“Get the government out of marriage” seems to be a favorite libertarian talking point. Among Christian libertarians, “Get the government out of marriage,” sometimes means, “get the government out of sacraments.” One of their arguments for this position follows this chain of reasoning:
— Marriage is a sacrament.
— We don’t want the state administering sacraments.
— Therefore, we don’t want the state administering marriage.
Here’s what is true about this argument:
— Some marriages are sacraments.
— We don’t want the state explicitly administering sacraments.
Here’s what’s false about the argument. It implies that all civil marriages are sacramental marriages. Or, at the very least, it only accounts for sacramental marriages and does not account for non-sacramental marriages.
If we argue that the state is only in the marriage business because it is administering sacraments, and since according to the historic teaching of Christianity not all marriages are sacramental, it follows that non-sacramental marriages are not valid marriages either civilly or in the eyes of God. Fortunately, this is not the historic Christian understanding of marriage.
The historic Christian understanding of marriage is that there are two types: sacramental marriage and natural marriage. Sacramental marriage is when both the man and the woman are baptized. Natural marriage is when one or both spouses are not baptized. Natural marriage is still valid, both civilly and in the eyes of God, according to the historic Christian understanding of marriage.
Since not all marriages are sacramental, the state is “in the marriage business” for non-sacramental reasons and ONLY for non-sacramental reasons. That a sacramental marriage happens due to the state’s involvement is a by-product of the state’s involvement; it is not the reason for the state’s involvement. The state cannot take a marriage that is not sacramental and make it so.
So why is the state involved in marriage? For a robust treatment of the civil, non-sacramental, reasons the state is involved in civil marriage, see this series by Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse at the Public Discourse:
Sometimes I get the impression that these Christian libertarians feel that currently married Christian couples’ marriage sacraments are somehow harmed by the inclusion of same sex couples into marriage. Statements such as “We need to protect the sanctity of marriage,” and the like give me this impression. I may be wrong, but if I’m not, it is important to note that nobody’s current marriage sacrament is harmed by the inclusion of same sex couples into the institution of marriage. Christ’s sacraments cannot be harmed by any civil authority or by any earthly actions.
Having said that, please do not misunderstand: Christ’s sacraments are not harmed by the inclusion of same sex couples into marriage, but something else IS harmed. Here’s what’s harmed: the explicit and essential purpose of marriage, which is to attach mothers and fathers to their children and to one another.
So we don’t need to defend the sacrament of marriage, but we do need to defend marriage as a gender based institution, one that explicitly attaches mothers and fathers to their children and to one another in inviolable bonds.