Thoughts on Same-Sex Marriage, Part III: The Issue Is Civil, Not Religious

Parties on each side of the same-sex marriage issue often interject religion into the discussion. In my opinion, this is unhelpful. The manifest intention of the First Amendment is that the majority may not impose its religious preferences on the minority, but permit the minority the same due exercise as the majority enjoys. If the determination of whose union the state must recognize were a religious matter, then plainly, Mormons could still be polygamous, and the state would be obliged to certify their polygamous unions. In plain point of historical fact, the Utah compromise proves that the question of whose unions the state will recognize is not a religious decision; it is a civil decision, which the state determines according to its own interests.

If the issue were a religious issue, it would be difficult to account for the prevalence of the civil recognition of marriage in so many religiously diverse nations. Secular nations such as France and the former Soviet Union recognized marital unions; Buddhist and Hindu nations recognize marital unions; Islamic countries recognize marital unions. If recognizing opposite-sex unions were merely an expression of religious faith, why would Joseph Stalin’s USSR have done so? Why would France do so? State recognition of certain unions is a civil issue, regardless of whatever religious (or irreligious) opinions exist regarding those unions themselves. And a great variety of differing governments have recognized the union of a single man and a single woman for some reason that must, therefore, be non-religious.

I suspect the primary consideration that has motivated such a diversity of states to recognize heterosexual unions between one man and one woman is because this is the ordinary biological way in which new taxpayers (and soldiers, etc.) are created. Governments do not (yet?) have the power to create new humans to pay taxes in the future and to participate more broadly in the culture. They are dependent upon the biological union of males and females to secure a national progeny, and, for this reason, they recognize and protect such unions by issuing licenses. Now, there may be a host of religious reasons for being happy that states do this; but the states do not do so for religious reasons. Secular as well as non-secular states do so for the common reason that this is the ordinary way in which new citizens enter the state and are reared to maturity. That is, to put it crassly: the state has an interest in preserving and promoting the biological unions by which, ordinarily, new citizens enter the public arena.

We would do well to remind ourselves: We are not discussing whether consenting adults may have sexual relations as they wish; that matter has been settled (in the United States) since the Texas Supreme Court decision. We are discussing which unions the state ought to recognize. I am suggesting that, unless and until the state can procure a future progeny by another means than the union of a male and female, it would be imprudent for it not to recognize, and therefore protect, this particular union. And, I further suggest that the conversation we ought to be having is this: What similar benefit does state recognition of same-sex unions bring to the state, which would warrant the clerical and judicial costs to the state?

I myself remain open to a convincing conversation here, but I do not hear or read anyone making it. It should not be difficult to determine what it currently costs the individual states (or their aggregate) in clerical and judicial expenses to recognize those marriages that they now recognize. Nor should it be difficult to calculate, therefore, the “per-union” cost to the state recognizing unions. The conversation should then turn to the “return” the state would likely get for this expense.

I do not suggest that other, social costs should be exempted from the conversation. Since the state is also concerned for the general welfare of its citizens, it is appropriate for it to consider these other costs also (e.g., how this would impact the insurance industry, the profitability of various commercial enterprises). At a minimum, however, I think proponents of same-sex union should convince those of us who are convince-able that the state will sufficiently benefit from the proposed decision to undertake its expense.

As it is, I expect to remain unconvinced and unsupportive of the efforts of those who promote state recognition of same-sex unions; not because I am unwilling to listen to arguments that I regard as pertinent, but because I despair of anyone making such arguments. I’ve declared the terms that would convince me (i.e., demonstrate that the cost/benefit ratio would be in the state’s interest), but in our present climate, I would be surprised if anyone will take up the offer and assist me. The temptation to rally the already convinced by the politics of ressentiment or the confusing of rights and privileges will probably prove too great; and I (along with my Mormon friends) will continue to watch wistfully from the sidelines.

Editor’s note: This is Part III of a three-part series on same-sex marriage. See Parts I and II here:

Thoughts on Same-Sex Marriage, Part I:
The Politics of Rights and “Ressentiment”

Thoughts on Same-Sex Marriage, Part II:
Distinguishing Rights and Privileges