What’s ‘sacred’ about marriage?

· long story short

Now that the Massachusetts Supreme Court has ruled it unconstitutional in that state for marriage to be restricted to opposite-sex couples, the Republicans have the culture-war wedge issue they were planning to run on in 2004 served up to them right over the middle of the plate. It perfectly divides the electorate for them, marginalizing progressives and attaching cultural moderates to the conservative side of the debate. Despite the fact that the debate disadvantages Democrats, I think it deserves a full airing.
The one thing that troubles me about the President’s reported statement yesterday is that he called marriage “a sacred institution between one man and one woman” or words to that effect. It’s not the one man, one woman part I mind. This is a legitimate position to take on marriage and there are clearly arguments, mostly from tradition to support it. No, what bothers me is a president declaring anything to be “sacred,” whether it be a sacramental institution such as a marriage or the flag of the United States.
Sacred means holy, and the president is not a pope or pontifex maximus. I frankly don’t want him talking about what’s holy except perhaps in the rhetorical sense that Abraham Lincoln used the concept when he declared that a battlefield has been sacralized by the sacrifices of the men who died there. That is clearly a metaphor and it deals with death, something that turns even the least religious among us mystical from time to time.
Frankly, I think the church/state divide goes to the heart of this issue. As far as I’m concerned, it is entirely within the purview of religious institutions to declare what sorts of unions between people they are prepared to honor as a sacrament and which they will not. Already the Catholic Church, for example, is on record as supporting only the traditional male/female form of marriage, while some Protestant sects have been performing same-sex unions as well.
The state also has the right to decide which relationships it will formalize and recognize with statutory benefits and responsibilities. This delineation might happen to match the same boundaries as recognized by this or that religion, but it should in no way be determined with reference to any religion. That is to say, I suggest that we start distinguishing between marriage, a religious ceremony and institution, and something akin to civil union, a legal status of two people.
It’s fine with me if conservatives want to argue that the state’s form of marriage should be limited to opposite-sex pairs, but the arguments mustered to support that position should not rest on religious convictions. The gray area comes when we begin to talk about tradition, natural law, or the “values” (a smoodgy word in the best of circumstances) on which our civilization was founded.
Let us first have separation of church and state, allow the churches to make their own rules about what sorts of weddings they will host and sacralize, and permit the state to determine who can go stand in front of a justice of the peace and link up their fortunes financially and legally.