Don’t be shocked: I Vote For Tradition

The Proposition 8 vote in California continues to ripple outward in every-increasing circles.   I knew Prop. 8 was not just a pebble tossed haphazardly in a pond; I thought it was a fairly substantial rock.  As it turns out, it was a boulder of unprecedented proportions.  And the ripples are large and will continue for a long time to come.  


Setting aside the retaliatory hatred that some members of the gay community (a phrase I hesitate to use because I do not believe that all gay people are of one community as this context proves) have shown toward supporters of Prop. 8, I think the ripples have been a force for positive change.  For myself, these ripples and the entire debate have brought my thought process down to its most fundamental (another word I hesitate to use for fear of being misconstrued, especially in this context) levels. 


While most of my concern during the debate was about what we are teaching our children and the hypocrisies exposed by the campaign, some of the other issues that have been rippling through my mind are of much broader significance.  They are issues of how we, as a country, can remain united in some common principle as we resolve this debate.  They are issues regarding the role of the government in our personal lives and the role of religion in our political lives.  They are issues of what exactly the nature of marriage is. 


Then, the details, struck me.  During the debate, Prop. 8 supporters talked about tradition and the sanctity of marriage.  I have always thought I knew what sanctity meant:  something is really, really special.  Well, obviously, that definition was insufficient for this debate and, while I have not yet checked the Oxford English Dictionary, a quick web search pulled up these definitions:


1. Holiness of life or disposition; saintliness.

2. The quality or condition of being considered sacred; inviolability.

3. Something considered sacred.


These definitions sound very religious to me.  What is sacred, saintly or holy is, clearly, a matter of religion.  Of those definitions, only “inviolability” seems to be a non-religious definition – something that, perhaps, our government might be concerned with.  My quick dictionary lookup defines inviolable as incapable of being transgressed or dishonored.  But, in fact, our government is not concerned with inviolability or it would not permit divorce except where some greater principle takes precedence.  Many have suggested that the logical route to protecting the sanctity (read inviolability) of marriage is to outlaw divorce. 


I think there are greater principles that take precedence.  In some cases, the inviolability of marriage is transgressed not by divorce but by the acts that precipitate it: abuse and neglect, adultery, failure to uphold the marriage contract itself.  Marriage is, after all, simply a contract between two people.  Granted, it is a contract that our laws imbue with innumerable rights and obligations automatically, regardless of the actual intent of the parties.  Should our laws limit the rights of two adults to define their contract as they desire?  I think not. 


So, when our political process results in an act intended by most of its supporters to protect the sanctity of marriage, are we establishing religion?  Are we simply protecting the free exercise of religion by those who agree regarding what is holy?  Are we hampering the free exercise of religion by those who do not find the same thing holy?  Or, are we simply stating as an electorate that marriage should be inviolable? 


If the latter, the logical course, which many have suggested, would changes in the divorce laws.  Perhaps “no fault” divorce is justified by no greater principle.  It is worth a healthy debate – more worthy than a debate about limiting the right of gay people to marry.


I propose, instead, as have many others, that the government get out of the marriage business entirely.  Leave “marriage” to religion and the personal contracts entered into between two consenting adults (of whatever persuasion).  If the many rights and obligations are worthy of being incorporated into those contracts, provide a mechanism for registering the union of the two people, so that it is clear who has those rights and who is bound by the obligations. 


We should then turn the debate to the more fundamental issue of what principles unite us.

I think we can, and should, unite behind the principle that no religion or religious ideals should govern this country.  To allow even the majority’s religious beliefs to guide our laws is a risky proposition.  Majorities change.  Next year, instead of Judeo-Christian concepts, Buddhist concepts might hold sway; the year after perhaps it will be Muslim concepts.  There are many religions and any could become a majority in the future – we have no crystal ball to know.


Do we want to blow with the winds of changing majorities or truly honor tradition by holding fast to the ideals of the Founding Fathers that there should be no tyranny of the majority and that religion and government should remain separate.  The supporters of Prop. 8 will tell you that this all comes down to tradition.  The question, then, is which tradition – the founding principles of this country or a majority’s religious tradition?  I vote for our political tradition. 


1 Comment

  1. Beth said,

    November 12, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    Thanks. I’ve been arguing that this is really an Establishment Clause issues, but no one seems to be focusing on that.

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