The Right-Wing “Assault” on Traditional Marriage

Donald and Evelyn Knapp, at The Hitching Post

Another day, another assault on religious liberty in the United States-or so conservative Christians claim.  The latest bee in the Religious Right’s bonnet is the city of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho’s demand that Donald and Evelyn Knapp, ordained ministers and proprietors of “The Hitching Post,” a wedding chapel, perform weddings for same-gendered couples.  If the Hitching Post fails to comply, the city will charge the Knapps with a misdemeanor which may carry a fine of up to $1,000. The Knapps have sued the city, claiming that such a non-discrimination policy violates their freedom of conscience, as they believe that the Bible does not endorse homosexual marriage, and they cannot perform such ceremonies without violating their deeply held religious beliefs. You can read much more about it here (naturally!).

This episode fits nicely in the current conservative Christian narrative, as it seems to show that the secular Left in America are not merely content to “live and let live,” but will continue to legislatively attack those who oppose their views until there is no disagreement (for fear of prosecution!) on progressive social issues. In this case, radical progressives are seeking to redefine marriage, and they are using the judicial system to silence anyone who disagrees-or so the story goes. I’d rather not weigh in on the putative Progressive Agenda; instead, however, I believe this controversy is illustrative of an incredible double-standard American Christians have (probably unconsciously) allowed to influence their thinking.  Ultimately, while I have little doubt that the Knapps are great people, who, based upon what I see on their website, genuinely care about marriage, I find that they are part of a practice that may erode the institution of marriage as much-or probably more than-any legislation: namely, the market.  Ultimately, Christianity in the West has largely fallen prey to an unwavering trust in the morality of capitalistic markets as arbiters of what is right and wrong. I think that we ought be more skeptical of where the markets lead us. This controversy over marriage powerfully illustrates a double-standard in right-wing thinking: particularly that government intrusion into marriage is blameworthy, but market intrusion into marriage is perfectly acceptable, and perhaps even praiseworthy.

How Markets Crowd Out Morals

Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel is famous for his PBS broadcasted course Justice, where he lectures hundreds of Harvard students on the nature of social justice, fairness, and the public good.  Lately Sandel has turned his attention to the question of markets and morality, and his excellent little book, What Money Can’t Buy, explores how market-based thinking erodes some of the most basic moral elements of contemporary Western society.  Instead of viewing the market as a tool, Sandel argues that we now live in a market society.

Drawing from a number of examples from social and political life, Sandel attacks the common conception that Western, capitalistic style markets are morally inert.  Instead, he argues, that in many spheres of human social life, market forces “crowd out” moral values related to those social practices and effectively change the nature of those social practices.

For instance, during the Civil War, a draft for military service was instituted across the Northern states, but a caveat was offered with respect to this law.  If one could afford it, he could pay someone else to serve in the military in his stead. Some claim that John D. Rockefeller paid a young man who enlisted on his behalf less than the tycoon spent on fancy cigars in a year.  Perhaps you share my intuition that something went awry here, but according to the law, Rockefeller and his replacement had a legal and binding contract that both parties agreed to freely.   Many of us, however, regard military service as more than a mere obligation under the law, but as a duty of citizenship.  For one to truly be a citizen, he must accept that he may be called to risk his life in defense of his country, and for someone to be able to sell that responsibility away undermines that civic duty.  Additionally, such a law allows for exemption from the demands of citizenship on the basis of income, which a seems contrary to the aims of a free and equal society.

By examining a wide spectrum of cultural experiences and practices such as paid escape from military conscription,  Sandel argues that market society deserves our scrutiny for at least two reasons:  1)in such a society, economic inequalities are increasingly exaggerated, as those who have little access to financial resources find themselves disenfranchised from social practices that should not be dependent upon income level, and 2)market societies lose their ability to value human beings and social practices as anything other than instruments for use and/or profit. When everything is for sale, nothing means anything-unless the market will bear that meaning.  It seems to me that Sandel’s analysis is valuable in the case of the Hitching Post.

