I wish people would stop talking about gay marriage like it's gay marriage. It seems that, in the midst of the controversy, we've lost sight of the fact (not that we ever had sight of it) that gay marriage isn't really marriage at all. But neither is traditional marriage, at least the way people seem to talk about it nowadays. It's pointless to rehash the seemingly endless debate about whether the government should recognize homosexual unions. But there's one aspect of this debate that bears examination, because, in the end, it renders the debate itself rather pointless.
That aspect is...you guessed it: the government.
To be blunt, what passes for "marriage" nowadays isn't actually marriage, because what is under dispute in the thick of the current debate is primarily whether or not the government should provide a little piece of paper to homosexual couples designating them as "married." That's not marriage. It's merely a piece of paper. It might have some benefits and tax breaks attached to it, but that doesn't make it marriage any more than a government document designating the recipient as a turnip and entitling him to all of the rights and responsibilities thereof would make the befuddled citizen into an actual turnip.
Despite the centuries-long claim of government upon this most ancient of human institutions, there is simply no reason why marriage should be the responsibility of government. Humans are naturally monogamous. People were getting married long before there was any official form of government recognition for their unions. In fact, from a Christian perspective (and I realize that not all readers will share this perspective but many will) it is absolutely ridiculous to think of government as the agent of marriage, because Scripture is perfectly clear that marriage was instituted by God before human government even existed.
Marriage is not a function of government. Marriage is a promise made between a man and a woman before their families and community to love and hold fast to each other for their entire lives. It's not a state decree, and it's not a government document. Marriage is a function of individuals and their communities, and the government is not their community. Government simply has no business intruding in this human phenomenon; it is not its realm. Government is here to legislate and execute just laws that prevent aggression against the persons and property of its citizens, not to oversee its citizens personal and family lives. If a couple wants to legally codify their marriage, nothing is preventing them from making a contract and having it signed legally in the presence of witnesses. But it is not the piece of paper that makes them married, and much the less is it the stamp of approval from the government on a marriage license that makes a couple married. It is their promise - their vows - that initiates the marriage. Anything beyond this is merely a codification, a recognition, and this written recognition, if pursued, is the responsibility of the couple and not of the state.
Therefore, civil "marriage" is not marriage at all. It is merely a civil union, and it is ridiculous to assert that two people (or more than two people) should be prevented from pursuing a civil union (apart from any connection to actual marriage) merely because they are of the same sex. It doesn't matter what the government calls it. It's not marriage. You could also make the argument that civil unions themselves should be abolished entirely (which is my view) but the point remains, that the whole debate about whether government should recognize gay marriage is moot. It doesn't matter, for the purposes of the law, whether you think marriage should be defined as a union between a man and a woman (as I do) or whether you think the definition should be expanded to include same-sex couples, because the legal framework that is being debated is not marriage, regardless of its semantic trappings.
But doesn't this, as the conservative may object, leave the definition of marriage open for anyone to determine? Doesn't that open the door to relativism and cultural anarchy? I would answer: does not everyone have the freedom to their own opinions and their own lifestyles? If two people of the same sex want to exchange vows to each other and call it marriage, then they have every right to do so. If someone else does not want to recognize those people as married, then he has every right to his own opinion as well. We need not get caught up in the trappings of civil recognition and legitimization. Let's call a spade a spade. Whether or not the government decides to allow homosexual civil unions and call it marriage does not alter the true definition of marriage one bit. The true definition of marriage does not change because one person believes it should include same-sex couples and another believes it should not. The legal issue is a red herring, a false dichotomy, a statist imposition upon an important human issue. The government wants us to depend upon them for our definition of marriage. They want us to stake the future of society's view of marriage - one way or another - upon their decisions. But there's no reason we should submit to this control grab, no reason we should let our view of marriage become the statist view. The mere fact that government claims to define and perform marriages is an affront to the sanctity of marriage to which Christians so often appeal; if marriage is so sacred, why should we give it up into the hands of the evil, murderous, thieving, conniving, vile state, which manipulates marriage in order to facilitate its own control? We can still have a debate about the nature of marriage, but instead of focusing on the legal red herring, let's focus on truth instead, not attempting to etch our views (on either side) into the nation's wicked and bloated legal code, but instead engaging each other's positions in love and respect, moving the debate from the hands of the courts to the hands of the individuals and communities where it belongs.