No Theology of Marriage

Matthew Lee Anderson over at Mere Orthodoxy notes something important about the nature of Protestants — particularly evangelical protestant, but not not exclusively — and their relationship with the state and politics:

For the past thirty years, evangelicals have sowed an anti-political wind, and now in 2016 they are reaping the Trump whirlwind. Having stoked the affections of alienation and disenfranchisement, evangelical leaders have this cycle scrambled to prevent the laity from voting on them. But those political passions have deep roots, which is why popular evangelical support for Trump has not (yet) diminished. In 2010, James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World argued that the Religious Right’s political approach has been shaped by a Nietzschean will to power, which aims to enforce its will through “legal and political means or to threaten to do so,” rather than persuading others or negotiating compromises. This interdependence between the evangelical world and the government has a long history in American life: From Prohibition to the Comstock Laws, evangelicals have been particularly keen to pursue legal remedies for moral problems. Paradoxically, then, while evangelical Protestants have made much in recent years about maintaining a sphere of life beyond the reach of the state (the family, the church, and so on), they themselves have been an instrumental part of the politicization of everything.

This is particularly evident in how Protestant churches approach marriage.

On marriage, the recent source of so much consternation within the evangelical world, the problem of how the church and state interact is particularly acute. As University of Chicago legal theorist Mary Anne Case has observed, evangelical Protestants are uniquely dependent upon the State for their marital practices. As they do not have their own formal divorce or annulment proceedings and courts, evangelicals have outsourced such statuses to the states. Such intimate integration of the church and state, Case argues, has a historical lineage: The Puritans themselves viewed marriage as a political contract, rather than a sacrament, to the extent that in some cases preachers were not present so as to not confuse the church and the state.

Protestants have no proper theology of marriage that does not involve the civil magistrate. “[W]eddings and the married estate are worldly affairs, [so] it behooves those of us who are ‘spirituals’ or ministers of the church in no way to order or direct anything regarding marriage, but instead allow every city and land to continue their own customs that are now in use,” wrote Martin Luther in his Marriage Booklet for Simple Pastors (1529), with an exchange of vows in front of (and not in) the church. Because of this, the Protestant understanding of marriage as solely a civil and worldly affair (though one ordained by God and one which men and women should take very seriously), demands that the church and the state sing in close harmony from the same hymnal, so to speak.

Anderson also notes what happens when this arrangement goes awry:

This narrow identification between the religious community and the political order, however, has generated a strong sense of grievances at the shifts in political opinion, grievances that the Roman Catholic community and Black Protestant churches do not feel as acutely given their long history as outsiders. As Case writes, for evangelicals, marriage law “could be put in service of sectarian ends by groups that substituted capture of the state institution for development of their own clearly religious alternatives.” When those institutions were lost (as the public schools were in the 1960s), an acute but understandable sense of oppression gripped the evangelical political life. Hunter’s analysis concurs, identifying ressentiment as the corollary of the political will to power. For evangelicals,“injury—real or perceived—leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on whom they see as responsible.”

Protestants need what Catholics and Orthodox already have — a theology of marriage that pays no heed to the civil order. That can pronounce a “marriage” absent any legal declaration that a marriage exists. Lutheranism, the confession to which I still rather begrudgingly belong, has the tools to do this if Lutherans so chose. Philip Melanchthon, in his systematic theology Loci Communes, came close to pronouncing marriage a sacrament. And this would have helped Protestants think more clearly on the subject. Protestants treat marriage as if it were a sacrament (“it has God’s word on its side,” Luther wrote), but do so largely for sentimental, and not solidly theological, reasons.

(Though to be fair, you can find a lot of tawdry sentimentality about marriage among conservative Catholics as well.)

One of the reasons I am not convinced much of Protestantism will survive its encounter with Modernity is that Protestantism identifies too closely with the means and ends of the nation-state and with liberalism, the governing ethos of the nation-state. (Even the illiberal nation-state.) Protestants seem unable of conceiving of a social order in which they are not active, meaningful, and even powerful participants. In doing this, Protestants have surrendered any understanding of church that is separate from nation and state (this led 19th and 20th century Protestant theologians to focus exclusively on society and state as God’s agents in history, relegating the church to mere social club in mass democratic society, a meaningless relic from a bygone age in which divine agency in history passed to those more powerful than the church), and even as they herald a separation of church and state (at least from the standpoint of governance), they still need the state in ways Catholics and Orthodox don’t — because the churches of Rome and Constantinople created their own governing institutions (to either rule, as Rome did, or to survive conquest, as the Orthodox did). And Protestants fight for the state, for their influence and control.

