The Toaster Marriage Canard
Faith & Politics8

The Toaster Marriage Canard

Desiring God yesterday, in a blog post more implication than assertion:

A 1951 laughable thought: In 60 years the President of the United States will refuse to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

A 2011 laughable thought: In 60 years the President of the United States will refuse to exclude from marriage a man and a chimp.

Are you laughing?

Obviously this comes on the heels of President Obama’s announcement that his administration would decline to defend legal challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act.

For as long as there have been social conservatives, there has been the threat of chimp marriage, or dolphin marriage, or christmas tree marriage. Judging from the news, one could even allege these fears have borne out.

Let’s start out with a definition of marriage. “Between a man and a woman” is not it, or at least the definition does not consist in that. Lots of things happen between a man and a woman that are not marriage, from business relationships to one-night-stands. I’ve even argued that weddings do not necessarily inaugurate a marriage. Clearly we will need something a bit more substantiative than “between a man and a woman”, even if that does make it into the definition.

When we dig a little deeper, we discover that the Church means something entirely different by marriage than does the state. This is easy to miss if we stay focused on the “between a man and a woman” part. In the US, there are “1,138 statutory provisions in which marital status is a factor in determining benefits, rights, and privileges“. As far as the state is concerned, marriage is a contractual framework which gives two people certain legal rights and duties vis-a-vis one another – and nothing more.

To the Church, however, marriage is laden with so much more meaning. Not only do the partners have responsibilities and duties to one another, but they have the privilege of playing out on a microscopic scale the relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:32).

Is the duty of the Church therefore to invest state marriage with as much meaning as its own marriage has? One would think so, from the rhetoric of the Right. But what good does it do the Church? What glory does it bring to God to pretend we advance his kingdom by addressing only the most external manifestations of sin, and that in a decidedly non-Christian (i.e. legal) way?

Toaster marriage and chimp marriage, therefore, make no sense under either definition. Toasters and chimps do not have souls, so they cannot partake in the symbol of Christ and the Church. And they have no minds either, so they cannot enter into contracts. Our friends who have wed dolphins and Christmas trees have neither a legally recognized marriage nor a spiritual marriage. They have simply put on a ceremony of no legal or spiritual significance and called it something it wasn’t. Nor could such marriages ever be legally recognized. How do you file taxes with a chimp? How do you give a toaster visitation rights? Even if the slippery slope is relevant to the Church, it ends at humans, for anything else simply has no meaning before the law.

But in fact, the slope is of no relevance at all to the Church. The Cato institute exhorts Congress to “make it clear that civil and religious marriage are not the same institution“. Not that we have different definitions for the same thing, but that we’re talking about two totally different things. And the Church cannot wait for Congress to declare the separateness of the two institutions either. “If the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts?” (1 Cor. 6:2). If the Church is to lobby and advocate, it must forswear futile efforts and take leadership in making it clear: the president defines civil unions. The president does not define marriage. Obama’s decision is not an act of national apostasy; it’s an act of honesty. If marriage is simply a bundle of contracts, why would they not be open to any two (or three, or however many) people, except that we’re confusing it with something sacred?

The sanctity of marriage is no more threatened by gay “marriage” than is the “institution” of salvation by the reprobate. If both are instituted by God, then “what God has therefore brought together, let no man separate” (Mark 10:9). That’s not “please don’t separate”, but “you are not able to separate”: not divorce, not illegitimacy, and certainly not gay marriage.


Conservatism, Marriage, Policy, Barack Obama, John Piper


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  • 1

    Starving Artist

    Mar 02, 2011 at 14:44 | Reply

    Amen to that!

    Also, nice photoshop.

    Do you think there are any other ways that the United States has the impulse to merge spiritual institutions with their legal/contractual counterpart? I feel like there are probably other instances, but I couldn’t think of any off the top of my head.

    • 2

      Cameron Harwick

      Mar 02, 2011 at 17:35

      I can’t think of any for the US, but back after the Peace of Augsburg when there were national churches in Europe, baptism served both a spiritual and a civil purpose. This is why credo baptism was so controversial when it was reintroduced, because it meant so much more than just the theological point. Without infant baptism signifying both citizenship and church “membership” (anachronistic I know, but you get the idea), churches were no longer necessarily coextensive with nations. Credo baptism was a sledgehammer driving a huge cleft between church and state.

      I could hope that in 400 more years, the thought of a civil union signifying a marriage will be just as ridiculous as we now find the thought of being born into a church.

  • 3

    Jeff-Katherine Graver

    Mar 11, 2012 at 17:32 | Reply

    The question comes as to whether or not the state should be trying to push for Christian Marriages within their laws because of its not just moral, but economic benefits as well. I understand your argument completely and yes, nothing will break the Rock on which Christ found the church. However, there is a possible argument to say that legislating certain ideals will ultimately lead to a more prosperous society that creates an ideal situation for the maximum amount of flourishing.

    • 4

      Cameron Harwick

      Mar 11, 2012 at 17:37

      I’m not convinced that that’s the case (I think it would be better to have the govt get its boot off the family – i.e. significantly reform/abolish the welfare state – than to have it “protect” the family), but I can accept that argument. My beef is with Christians who say “It’s morally wrong, therefore, legislation”.

    • 5

      Jeff-Katherine Graver

      Mar 11, 2012 at 19:11

      Yes I agree with you there. I will say, you made a great argument for not voting for the legislation. One of my profs, one who I really respect, wants us to vote for it. So it was an interesting post. I personally vote for liberty :) (except for the case of abortion..I think that is murder and should not fall under liberty, because abortion by def. is interfering with that baby’s liberty)

  • 6

    Ben Triplett

    Mar 12, 2012 at 17:50 | Reply

    Cameron…one point I’ve heard, which I think is interesting: would this give the gov’t a foothold to legislate against churches/ministers who refuse to ordain a marriage? As you know, I’m wholeheartedly in agreement with the separation of Church and State, in order to distinguish the two (which both sides seem incapable of doing at this time)…but could there be implications down the road for the gov’t further legislating against the Church?

    Also, while I realize to whom I am talking, I wonder if refusing to participate in the vote both counts a vote of apathy towards any value in the purpose of gov’t, and likewise removes a vote of confidence in the cultural idea of homosexuality? I’m sure that you have your reasons for being a Christian who wishes to influence the gov’t, but I’m curious if you might speak a bit to those reasons. (I’m toying with some Christian Anarchists right now, and find the idea intriguing, I suppose)

    • 7

      Cameron Harwick

      Mar 12, 2012 at 20:26

      You’re right, it seems that’s the widespread fear. But if there are two wrongs that could be committed, does it justify continuing the first to prevent the second?

      It seems to me also that the impetus for legislation against ministers will be defused if Christians stop supporting laws like these. If they grab the pendulum from us, they will have more momentum than if we deliberately place the pendulum at bottom.

      Or, to put it a different way, the goal shouldn’t be to codify our definitions; it should be to have no definition codified at all. Get the state out of marriage, out of adoption, out of hospitals, out of schools, etc, etc, etc.. If Christians hold the reins at one point in time and establish their own definitions, it couldn’t be any easier for the Church’s enemies to use that same apparatus once they get control and just change the definitions (hence among many other horror stories the Right would point to). It’s the Constantinian chickens coming home to roost, and probably the Church’s proper judgement for consorting with the state.

      (If there is to be a political goal, anyway. Nothing wrong with not voting, though I think the “withholding consent” case against it is overstated.)

    • 8

      Ben Triplett

      Mar 12, 2012 at 22:38

      I get it…to codify marriage in the public sphere is to hand over a sacrament for mundane discretion.

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