Separation of church and state in marriage? Lisa Miller talks religion

Sep 15, 2011

Join religion columnist Lisa Miller as she chats about how religion impacts the news. Have a question? Join her Thursday September 15 at 12 p.m. ET as she answers your questions and discusses the week's big religious story.

In her recent column, "Separation of church and state in marriage," Miller writes about Tony Jones, a well-known evangelical pastor in Minneapolis, who is refusing to sign marriage licenses until his state agrees to give homosexual couples the right to legally marry. Jones will continue to officiate what he calls the "sacramental" part at Christian weddings. Miller writes: "At first blush it seems like an intriguing act of civil disobedience, but goes on to say, "But what Jones proposes is, at the minimum, impractical. Americans love their church weddings and they don't want to have to do separately what they usually do at once."

Tony Jones  is an evangelical and supporting gay marriage? Knocks my socks off! I think this is wonderful, but I'm sure a lot of his cohorts are consigning him to a hot place. I think this demonstrates how much of our religious practice (like that of other religions) is more social than theological. And society invariable changes.

I totally agree. "Evangelical" is an increasingly complicated word, and Jones is in a cohort of younger evangelicals who don't abide by the definitions handed down a generation ago -- especially on homosexuality and marriage but also on doctrinal matters. They don't fall into established categories.

Jones is a member of a group of Christians who call themselves "The Emerging Church," and they want to redefine what it means to be Christian in culture now. I have my questions about this movement -- but I'm glad it's happening and pushing against boundaries.

I think Rev. Jones has an interesting take in separating the religious aspect of marriage from the civil/state aspect. It took me a couple minutes to wrap my mind around it, but I think it's a good idea. How long, after all, does it take to go to City Hall and sign your licence? It's a lunch-break for Heaven's sake. It gets you your tax breaks. Then if you are into the big church thing, you do the big church thing. I'm a practicing Lutheran, and I think a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't be caught dead in a religious service make an awful lot of trouble out of the church weddings. It's not "religion" for them but tradition and display. It's a good thing to make people contemplate what they want that ceremony for.

Agree that the definitions of relgious and legal marriage require much more contemplation in our culture. Lots of European countries make couples do the legal thing first, and then, if they want a church wedding, they can do that afterward. What this means, in practice, is that fewer people do church weddings. In Belgium, for instance, almost  no one does them.


Americans are sentimental and traditional about weddings, even if -- as you point out -- much of the time the church thing isn't really about faith. I think we would have a hard time convincing the public to separate the two kinds of marriage when even Barry Lynn doesn't object too strenuously to the conflation. 

And in the gay marriage debate, it's only a partial solution, right? Because giving everyone the legal right to marry still doesn't solve the problem that some faith traditions regard homosexuality as sinful and something that needs to be fixed.

Lisa, So many of the Republican candidates for President talk about their deep religious faith and how they try to follow the teachings of Jesus. So how come no one asks how they reconcile those beliefs/teachings with their campaign pledges to cut taxes for the rich and cut social services for the poor? If their faith was so strong, wouldn't they be pledging to do the opposite?

Well, their argument is that it's "un-Biblical" to leave this kind of debt in the hands of our children/grandchildren. I don't agree with their argument, but this is one of those situations where folks cherry-pick Scripture to support their own particular point of view. I think the Bible says to take care of the poor. 

Why do you say Ryan Lizza's New Yorker piece "highlights whacko-sounding Christian influences on Michele Bachman"? Her mentors at Oral Roberts University Law School want to replace U.S. Civil Law with "Biblical Law" -- that's not just "whacko-sounding" to me but truly whacko! Rick Perry also talks about himself as a prophet. Naturally these candidates don't speak for or represent all Evangelicals, but I think they need to be taken at their word and for what their words imply, namely an American theocracy that is just as dangerous as any other theocracies the world has seen.

I agree that theocracy is incredibly dangerous. But I also wouldn't want to be branded as anything -- socialist, facist, feminist -- by the things I've read or the teachers I've had. It's very hard to know what a person who's running for president really believes personally about God/religion/faith because religious rhetoric is such a powerful vote-getter.

Most of the media coverage I've seen of Rick Perry focuses on his positions on evolution and global warming. Outside of some liberal blogs, I haven't noticed much focus on Perry's dominionist language. As we saw in The Response, he wraps Christianity in the flag, wrongly treating his religion synonymous with patriotism. When questions are raised about Perry's commitment to the First Amendment, some conservative commentators are quick to label such questions as anti-Christian. Do you think that the media's issue-based approach leaves the door open to that type of demagogic grandstanding? This reminds me of how journalists use "evangelical" to mean Christians who are politically conservative, although most of the evangelicals I know are liberals and moderates.

