I was talking with my friend, John, recently about the wonderfully vigorous national conversation about marriage sparked last month by the Supreme Court hearings on Prop 8 and DOMA. John agreed with a politician who publicly expressed a fear that straight people might pretend to be gay so that they could get the special benefits of having a "gay marriage." I shared with him how this made no sense to me.
John helped me see that the presumption behind this is: The state rewards marriage in order to support the children. This would make gay marriage "profitable" because the couple would have no children but still reap the benefits awarded by the state to them as married.
This raised an interesting question, one I saw hovering over the discussion both inside and outside the Supreme Court: What is the state's interest in granting privileges through law to married couples?
In other words, what is the purpose of marriage?
For many who have come to embrace the freedom to marry for same-sex couples, that question may be irrelevant. In a country that deeply values individual freedom, all that matters is that the state not interfere in deeply personal life decisions.
While I strongly support the personal freedoms associated with marriage, I also believe that marriage strengthens our communities and humanity. If community is like a beautiful quilt that binds all of us together, then marriage is one very important set of stitches that connect the fabric of humanity.
We can, perhaps, agree that the basic purpose of marriage is, as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Directory for Worship says, "For the well-being of the entire human family." The love and commitment forged through time between two people -- what we call marriage -- is crucial for a healthy society. But why?
As John and I continued our conversation, I came to learn that John's support for the politician's "special benefits" argument was based on the idea he shared that lesbian and gay couples don't have children. He listened carefully as I explained that many same-sex couples are wonderful parents to children.
Surely we can agree that the children of gay and lesbian parents benefit when their parents are able to marry as the whole family receives the special supports granted by the state to married couples. The family is the most ancient form of community -- and supporting marriage is one way we support the family. If we accept that one purpose for marriage is to support the nurture of children, then we must also acknowledge the truth that all married couples, including same-sex couples, can have children.
The Episcopal Church includes "procreation" in their statement on the purpose of marriage in The Book of Common Prayer but it trails behind "mutual joy" and "the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity."
The PCUSA speaks of "a covenant" in response to a call "to live out together before God their lives of discipleship" and "a lifelong commitment to each other, publicly witnessed and acknowledged by the community of faith." I pointed out to John that my church, the Presbyterian Church, (U.S.A.), does not mention children in its description of marriage.
Perhaps, that's because marriage has other purposes that benefit all of us in community together.
For many people of faith, we find one of these in that first moment in Genesis where after placing Adam in the garden, God declares, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper to be his partner" (Genesis 2:18).
Humans are communal. We are stronger when we are together than when we are alone. First and foremost, marriage allows us to form the loving bonds of care for another that have helped us survive as a human race.
There are other important forms of community that nurture us as humans. Jesus teaches this when he says to the crowd, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it" (Luke 8:21). Jesus sees beyond the family to other ways people connect and live well as a beautiful whole like a patchwork quilt.
Marriage, family and faith are not the only ways that we can be connected to one another. Friendship is yet another. John and I are friends. We may disagree on the purposes of marriage, but we can agree on this: It is not good that man be alone. We don't need to quote Scripture to come to that conclusion.
We cannot stop same-sex couples from being together. But when we discourage it, when we make it harder, we tear at the stitches that bind our beautiful quilt of community together. Neither of us wants to do that.