08/07/2010 10:36 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Of Mosques and Marriage

In this "bipartisan" age, where Democratic pusillanimity and Republican obstinacy work in tandem to undo all hopes for "change" conjured up in 2008, we must be grateful even for small victories - no matter how tentative and no matter how compromised. We should therefore welcome the defeat, so far, of efforts by Sarah Palin and her peers, and by that hapless guardian of Zion, the ADL's Abe Foxman, to prevent the construction of an Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan; and also Federal Judge Vaughn Walker's ruling overturning California's Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage after the California Supreme Court had determined its constitutionality.

In a better possible world, houses of worship would never be welcome, but only tolerated as remnants of humanity's nonage. However the actual world is still full of believers determined not to face reality squarely, and we more enlightened folk have no choice but to deal with this stubborn fact. Thus there are times when expressions of solidarity with the faithful are appropriate, notwithstanding the fact that their purchase on reality is distorted and disabling. Mosques are no better or worse than churches or synagogues. But at least the mosque at Ground Zero makes a statement.

The professed issue for the mosque's opponents is not islamophobia, though that and crass opportunism are surely the underlying causes for their mischievous shenanigans. Their declared objection is the proposed mosque's proximity to Ground Zero. This complaint, offered in all insincerity, may be less offensive to liberal ecumenicists than invocations of a "clash of civilizations," but it is reactionary nevertheless because it encourages efforts to turn Ground Zero into a "sacred" site in the American civil religion. In fact, Ground Zero is a crime scene, and it should be treated as such. People died there en masse but people have died en masse elsewhere too. Often and not incidentally, we, or rather our political and military leaders and their offshore proxies, have ordered the hits. The best way to honor the dead is to work to end the murder and mayhem perpetrated in our name. That way too we will become safer as the likelihood of more blowback diminishes. Concocting a monument to the victimhood of the dead of 9/11 is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Then there is marriage or rather the form of marriage distinctive of the modern age. Its social functions are many, and its psychological importance can be enormous. Obviously, restricting the institution to heterosexual couples is discriminatory. But it is equally obvious that, in its present form, marriage insinuates a religious element into our collective existence. The clearest indication of this is that the clergy of various faiths are empowered by the state to act as its agents in initiating persons into this "civil estate." Could there be a more egregious violation of the separation of church and state!

The better alternative is what we now call "civil union"-- for everybody, not just homosexuals and heterosexuals who for one or another, usually excellent, reason reject marriage. In principle, civil unions could include all the rights and responsibilities of traditional marriage; this is in fact already the case or very nearly so wherever civil unions or "domestic partnerships" are permitted. Civil unions would accomplish every social purpose marriage does, but without the benefit of clergy and without reinforcing traditional religious forms of social control.

Needless to say, were civil unions all the state acknowledged, anyone who wanted to be married according to the precepts of one or another faith community would be free to be so. And hetero- and homosexual couples, joined together in civil unions, could still do anything extra they want, as many presumably would for expressive reasons. But certifying expressions of commitment beyond what civil union implies is no more the rightful business of the state than supporting religion is. The state should deal with the rights and responsibilities of the civil estate it sustains, period.

However in our still benighted age, mosques - and churches and synagogues and temples - have not disappeared or become museums (if they are of historical or aesthetic interest), and religious forms of social control have not withered away. So, with all due ambivalence, let us welcome the mosque near Ground Zero and Judge Walker's ruling. The former is still susceptible to legal challenges from right-wing troublemakers; and the right-wing troublemakers who dominate the Roberts Court might still undo Judge Walker's humane and far-reaching decision. But there are grounds for optimism on both counts. Not three, but maybe two and three quarters cheers, then, for these developments - and may future triumphs be less compromised and more secure!