I'm not sure I totally understand this question. But I think demagogic grandstanding is (unfortunately) part of politics, especially in an election year. People use words, rhetoric, ideas to scare/threaten each other.

From commenter "zachhoag": I don't think that clergypeople should discourage folks from getting a civil marriage license (so perhaps that's where Tony's protest departs from my stance); but what I do believe is that clergypeople have a responsibility to distinguish between the two things. Such will lead to a more healthy (and civil) social conversation, and perhaps a less polarized political landscape.

I agree. I spoke yesterday to a friend who is recently ordained and she said that among her friends, these questions are being really carefully hashed over.  If you believe in gay rights, should you get married in a state that doesn't allow gay marriage.  If you believe that sacred vows before god are really the most important kind of vows, do you really need the legal part. These are very, very important conversations to have.

I definitely believe that couples should have their marriages legitimised by the State in order to protect the rights of any vulnerable parties. I disagree, however, that Jones' protest jeopardises this. Surely any couples in his community who wish to be wed are able to seek other means by which to legitimise their marriage? Key figures such as Jones need to take these kinds of stands to draw attention to the issue in the name of progress.

I'm guessing Tony would agree with you.

As a Belgian, I can tell you your remark about religious weddings in Belgium is a bit off the mark. Sure less people may have a church wedding now than 25 of 30 years ago, but I can assure you, for a lot of couples the church wedding is the one that counts when it comes to remembering anniversaries. (Probably because that's the one with the big party). Plus, a lot of marriages now are second marriages after a divorce, and as a predominantly catholic country, that means no church wedding.

But you have to agree that secularism in Europe is far greater than it is here, and that very few Americans are seeking to emulate that kind of secularism. The point stands: people aren't going to want to make the church wedding secondary. They just aren't.  We /should/ have a bigger conversation about what it means to be married before God, versus what it means to be married by the state.  Perhaps if we did have that conversation, fewer people would choose to be married before God. (!)

It seems to me that conservative politicians encourage the conflation of religion and politics in our minds. I don't know what Perry's religious beliefs are supposed to mean to me, but they obviously appeal to a large segment of the voting public.

I think the subject of religion makes people crazy. Good crazy, bad crazy. And in an election season, politicians want to generate as much heat as they can, stir the pot. Religious language is a good way to do this. By praying to Jesus in public, Rick Perry successfully separated "us" from "them" -- it's galvanizing in that way.

You can have a wedding ceremony without a church or a minister. I was married by a certified officient outdoors. There are lots of options between signing a paper at city hall and having a religious ceremony.

Sure.  How does that pertain to the gay marriage debate? The gay marriage debate is about homosexuals having, first and foremost, the LEGAL right to marry.

I didn't read that Jones is discouraging anyone from getting a legal marriage license at all -- I just read that he's encouraging *clergy* to recuse themselves from signing those licenses. But onto the question: How ironic a civil commentary do you think it'd be if I, a gay man in a state where I can't marry, were to get myself ordained (easily, at my independent church) and register as an agent of the state to sign marriage licenses?

Well, the irony is a little deep for me, but I say go for it. After all, there have got to be gay people working in the city clerk's office, or the courthouse, or wherever, signing marriage certificates in states where they themselves can't marry. It would be /very/ interesting to hear from some of them.

Is that few couples marry at all; even with kids. Frankly, I like the idea of it being like a driver's license that has to be renewed every 8 years.

I understand that fantasy. A friend once said she wanted her marriage to be like a lease, with an option to renew. But actually, I'm conservative on this.  I think marriage is hard, and the vows before God and the legal contract enforce a level of commitment that's good. Both for the couple and for kids.  And for society. Barring situations that are horrible/unbearable/mostly unhappy of course.

It's like religious faith. It only gets good when it gets difficult.


Thanks for chatting everyone and for all the great comments/questions. I'll be back same time next week to talk about new column, whatever it is!! You can post column suggestions on my facebook author page. or whatever else you want to post. See you next week.

In This Chat
Lisa Miller
Lisa Miller is a contributing editor at New York magazine and the author of "Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife." She was a senior editor at Newsweek, overseeing the magazine's religion coverage, writing the weekly "Belief Watch" column and editing Newsweek's prominent "Spirituality in America" double issue.

Before joining Newsweek, Miller covered religion for The Wall Street Journal. She has also worked with The New Yorker, Self magazine and Harvard Business Review.

An award-winning journalist, she is the recipient of the 2010 Wilbur Award for outstanding magazine column. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, including the Colbert Report, the O'Reilly Factor, MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, NPR and others.
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