Privatize Marriage Now
Reviewed by Ryan McMaken
Recently by Ryan McMaken: Hunter S. Thompson’s Last Stand
Ann Coulter, that warmongering demagogue of Conservatism, has declared war on Ron Paul. Naturally, she hates Paul because he stands for peace, free markets and the rule of law. Coulter hates of all of these things since she loves war, the police state, and the destruction of the constitution in pursuit of untrammeled political power for Conservative nationalists. In other words, like most Conservatives, she loves socialism, although she prefers to cloak her socialism in words like "national greatness," "secure borders" and "family values."
In a recent column, Coulter attacks Paul for a variety of his pro-freedom positions. In this column, however, I'll focus only on her wildly inaccurate claims about how marriage is a "legal construct" and how every good American should insist that government maintain its death grip on the institution. She denounces Ron Paul for his insistence that marriage should not be controlled by government and that people should be free to contract with whomever they choose. Coulter of course insists that marriage should be socialized, regulated and controlled by government.
Coulter counters Paul with a claim that "there are reasons we have laws governing important institutions, such as marriage." Well she's right there. There is a reason that governments regulate marriage: Governments couldn't resist the urge to seize control of marriage which was a traditionally religious and non-governmental institution.
Let's briefly examine the history and nature of marriage in the West and see just why we have laws. By "laws" of course, Coulter means secular civil laws. She's not talking about Canon Law or Church Law, which is what governed marriage throughout most of the history of Christendom.
Being a sacrament, marriage was traditionally governed by religious law and was a religious matter. The Church recognized that with marriage being a sacrament, the state had no more right to regulate marriage than it had the right to regulate who could be baptized or who could be ordained a priest.
Indeed, in the Catholic Church to this day, a couple may become sacramentally married without even the presence of any clergy, let alone a government agent. If no clergy is available, couples may simply make vows in the presence of lay witnesses. The marriage is then perfectly valid according to the Church's own law. This further illustrates the traditional, religious status in the West of marriage as a private bond between two persons. There's certainly no state-sponsored marriage certificate required.
Naturally, marriage, being what it is, did nevertheless impact the distribution and ownership of property. Who were the legitimate heirs of a married couple, for example? Could Bastard Jimmy inherit the property of his father instead of First Born Tom who was the child of both dad and his wife? These considerations attracted the state's attention.
The state hates it when property changes hands without being taxed and regulated, so the state set its sights on marriage centuries ago. Over time civil governments inserted themselves more and more into the religious institutions of marriage. This was helped along by the Reformation and by defenders of government-controlled marriage like King Henry VIII of England. As nation-states consolidated their monopolies on all law and over all institutions in society, the state finally displaced religious institutions as the final arbiter on marriage.
So yes, Ann, there is a reason that governments control marriage: They couldn't keep their mitts off it.
The natural outcome of widespread approval of this state of affairs is that governments are now seen as the institution that can legitimately define marriage itself. We now have civil laws deciding what marriage is and what it is not and who can be married and who can not.
For anyone who has an interest in actually defending the historically traditional status of marriage, this power should be viewed as both dangerous and illegitimate. Thanks to the secularizing efforts of Christian reformers and anti-Christian types throughout history, marriage gradually became for many a civil matter only. Many people get "married" in courthouses in totally non-religious ceremonies. Such marriage contracts are in essence no different from run-of-the-mill legal contracts. The fact that we call such unions "marriage" doesn't make them so. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, marriage is a religious matter. Some government judge can't make you "married" any more than can your hair dresser. Here, we see that the so-called "traditional" marriage types who nevertheless defend government civil "marriage" (as defined by them) have already sown the seeds of their own defeat. They've already removed the institution of marriage from its traditional role and status.
What they should be arguing for is the removal of civil governments from the marriage bond altogether. Couples who wish to marry should approach their religious authorities about it. Then, if they wish they can join into some kind of civil union, which is just a contract. People who wish to have a civil union but no marriage may enter into that arrangement, and those who wish for a marriage with no civil union should be able to do that as well. Marriage, properly understood, should be considered off limits from government meddling. People are welcome to contract, but if the "defenders" of marriage had done their jobs right, there would be no confusion today about what is marriage and what is a government-approved contractual union.
