Marriage – a religious or a secular institution?

In my very first post ( I mentioned that I would be discoursing on all kinds of journeys. This is one of the not-a-travelogue ones.

I would like to say this at the outset: I am not trying to change anyone’s opinion. This is simply a description of my thoughts and conclusions.

Now, onward and upward, as they say…

There are many subjects these days on which I have an opinion, but it’s not backed up by facts or a rigorous (for me) analysis – they just sort of evolved by osmosis, I suppose. Until last night, this was one of them. But, although i don’t know what the trigger was, last night I spent some time thinking about the question of whether the institution of marriage is a religious one or a secular one. While driving to Fayetteville, NC, today, I thought about it some more. I’ll explain my thoughts and then give you my  conclusion.

I started with the premise that, as many people say, marriage is a religious institution. Then I set out to prove or disprove the premise, as follows:

1. If marriage is a religious institution, then it should follow that only religious officials should be able to perform the marriage ceremony. This would then mean that no secular official (judge, justice of the peace, ship captain, etc.) could marry people. Since they do, and do it with the full support of the (presumably secular) state, marriage cannot be exclusively a religious institution.

2. If marriage is a religious institution, then which religion gets to define it? Muslim? Jewish? Christian? Hindu? Buddhist? Rastafarian? Animist? And what if, for example, the Christian religion gets to make the rules? Which branch should get the nod? Catholics? Protestants? (And which branch of the Protestants – Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc., etc., etc.) Or which of the Jewish branches – Reform? Ultra-Orthodox? [Other?] Or Muslim – Sunni? Shi’ite? Sufi? And what about non-religious people (whether atheist, agnostic, or merely spiritual without adhering to any “established” religion – like me)?

Or, instead of having one group define marriage for everyone, suppose that each faith / denomination / branch / sect gets to make its own definition. How would that work? If the Mormons wanted to go back to polygamy, would the other groups be forced to recognize their marriages? If (heaven forbid) someone founded a new religion that met all the established tests for *being* a religion, and they espoused child marriages or human-animal marriages, would we all be required to recognize those as valid? I think not. And this, too, would ignore those who don’t belong to an established group.

So we can’t let each group make its own definition, and we can’t let any one group make the definition for everyone without becoming a theocracy – or at least a nation with an established, official religion. And that is expressly forbidden by the Constitution. Here again, the conclusion must be that marriage cannot be strictly a religious institution.

So if marriage can’t be strictly religious, then what is it? By the process of elimination, it must primarily be a secular institution. Thus it must be defined by a secular entity (the state) which then enforces the definition and ensures it applies equally to everyone within its jurisdiction.

Note that I have not said anywhere what the definition of “marriage” is. I have only stated my conclusion about who gets to define it. It must be the state. And once the state has decided what the definition is, everyone within the jurisdiction of the state must adhere to that definition.

This doesn’t mean that the definition is unchanging, or that individuals and groups can’t lobby (campaign, agitate, whatever) to change it. The definition of marriage *has* changed over the years – polygamy has been outlawed; mixed-race marriages are now accepted; marriages between close relatives are verboten; and so on. But it must be the state, acting on behalf of all its citizens, that makes and enforces the definition of what a marriage is.

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