Can this church-state marriage be saved?

LIFEembedDrawImage(85264863); Michael A. Lindenberger of Time and Dr. Albert Mohler of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary have established an interesting call-and-response on gay marriage. Lindenberger's latest report, drawing on a reprinted Mohler commentary from last Thursday, suggests a future in which conservative churches are at odds not only with the state but also with more liberal churches.

Lindenberger's report links to another story, from March 16, that discusses what may well become the heart of the conflict: What involvement should the state have in the debate about marriage? Lindenberger refers to a brief essay by Douglas W. Kmiec and Shelley Ross Saxer that urges the California Supreme Court to leave the definition of marriage to religious institutions. At the same time, some clergy want to recuse themselves from functioning as agents of the state during marriage ceremonies. These clergy want the state to enact civil marriages and churches to provide subsequent blessings of those marriages.

Let's linger on the point for a moment: For some law professors and clergy, the question of which institution establishes marriages already has become a hot potato. By comparison, it's highly unlikely that most proponents or opponents of gay marriage will surrender on how marriage is defined, or on which institution does the defining.

I think a fascinating straw poll would involve asking couples, "At what moment were you married to one another?" For those couples who were married in a house of worship, how many would trace the transformative moment to picking up their marriage license from the clerk of court?

Lindenberger makes a fundamental error when he writes this about Mohler and Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville: "So while both men are calling for courage and compassion among their flocks, it's not clear yet whether their message that homosexuals are sinners by definition is resonating beyond their staunchest supporters."

Neither Mohler nor Kurtz teaches that 'homosexuals are sinners by definition." For conservatives, the debate is about sexual behavior rather than inclination.

Otherwise, Lindenberger does a fine job of describing a conflict that has dragged on for decades -- at least in liberal Protestant denominations -- but, from the perspective of the broader culture, is only beginning.

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