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The Marriage Pledge and the Libertarian Solution to the Marriage Debate

November 19th, 2014 | 6 min read

By Jake Meador

Over at First Things the Revs. Christopher Seitz and Ephraim Radner have published a document called The Marriage Pledge. The gist of it can be summed up as follows:

Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings. We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles ­articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life.

You can read the whole thing and see a list of signers, which includes Peter Leithart, here. Tristyn Bloom reported on the pledge for the Daily Caller and you can read her piece on it here.

There’s a sense in which this move is understandable. CS Lewis after all had very similar thoughts 60 years ago in the post-war years in Britain when he proposed a similar solution in Mere Christianity:

Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is quite the different question-how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christian and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.

It’s perhaps also worth noting that both Revs Seitz and Radner are currently living in Canada, which on matters of sex ethics has been far more hostile thus far to orthodox Christians than the United States. So this move may not simply be a form of protest against the current order, but also an attempt to put a bit of distance between the church and the public square so as to protect the church from possible legal consequences for maintaining an orthodox view on sexuality and marriage.

That said, it’s precisely that distancing that is the problem. One of the defining debates concerning the Affordable Care Act concerned the nature of religious belief. Was “religion” simply something one practiced during public worship services or was it something larger than that that could touch all of life? The Obama administration insisted on the former definition, thereby reducing “freedom of religion” to “freedom to worship” and declaring that religious non-profits could not receive the same exceptions enjoyed by churches on issues such as insurance coverage of contraception. There was a great deal of sturm und drang about the whole saga and yet you might recall that when the case went to the Supreme Court… the traditionalists won.

It’s a bit odd then that only a few months later we have three very prominent pastors and scholars–two drafters and then Rev. Leithart who was amongst the first signers–suggesting that orthodox believers ought to be voluntarily taking further steps to separate Christian faith from the public square, which we have apparently accepted is and ever shall be secular, world without end, amen.

Thankfully, we need not look far to find a good rebuttal to this position. This libertarian argument was advanced by an Inkling but, thankfully, it was also rejected by a second Inkling, Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien. In a letter to Lewis that he never actually mailed, Tolkien wrote:

The last Christian marriage I attended was held under your system: the bridal pair were “married” twice. They married one another before the Church’s witness (a priest), using one set of formulas, and making a vow of lifelong fidelity (and the woman of obedience); they then married again before the State’s witness… using another set of formulas and making no vow of fidelity or obedience. I felt it was an abominable proceeding – and also ridiculous, since the first set of formulas and vows included the latter as the lesser. In fact it was only not ridiculous on the assumption that the State was in fact saying by implication: I do not recognize the existence of your church; you may have taken certain vows in your meeting place but they are just foolishness, private taboos, a burden you take on yourself: a limited and impermanent contract is all that is really necessary for citizens. In other words this “sharp division” is a piece of propaganda, a counter-homily delivered to young Christians fresh from the solemn words of the Christian minister.

You can read more of Tolkien’s response in an older post I wrote for Mere O here. It’s worth reading the whole thing because his reply gets to the point nicely: By granting that civil and religious marriage are rightly thought of as separate, distinct things we are needlessly bolstering the argument of the marriage revisionists by granting to them the point that Christian marriage–and the rest of Christian ethics, presumably–can be understood to exist in a purely religious sphere disconnected from the life of the commonwealth. Such a concession, as Tolkien rightly notes, teaches both Christians and non-Christians that what goes on in Christian worship isn’t really meant for all of life, but only for that small slice that we still (for now and with the blessing of the state, I’m sure) call “religious.”

It’s possible that there is a prudential point to be made here about how Christians can protect themselves legally in nations where same-sex marriage is the law of the land and conformity to those ideals is enforced by a magistrate backed up by the vindictive winners of the most recent chapter of the culture wars. But before we can discuss that, we must discuss the tone and manner of how we address the public square. And on that level, this pledge is marked less by legal prudence and more by a posture that attempts to look courageous and prophetic but that is actually a timid, meek act of surrender that needlessly weakens the position of orthodox believers.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).