Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Law is a Teacher

Yesterday I considered Robby George's argument that marriage is a unitive act of complementary persons. I agree with him. Other strategic minorities in industrial societies do not agree with him. They want the state to extend the definition of marriage to same-sex couples, and beyond that, to any close relation, whether it joins the same kind of persons, or could produce children, or is meant to be permanent, or has any limits on how many can play.

Given this deep disagreement about the nature of marriage, some reach for the sectarian solution – the state can call anything it wants a "marriage," but as for me and my house, we will stick with the traditional understanding. And the devil take the hindmost in the culture.

Churches, in contrast to sects, do not and cannot take that approach. George is a Roman Catholic, of the churchiest of churches. They know, as George writes in the essay in question, "the law is a teacher." Committed conservatives will stick to traditional marriage no matter what the law allows. Committed liberals will allow and experiment with every possible combination that nature and custom make possible. For the majority in the middle, though, what the law supports and allows does instruct our sense of right and wrong.

The Presbyterian Church is a middle polity, halfway between the centralized, authoritative, state-coordinated church, and the go-our-own-way, the-state-should-leave-us-alone sect. In this country, Presbyterian and Reformed churches have always supported the separation of church and state.

So what is a middle, Presbyterian position on marriage?

First, the church and state should agree on a minimal definition of marriage.

Second, the state should preserve citizens' freedom as much as it can without threatening social order. This means the state can prefer a good form of marriage, while allowing a good-enough form of union. As I have argued before, the social distinction between the good and the good enough is crucial to centrist thought.

Third, the church promotes marriage as the permanent union of one man and one woman in a mutually supportive life that is open to children. That is the best kind of marriage. Not everyone is called to marriage, but all can make a marriage of this kind if they are called to marry.

Fourth, the church supports the state in creating other kinds of civil unions which allow everyone to have someone they can legally bind to for support.

The law is a teacher. It should teach the kind of marriage that is best for society and for most citizens. But the law is also generous, and should tolerate other options if they do not threaten public order.

And that, pretty much, is the position of the Presbyterian Church (USA) today.

2 comments:

SPorcupine said...
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Denis Hancock said...

Thank-you for your recent posts. I appreciate your willingness to take on this divisive topic, and to do so in such a way as to ratchet down the rhetoric.

I hope the PC(USA) can reclaim their ability to instruct the people. Or perhaps more accurately, reclaim the willingness to clearly state what we believe.