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Letter to the Editor

By Louis R. Evans

To the Editor:

John F.M. Kocsis's article, "Government, Get Out of Marriage," purports to show that marriages are properly a religious function, not a government one, and thus that governments should not recognize them. However, it gets facts wrong and arguments backward.

For example, in his argument that state-recognized marriage adheres to religious forms, Kocsis claims that "All [couples] need [to be legally married] is for their church to sanction them and the government immediately follows." But this is not true. Couples must belong to those categories that the state recognizes, and any church official who performs a legally recognized marriage does so as empowered by the state, not God(s). Every state-recognized wedding performed near Harvard by a religious official will contain the phrase "by the power granted in me by the state of Massachusetts."

Similarly, Kocsis skates briskly past his observation that "social conservatives aren’t quite right in saying that marriage was born as a religious rite" to go on to argue that it "stands as an institutionalized component in most belief systems." But let's return to Kocsis's earlier observation. Not "quite right" is a dramatic understatement; at least with regard to Christendom, such conservatives are dead wrong. Marriage was a secular function of the Roman state; luminaries as late Martin Luther argued that the medieval turn toward treating marriage as a sacrament was a blasphemous invention. We needn't consider ourselves bound by such history, but it is more than a little embarrassing for the conservative faction to be so ignorant of the history they seek to protect.

Kocsis also demonstrates a remarkable indifference to the many couples his proposal would harm. In particular, Kocsis's glib description of marriage as "divine union" "before God," entailing "eternal commitment of souls" would bar atheist and non-religious couples from marriage, as well as those who belong to faiths with rather different views on divinity, God, eternity, and the soul. This exclusion is non-trivial, and it is cruel.

Kocsis's misconceptions seem to me to flow from a central misunderstanding. Marriage is a religious institution, and a governmental institution, but first and foremost is a social institution whereby we recognize loved ones as family. Religions solemnize it, but it would survive without their benediction; governments officiate it, but it would survive without their subsidy. And both church and state have good reasons to continue their involvement, even if each one rather seriously bungles such involvement from time to time. Contra Kocsis, state involvement in marriage is neither sanctimony nor moral regulation (necessarily); instead, it is a sensible recognition of one of the central facts of our social life. What good government, if it must ignore the way in which its citizens live?

Louis R. Evans ’13

Cambridge, Mass.

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