February 16, 2004 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

God, Government and the Marriage Question

When the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled last November that homosexuals should have the right to marry, the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group, claimed that the decision had nothing to do with religion. Rather, the organization said, "it's about the civil responsibilities and protections afforded through a government-issued civil marriage license."

But of course the fight over gay marriage has, at its heart, a religious question. It presupposes that there's something in human nature that either upholds or contradicts the notion of homosexual unions. The political fixation on civil rights overlooks the more basic argument over natural rights: One side believes that the Deity, quite deliberately, designed male and female for one another. The other sees loving relationships among gays as both a gift and an expression of Divine love. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, it's the idea that God does not play dice with human sexuality-and neither should the government.

That's why the marriage debate is, to a large extent, a contest over the role of faith in public life. Both sides of this debate want government to endorse what is, essentially, a religious view of the human condition.

Just ask Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. Robinson and his church allies make religious appeals to overturn existing marriage policy. The Rev. Mary McLeod, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese in Vermont, says that "God's great gift of love" should not be denied to homosexuals by laws that prevent them from marrying. Even politicians such as Howard Dean, although he opposes homosexual marriage, cite the Bible to justify gay unions.

Religious conservatives insist that their faith traditions-Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Islamic-recognize the marriage of a man and woman as the only legitimate place for sexual and spiritual intimacy. It's in this institution that children were meant to be nurtured. Everything else, they say, is a counterfeit of Divine intent. And they want federal law to uphold the genuine article.

Whatever one thinks about these competing claims, two facts require more attention. First, the advocates of gay marriage, while invoking religious values, are making claims about sexuality that are at odds with the historic, traditional teachings of every major faith tradition on the planet. That doesn't necessarily make them mistaken, but it ought to make every sensible person pause and wonder why.

The other fact is that Caesar cannot be neutral about these religious claims: In effect, the State will help decide which religious viewpoint should govern political life. If government endorses the sacred nature of traditional marriage, it must build legal firewalls to protect its unique status. If it approves of gay marriage, then the state must promote the values of religious liberals: The conclusion that there's no important difference between gay and hetereosexual unions, after all, is exactly what Bishop Robinson and many other ministers are insisting upon.

The federal government isn't likely to abolish marriage. But it can, by its policies, affect the values and assumptions of an entire society. If marriage has its origin in the mind of a Creator, then government dare not be indifferent to His point of view.

Joseph Loconte, religion fellow at the Heritage Foundation, is editor of the forthcoming "The End of Illusions: America's Churches and Hitler's Gathering Storm, 1938-41.''

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

First aired on National Public Radio's All Things Considered