Marriage is a bundle. It is, all at once, a contract, a romance, and a spiritual institution. But I don’t think it’s going to stay this way.
Marriage is actually three structures, layered on top of one another.
As it’s most basic level, marriage is a contract. When you get married, you are entering into a contractual relationship with someone else, and there are laws that govern this relationship. In most cases, this is the only level the government cares about.
At the next level on top of that, for most people, marriage is a romance. You love the person you’re marrying. But, in reality, this is optional. You don’t have to love this person, and with the exception of when it pertains to immigration fraud, the government doesn’t really care if you love your spouse. As far as the law is concerned, your actual feelings toward your spouse are incidental.
At the next level on top of that, marriage is a spiritual institution. For Christians (or any religion, really), it’s a God-ordained structure that holds religious significance. But, if you’re not a Christian, this doesn’t pertain to you, and like romance, the government could really care less about it.
I think that over the next 20 years, the concept of “marriage” is going to “unbundle.” The government will get out of the marriage business. Because, in the end, the government doesn’t care about “marriage” as a whole, it only cares about the contractual, legal part of it. So the government is going to isolate that, and leave the rest of it up for individual interpretation or semantics – if you want to call your domestic partnership a “marriage,” go right ahead.
What I predict we’re going to see if that the government is going to genericize marriage down a contractual basis, perhaps discarding the name “marriage” altogether, in favor of something like “civil unions” or “domestic partnerships.” These could be between a man and a woman, two men, or two women. This legal structure will govern things like inheritance, benefits, medical authority, etc. All the things that are handled by the bundle of “marriage” today.
So, if this happens between two people of the same sex, is this “gay marriage”? It could be, but this concept of a domestic partnership doesn’t care – remember, it does not look past the first layer, so it doesn’t care about romantic intent. In the end, it’s just a contract between two humans, and for legal purposes, anything on top of that is just...fluff.
Take two spinsters, Alice and Lois. They are both heterosexual, but Alice never married and Lois was widowed a decade ago. They are wonderful friends and move in together in their declining years, in order to provide security and companionship to each other. They share expenses, share a home, and trust each other with their affairs. To ensure various legal rights, they enter into a domestic partnership.
Now, this clearly isn’t gay marriage – both women are heterosexual, after all. So...how would it be perceived? Two women are living together, protected by a legal institution. Would people currently against gay marriage protest against this? Well, how could they? it’s not “marriage.” it’s just a contractual, legal relationship.
If this type of thing were banned, because it smells like gay marriage, then is that really fair to Alice and Lois? They’re straight, remember, and just for fun, let’s pretend that they’re both rabidly homophobic. They just want the legal rights, without any of the romantic or spiritual undertones.
So, if this happens, what would happen to traditional notion of marriage? I suspect, it will become the province of the church. Insofar as the government cares, your relationship with your spouse would be a just “domestic partnership.” The other two layers don’t matter to Uncle Sam.
The romantic aspect of it is something between the two people – it can’t be legally codified, so the government doesn’t care. If you love your partner, great.
The spiritual aspect of it would between the two people and the church. That can’t be legally codified either, and the government is constitutionally prevented from taking endorsing that anyway. If you want God’s blessing, awesome, go get it.
Is this good? Is this right? It depends on who you ask. But, we’ve discussed here before the fact that gay marriage, in whatever form, is going to become the law of all 50 states eventually – it’s just a matter of changing attitudes. The current generation has been raised in a different culture, and the generation after them will be as well, and so on, and so on. Like it or not, it’s going to happen.
What it will do is strip virtually all of the current spiritual significance out of marriage for most everyone. While you can get married at a Justice of the Peace now, in common culture, the concept of getting married in a church has naturally intertwined the legal and spiritual aspects. That will be stripped away, and many people will find that they have the the legal rights and the romance, so they don’t need the spirituality. Getting married in a church will decline to the fringes of the “quaint” or “religious.”
I’m a traditionalist, so I’m a little dismayed by this. Perhaps I just haven’t changed as fast as the culture, but a big, built-in part of me just can’t bear to think this will happen.
But I’m pretty sure it will, no matter what anyone believes or wants.