Time recently published an article questioning whether it was time to do away with the use of the word “marriage” in the civil sense. Some of the individuals I interact with on-line began a discussion that revolved around the idea – sometimes stated and sometimes just an undercurrent – that neither government or religion have any place defining, codifying, protecting or legitimizing marriage (and I would probably be just in generalizing to any social contract).
All this talk about “neither the government or religion have any place” seems to be just hollow argument. The reason government has any stake in marriage is it believes that marriage provides some social benefit. If a given government thinks that marriage provides a social benefit worth protecting or codifying, it will do so. It makes little sense then to say that government has no right (or place) to do so. And government can (and has) chosen to codify or protect in the way it sees best fit. This can be with or without religious input – though the religious underpinnings of the society will undoubtedly have impact on the resulting arrangement and practice, even if established religious organizations do not. It can be in agreement, or in opposition, to the general religious and social milieu. But to say that government has no place seems more rhetoric than logic to me.
That religion has no place in defining marriage or codifying terminology and practice seems to be wishful, rather than pragmatic. As I cannot think of a religion that does not speak to the way in which human relationships (including marriage and courtship) should and can work, I think it unlikely that one could justifiably say religion has no place. Whether organized religion has a right to dictate to culture the character of that arrangement is certainly a question, but since people often make decisions based on their religious belief and practice (or lack of religious belief and practice, as the case may be), religion does indeed have an impact and a “place” in the discussion.
Changing terminology will not fix this social (and moral, to many) issue. And I believe that the same people who say that government and religion have “no place” would often run to the support of those governments and religions if they offered a hope of defending their position. The call of “no place” merely states, “If you will not side with me, then get out of my way.” In my own opinion, it is a distraction from the real discussion.