Unfortunately, though, when Conservatives and Christian Right types bemoan the loss of so-called "traditional" marriage yet agitate for more government control of the institution, they really have only themselves to blame since they're therefore accepting the proposition that government has the legitimate authority to regulate and control marriage. The power to regulate marriage is the power to destroy it.
This fact certainly doesn't stop Coulter. Coulter is such an authoritarian on marriage, in fact, that she even apparently supports government-mandated blood tests as a means of enhancing government control of the institution:
Under [Ron] Paul’s plan, siblings could marry one another, perhaps intentionally, but also perhaps unaware that they were fraternal twins separated and sent to different adoptive families at birth — as actually happened in Britain a few years ago after taking the government-mandated blood test for marriage.
Here she is apparently using a one-in-a-billion event to justify the forced government drawing and analysis of blood and, by extension, government regulation of who may or may not marry. I know that many Americans probably consider mandatory medical procedures to be no big deal, but all that tells us is how willingly Americans will approve of even the most invasive government regulations.
Nevertheless, some states in the United States, such as Colorado, do not mandate such things. In Colorado's case, we have a few vestiges of frontier traditions of freedom left, and we have yet to totally succumb to a traditions of Coulter-esque police-statism.
No blood tests are required, and indeed a couple can become common-law spouses with not much more than a public declaration that the marriage exists. In Coulter's view, this is pure chaos. How Colorado society manages to function without governments checking up on the health and genetics of our betrothed remains an inscrutable mystery.
And Coulter doesn't stop there. While a true defense of marriage would consist of putting it back in the hands of private institutions, that certainly doesn't fly for Coulter who says that "[u]nder Rep. Paul’s plan, your legal rights pertaining to marriage will be decided on a case-by-case basis by judges forced to evaluate the legitimacy of your marriage consecrated by a Wiccan priest — or your tennis coach. (And I think I speak for all Americans when I say we’re looking for ways to get more pointless litigation into our lives.)"
She seems to think that there are no disagreements about the terms and validity of marriage contracts under the present regime. Well, such disagreements do exist and disagreements over legal contracts are decided on a case-by-case basis right now. So Coulter isn't doing anything here other than simply exhibiting her ignorance about the status quo. One could also point out that, while Coulter presents this point as some kind of big deal, all she's really saying is that a more complex and decentralized system would be an inconvenience to some people, and that this therefore justifies more government regulation of our lives. .
Meanwhile, some societies do in fact base marriage decisions on the judgments of religious organizations. Marriage in Israel, for example, is founded on a system in which the validity of marriage is based on whether or not one's marriage is approved by a religious institution. In other words, this is essentially the system that Coulter says only crazy people would support.
Israel's system is far from perfect — there's far too much government involvement — but it is nevertheless a functional and decentralized system.
Why not let your Wiccan "priest" also be considered a legitimate authority for approving marriage? So what? Why is this the state's business? It certainly has no effect on my views about the validity and -dare I say it? – superiority of my own Roman Catholic marriage. Wiccans will disagree with me, but that's their business.
Of course, when you're a Conservative, everything is the state's business from whom you hire (no foreigners!) to what you smoke in your living room, to what your genitals feel like at the airport.
Coulter grudgingly is forced to admit that "eventually — theoretically — there could be private institutions to handle many of these matters" so we're forced to assume that she's unaware that private institutions handled marriage in Western Europe for at least 1,500 years. But this admission also shows that her insistence on government control of marriage isn't actually necessary. It's just her personal preference.
As with most Conservatives, Coulter can't imagine a world in which government isn't a massive overweening institution that regulates the personal decisions of millions of people every minute of every day. Only crazy people want freedom in her mind, and Coulter will be happy to condemn anyone like Ron Paul who dares challenge the status quo.
Ryan McMaken [send him mail] teaches political science in Colorado.