By Tiffany Frye
“I once stood before a Conservative conference and said it shouldn’t matter whether commitment was between a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, or a man and another man. You applauded me for that. Five years on, we’re consulting on legalizing gay marriage. And to anyone who has reservations, I say: Yes, it’s about equality, but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.” David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and leader of the Conservative Party
Many people hold the view that the United Kingdom and Europe at large are wholly more liberal than the United States. A quick look through the policy issues of the British Conservative Party would assure any doubters. However, nothing I’ve seen epitomizes this situation as much as the quote above. David Cameron supports gay marriage because he is a Conservative. Replace his name with that of any U.S. Republican leader, and you would probably just assume it was a mistake.
But can gay marriage find conservative support in the U.S.? And what has created a situation in which Republicans see it as their duty to made decisions on behalf of Christianity instead of secular conservative values?
One particularly striking difference between the two countries that may have contributed to the disparity we now see with gay marriage is the separation of Church and State. Ever since Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase and James Madison codified it in the First Amendment, the so-called separation of church and state has been considered fundamental to the operation of the U.S. government and indicative of the new nation’s desire to flee its religiously oppressive Anglican roots.
The Church of England, headed by the monarchy, was once the ultimate symbol of a tyrant’s rule. But how we’ve changed! Today, the Church of England is still the church of the nation by name, but more importantly, it is separate from the government. By having an official body to rule over the religious decisions of the country, Parliament has been happily left to rule over the secular decisions unimpinged upon by the Church.
Ironically, because the U.S. has never had an officially recognized national church, Americans have turned to the government to legislate morality, and oftentimes that becomes morality from a Christian-right perspective.
The U.K. government legalized same-sex civil partnerships in 2005 and is now undergoing a consultation to determine how gay marriage might be made legal. In doing so, they are turning to the time-honored tradition of separation of church and state by attempting to create two separate definitions of marriage.
The proposal suggests that religious marriages will stay the same, but that the distinction will be made between religious marriages and civil marriages. Civil marriages will be open to any two people, regardless of sex and sexuality, who would like to be married. Religious marriage will continue to be limited to opposite-sex couples.
So it is not religious marriage they are asking for – it is civil marriage. They want to give individuals in same-sex civil partnerships the right to use the term “marriage,” just as any opposite-sex couple would. They are not redefining marriage, but instead are teasing out the differences between civil and religious marriages.
By creating two separate definitions, they are able to continue having the gay marriage debate in an entirely secular arena, leaving the Church to deal with religion. Meanwhile, in the U.S., we are stuck with trying to convince conservatives of the morality of civil partnerships.
You might argue that all of this redefining of semantics gets a bit clunky, but I think we can look to the U.K. for inspiration. Could we have two different definitions of marriage? Perhaps if we were able to urge our leaders to let go of the burden of running a church and a state, and instead to focus only on the state aspect, even Republicans would begin to see the conservative values of marriage.