Because they are theologically lost without it.

2 thoughts on “No Theology of Marriage

  1. It was Augustine who first started the idea of marriage as sacramental. Earlier church fathers thought differently, and of course the eastern Orthodox did not follow Augustine’s lead. I think it was Tertullian who (much earlier) called church-sanctioned marriage “a license for fornication”. In the world generally, marriage was usually considered a political and economic contract, and it had no relevance to the classes of people who had no significant assets.

    Times and places where church was not joined to state have been an exception. Armenia was a Christian nation before Constantine. In east and west, the rule has been ‘Christendom if possible’. (I’m not saying it should have been.) Only in those places in the east where Islam came to dominate, or in missionary congregations has the church functioned as a minority at the mercy of the state. There was the epic conflict between popes and emperors in the 11th-12th centuries (and with French kings later), but the upshot was that the Papacy sought temporal power. John Paul I (who was pope only about a year) said that the hardest change for him to accept among the Vatican II innovations was giving up the imperative that the church of Rome was to be made the unique established church wherever possible. Lutheranism developed under the sponsorship of local nobility. Calvinists, on the other hand, never had such protection at first (except in Geneva, and eventually, after much conflict, in Holland), and widely suffered persecution so severe that Calvin had to find a loophole to his preference for nonresistance. The result was a religious movement which was also a political movement from below, rather than from above — something unheard-of before (except for some local ethnic and peasant uprisings and ‘heretical’ movements, all easily crushed by state power). This movement ultimately failed in France, but succeeded in Scotland (until the Restoration) and overturned a king in England – a victory which lasted only a couple of decades in the motherland, but established the norm in the American colonies. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which began with St Stephen but culminated with Protestants executed by Catholics, was very widely read in many editions both in England and America, perhaps second only to the Bible. It’s horror at the idea of the possibility of a re-establishment of the Roman church became a central part of the culture of the English-speaking world. As recently as the 1960 election, many people in the US were seriously concerned that a Kennedy presidency would mean policy dictated by the Vatican. (Would the Pope have required that Jack have affairs only with Catholic women, or only non-Catholics?)

    I begin to think that there are only two possible arrangements: Either Christianity is a form of politics from below, formed by conflicts and controversies among differing factions at every level of society (something which became possible only with the invention of the printing press and widespread literacy); or else Christianity is a part of the social order imposed from above, a ceremonial and spiritual adjunct to the temporal state. I include minority Christian populations in lands dominated by other religions in the second category. They must make accommodations with the powers-that-be in order to avoid being persecuted to the point of extinction, and so they become accomplices of the dominant social order, albeit sometimes secretly subversive ones, just as Jewish synagogues prayed every day for almost two millennia, “that the Temple may be rebuilt, speedily and in our days”.

    Here I am speaking of Christianity in its social aspect. The gospel is mostly about other things. But any follower of the gospel is still a social creature (even an anchorite in a crevice, or a would-be-recluse like me). So in any aspect beyond immediate face-to-face human relationships, Christianity can’t help being political. What kind of politics? We seem to find out by trial and error. Lots of error. And even so, we easily forget anything we’ve learned.

  2. BTW, the conundrum of the political aspect of Christianity is explored in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. If you haven’t read it, it is written in the form of a letter written by a dying, somewhat elderly pastor in the 1950’s to be read years later by his infant son by a much younger second wife (long after his first wife had died). He tells, among other things, about his grandfather and father, both pastors. The former was a ferocious fanatic, of terrifying aspect to the narrator as a boy, who had long ago been active in the underground railway and the conflict between pro- and anti-slavery factions in the midwest border states. He would sometimes come into his church to preach with a pistol still in his belt and splattered with blood. His son (the narrator’s father) was so horrified by this behavior that he became a pacifist. The narrator reflects on this family conflict and it’s many implications. Not an adequate summary, but there it is.

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