By Jonathan Lindsey
In this 400th-anniversary year of Baptist history it’s time for Baptists to take the lead — and invite other ecclesiastical bodies to join them — in removing one of the final vestiges of theocracy in the United States. From the earliest days of the settlement of this country by Europeans, the theocratic practice of clergy functioning as civil officials has been practiced notably in the performance of marriage ceremonies.
Baptists who truly believe in separating the functions of church and state should have long ago protested this unholy alliance. But, becoming acculturated and benefiting from certain forms of cultural dominance regionally, we along with our Protestant colleagues have continued to practice this joining of a religious act with a civil act.
When a clergyperson performs a wedding ceremony, he or she often announces — as is sometimes required — that he or she is acting by the authority granted by the state or other jurisdiction in which the wedding is being performed. Even if the minister does not explicitly cite the civil authority they’ve been given, the act of signing the marriage license (a civil document) makes the pastor, priest or rabbi an agent of the civil authority. Thus, you have a mixture of civil and religious authority in the act.
In this country, marriage is a civil relationship, governed by the laws of the state or federal territory in which the marriage occurs, and recognized by the mutual consent by other states. Domestic affairs have been the purview of the states, normally regulated at the state and local levels. But, as a civil relationship, there are federal rights, responsibilities and benefits that accrue to persons who are married. And there are clear legal and civil procedures to engage in order to dissolve the civil relationships and responsibilities of marriage.
If we treat marriage as a civil relationship in all instances, the civil nature of the relationship would function under the authority of civil servants duly elected and/or appointed to exercise the function of declaring two persons married. Removing the civil authority from clergy would clarify the ecclesiastical authority under which clergy perform marriage. Thus, persons seeking a civil relationship only would choose a civil ceremony. Couples who desire both a civil union and the recognition or blessing of a religious relationship by an ecclesiastical authority or community would have that option. However, to choose only an ecclesiastically recognized relationship would mean to forego the protections and benefits accorded in a civil relationship.
It may be necessary that one of these relationships be declared as primary on an official basis. This is already the case to some extent, since only the civil nature of the relationship can be dissolved by civil authorities and the religious nature of the relationship can be dissolved by ecclesiastical authorities where annulment is an option.
So, it’s time to change. Where states specifically require clergy to register, that should no longer be required. In states where clergy have been accorded de facto authority, that practice should be discontinued. Marriage would then be clearly understood as a relationship defined and governed by civil laws. Where ecclesiastical blessing is sought, whether for social or religious reasons, that too would be clear.
I think Roger Williams would approve this change based on his articulation of the limits of political and ecclesiastical powers in The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution. Now, more than 350 years later, it’s time for Baptists who truly believe in the separation of church and state to help put an end to this holdover from 17th century theocratic behavior.