Selling Access to Marriage

Traditionally, most Christians denominations have held the institution of marriage in high regard.  American evangelicals assert that marriage, though not a Sacrament (as Orthodox Christians believe), is a picture of Christ’s relationship to the church, and they take seriously the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew that a husband and wife are more than figuratively “one flesh.”  With this core value, it is unsurprising that American Christians would resist any expansion of the idea of marriage to include non-traditional same-gendered unions. So, the religious right decries recent court decisions that have overturned bans on such unions.

It seems to me, however, that the Hitching Post situation powerfully illustrates contemporary Christianity’s failure to appreciate the damage markets can impose on social practices.  For the price of 80-120 dollars, the Knapps provided church-ordained sanction to customers willing to pay the price. In essence, they are putting a price tag on Divine blessing on a union of two people.  And no one finds this problematic? Doesn’t such a business cheapen the holy nature of marriage that Christians endorse?  By marketizing the ministerial practice of marrying people, aren’t the Knapps effectively saying that all one needs to achieve God’s blessing over their marriage is 80 bucks on a Thursday, or 100 bucks on the weekend?  The message delivered by the Knapp’s business practice is that all that stuff about marriage being a sacred union of souls and a holy responsibility, symbolic of Jesus’ sacrificial love, is secondary, provided that one can pay.

Practically, it should be pointed out that did the Hitching Post not market marriage, they wouldn’t find themselves in this legal trouble in the first place. By placing a price tag on marriage as a service to be rendered for pay, the Knapps find themselves subjected to non-discrimination laws put in place to govern business transactions.  What I think they, and those who protest the government’s claims against them, fail to appreciate, is that they opened the door to such “attack” by cheapening their view of presiding over marriages as a contract for compensation.

Those who regard traditional marriage as under assault may in fact be correct, but perhaps they fail to appreciate the extent of that assault and from what direction that assault comes.

7 thoughts on “The Right-Wing “Assault” on Traditional Marriage

  1. You miss the essence of why markets are good. It’s not because of any particular outcome is good, it’s because individuals acting in a market act voluntarily. This dovetails nicely with the sentiment expressed by Roger Williams that “Religion cannot be true which needs such instruments of violence [speaking of state enforcement] to uphold it so.”

    1. Tom, thanks for the feedback. You write that markets are good because of their voluntary nature. Just to figure out where you are, does this mean, then, that you have no problem with prostitution, provided that the participants freely, contractually agree to mutually beneficial terms?

  2. If there’s no human trafficking or other coercive element or major negative externalities, that’s a generally fair statement. Coercion is, of course, endemic to illegal prostitution. I’m not an expert, so couldn’t say whether the experience is better (in public policy terms) in places where it is legal. I liked the piece overall, by the way, it just seemed thoughtful enough that I wanted to suggest you consider an aspect of markets that I think you weren’t giving enough credit.

  3. So…your argument seems to be: You can’t be a sacrament peddler and claim the privilege of clergy…but were these folks to be true Scotsmen (ahem, clergy) they would have a claim to the privilege of turning down “unwholesome” clients.

    …because the ordinary clergy are offering their various sacramental labor for free? (Ahem!

    It seems to me that we ought to expand the reach of laws that insulate certain goods and services from the market forces that enforce discrimination, (because what nobody wants to admit is that markets are not all that insulated from the moral tenor of their host societies; a bigoted society will create markets with valuations that reflect society’s prejudices.) Nobody, not even true Scotsmen, should be excused from treating all comers fairly regardless of their identities.

    The church and its sacraments are just as much an industrial complex as any other and should be regulated as such unless it actually behaves as something different from a market entity.

    1. Michael, you point out some of the implications of my argument well here. However, I’m not going that far in my claim. I’m merely trying to show that American Christians don’t apply the same scrutiny to the corrupting forces of the market as they do to the corrupting forces of government.

    2. Also, upon reflection, I think that you perhaps miss the point a tad when you write, “…because the ordinary clergy are offering their various sacramental labor for free? ” There’s something different going on here, I think, because the ordinary clergy doesn’t place a specific price tag on “sacramental labor.” Certainly, they are often compensated, but the value of-in this case marriage-is not as intrinsically affected. In the case of the Knapps (assuming this is their livelihood, and not a side business), they have to perform a certain number of weddings to keep their mortgage paid, so it seems to me that they might perform ceremonies without the appropriate consideration of marriage’s weight for simply utilitarian reasons. Does this distinction make sense?

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