Rand Paul: It's time to get the government out of marriage

I’ve read this op-ed twice and can’t figure out what the point is, apart from Rand wanting to remind libertarians that he’s anti-government and conservatives that he’s anti-SSM.

But it’s newsy, I guess, that this view will be represented at a forum as prominent as the GOP primary debates.

The government should not prevent people from making contracts but that does not mean that the government must confer a special imprimatur upon a new definition of marriage.

Perhaps the time has come to examine whether or not governmental recognition of marriage is a good idea, for either party.

Since government has been involved in marriage, they have done what they always do — taxed it, regulated it, and now redefined it. It is hard to argue that government’s involvement in marriage has made it better, a fact also not surprising to those who believe government does little right…

The 14th Amendment does not command the government endorsement that is conveyed by the word “marriage.” State legislatures are entitled to express their preference for traditional marriage, so long as the equal rights of same-sex couples are protected.

Paul’s floating this as a salve to right-wing upset about gay marriage being legalized, but what would this “solution” solve? The core complaint about SSM from social conservatives, I thought, was that stretching the definition of marriage to include gays would, over time, stretch the definition of marriage for straights too. Most gay-marriage supporters argue that letting gays marry will bolster monogamy as a norm for gay sexual culture, but Jay Michaelson wondered last year whether gay marriages might end up more often than not as open marriages, and whether that new template might gradually influence the expectations for straight marriage too. That’s what it means to “weaken” marriage — the more the institution is flexed to include cultures that aren’t monogamous, the less even straight couples might view it as permanent, exclusive, and designed primarily for child-rearing. Getting the government out of marriage so that straight, gay, and polygamist unions are all equal under contract law does nothing to solve that problem. On the contrary, eliminating the state’s role arguably weakens marriage further by reducing the gravity of the decision to marry. Libertarians will sneer that we shouldn’t need official recognition by the state to add value to our relationships, but libertarians sneer at lots of things that the rest of the electorate takes seriously. Make marriage a matter of pure contract and you might end up undermining whatever sense is still left in the culture that it’s supposed to be something more momentous than that. “Divorce” is still a fearsome term for much of the public. “Breach of contract” is not.

I think what Paul’s implying, if not quite stating, is that getting the government out of marriage will resolve the problem of religious business owners not wanting to cater gay weddings. After all, once a “wedding” becomes a matter of merely signing a contract then it’s not really “marriage,” right? You can bake that gay cake without any twinge of conscience. But … let’s think this through. For starters, Rand can call it anything he wants but most gay couples will call their contract a “marriage.” (And why not, given that their contract will have precisely the same status as contracts between straight couples?) If a religious business owner objects to that contractual “marriage” and refuses to provide services for it, he’ll be in the same jeopardy from antidiscrimination laws as he is now. If he doesn’t object to it because, hey, it’s just a contract and not a real marriage, then I’m not sure why he can’t make the same argument right now about gay marriages that are recognized by the state. Virtually all of those marriages are civil marriages, not authorized by any church. If the touchstone of a true marriage for a religious believer is God’s sanction, not the state’s, then state law should be irrelevant. The best spin you can put on Rand’s proposal, then, is that it might lead religious believers to stop imbuing the state’s authority with quasi-religious significance. Just because you’ve got a certificate from the county clerk doesn’t, or shouldn’t, mean that your union is as solemn as one taken before God in a church. Shouldn’t that be the standard for a person of faith, not whether the couple is straight or gay?

Long story short, getting the government out of marriage is at base an effort to establish equality among all forms of relationships at a moment when social conservatives are eager to argue that relationships aren’t equal. Marriage is special. It’s designed to create a durable mother/father bond so that kids have a stable family structure until they’re adults. Pulling the state out of that arguably is just another way to suggest that it’s not that special after all. Bad outcome if you’re an opponent of SSM. But maybe, from the libertarian standpoint, that’s more a feature than a bug.