions as Marriage from Christian Marriage, and so are unable to separate those aspects. But why? Why is it so important for many Christians to force the government to recognize only Christian Marriage?
Simply crying “Separation of Church and State! Keep your beliefs off Marriage!” doesn’t quite capture the entire image of why so many feel their beliefs are under attack with these changes in definition, and reassertion of non-discriminatory policies.
Instead, it may help to imagine the Church and the State as symbiotic. For a long time, the two were. Occasionally one may capitulate to the other, or act more like a parasite (Kings deriving their Authority from the Church based on supposedly Godly intentions, or the Church propping up its own legitimacy through State legislatures), but for the most part Religion was, and still is, a major component to government.
This kind of symbiotic relationship, where each part reasserted its Authority through and with the aid of the other, existed for a very, very long time. To many, its difficult to separate government policies from religious doctrines. Which is what the proposal of the Separation of the Church and State was meant to begin. And I do say proposal, because in both government and in the populace, that separation hasn’t really happened.
For example, many run for office under the explicit premise, and promise, that they are Christians, and will follow Christian doctrine. Many policies, punitive, judicial, economic, liberties, and services are in a way shaped by what is believed to be “most Christian”. So much Christian influence is in our government that separating the two is practically impossible. Indeed, many good policies may also help to advance Christian doctrine, coincidentally or otherwise. The populace may desire certain people or things be excluded, not strictly because they are Christian, but because so much of their life is shaped by Christian elements, both directly and indirectly (movie ratings, ordnance, laws, history, social standards, etc).
In this way, it suddenly becomes clear why so many Christians feel their way of life is being attacked with each liberty or each law that appears to “trump” religious doctrine. In their mind, the government is a direct extension of the Church, and the only aspect that is separate (or needs to be separate), is in preventing the government from obviously acting to undermine other religions (and only allowing modest accommodations to restrictions on their own). Their belief system stems a lot of its authority and legitimacy from the government. Without that, the belief system is very much weakened, as it requires their followers to explicitly choose between the two, rather than what they want. The greatest fear, is that if given the choice, many would side with government than Christianity.
In this way, I think, we gain a slight empathy and greater understanding for why so many Christians fight so hard to prevent Marriage from being undermined.
So, how can we help the reverse, to mean, how can we help many of those stuck with this old understanding of the symbiotic relationship the Church and Government had? For starters, don’t attack their beliefs. Nothing can be gained from that, and in many ways it will be seen as a test for many Christians.
Instead, help them to understand the role of government in upholding the social contract, society, and the liberties of all. Help them to understand that religious doctrine is not the basis for government action, and that the Separation of Church and State is not an attack against their beliefs. Nor does such a Separation necessarily undermine their Legitimacy to believe and enforce (reasonable) restrictions on their members as to what they should and shouldn’t do. Help them to understand that the Separation of Church and State is a necessity for society, for the under-privileged, and themselves.
This post isn’t meant to portray Christianity negatively, nor is it meant to somehow attack or undermine Christianity. It is only meant to help move the discussion forward on how to best advance society without causing huge riffs with religious elements