Examining religion and public life
An excerpt from Rev. Nate's introduction in
It is up to both religious professionals and religious citizens to overthrow the current one-sided religious system of theolegal marriage.
It is the civic responsibility of religious minorities to articulate alternate theologies and lobby on behalf of those without equal protection under the law. It is the responsibility of clergy to refuse to play the role of de facto civil servants–religious professionals mandated by the state to sign civil marriage licenses. In other words, in a theolegal democracy the duty rests with religious citizens to use alternate theology in the public arena to ensure that a dominant theology is not established as a de facto state religion. Religious professionals need to exercise restraint to ensure that the dominant theological worldview of the day does not become the law of the land.
While it may have become “tradition” for clergy to authenticate marriage licenses, all three theolegal worldviews–separationists, integrationists and pluralists (defined in the Introduction of Whose God Rules?)–urge clergy to exercise restraint by denouncing their state-mandated de facto civil servant status. Clergy can choose not to be the sole legal authority to sanction civil marriages licenses, thereby teaching fellow citizens about their decision not to be theolegal officials. Religious professionals can reclaim their authority in several ways.
First, they can educate those who intend to marry, and their communities, about the difference between religious marriage and civil marriage. This would empower the community to take seriously their understanding of religious marriage as a sacramental rite distinct from civil marriage being a civil right. Second, clergy can ask those who are seeking legal recognition to go directly to a civil servant to confer the state-issued licenses, which is custom in numerous countries throughout the world. This would mean a judge or a county official would issue a civil marriage license. Or third, clergy can advocate for their states to duplicate the legal practice upheld in most counties in the state of Pennsylvania: the self-uniting marriage license. This allows any two witnesses to sign along with the betrothed, which relieves clergy of the obligation of serving as public officials. If clergy do sign a self-uniting license, they do so as a witnessing citizen as compared to a civil servant. Pluralists encourage this third option so that clergy can serve as one of several witnesses to sign the document. This honors the long-standing tradition of clergy conferring a civil license, choosing not to serve as a theolegal official but rather as an equal to all citizens.
Any of these three options makes a distinction between civil marriage and religious marriage and therefore preserves the separation of religion and state. Why is this not the predominant practice? There are several answers to consider.
First, most clergy take tradition at face value and remain uncritical of the contradiction of serving simultaneously as a religious professional and as a theolegal civil servant. Separationists urge clergy to consider the consequences of the state imposing a legal definition of a religious sacrament and to evaluate the repercussions of when the God of the majority is used to rule all.
Second, most clergy defer their religious authority to the state’s legal definitions of marriage, rather than take the responsibility to articulate their own theology of marriage. For example, even clergy who affirm marriage equality continue to use terms such as “union” or “commitment ceremony” instead of “religious marriage.” This diminishes the authority of the religious professional and affirms the state’s role in determining which sacramental rites come with legal privileges. Integrationists urge clergy to practice transparency by making a public statement about their theology of marriage and to practice restraint by choosing either to be a witness to a judge signing the marriage license, or as pluralists advise, to serve as one of many witnesses who collectively sanction the document as a community of equals.
Third, some clergy still deeply believe in the dual role of wedding officiant and civil servant: they believe the United States should regulate a unified religious/legal definition of marriage. This theolegal position, however, would create a law that restricts freedom of belief and establishes a state religion for all legal marriages. Pluralists urge such clergy to recognize that they are merely one of many religious citizens who deserve equal protection under the law.
In each of these three examples, the power lies with the religious professional to choose whether or not to marry theology and law. It is the responsibility of religious leaders and their constituents to preserve their right to freedom of belief by being vigilant about guarding the wall of justice that stands between religion and the state. This practice, although it prevents the establishment of a theocracy, does still contribute to a theolegal democracy because alternate theology, not secularism, is the predominant tool to counter those who want their God to rule.