Andrew Sullivan has a nice, short explanation of something I've had a hard time getting across to most conservatives. Civil marriage as it exists right now has nothing of what conservatives seem so hard-pressed to preserve. Britney's so-called marriage (which now legally never happened) is just an extreme example of this. What conservatives don't seem to see is that the general attitude most people have toward marriage is that it isn't any different from what the homosexual community wants when they call for civil unions.
I feel really conflicted on this issue, as I do on the use of racial terms. On one level, racial terms seem arbitrary and inappropriate, given the scientific reality that we're all one race. On another level, real injustices can't be addressed, and real cultural trends and attitudes can't be measured and evaluated, without them, so they're necessary. In an ideal world, there would be no need for such terms.
The conflict I feel when it comes to marriage is between two principles that I think are both true (and derive from Christian views that other people will likely find totally implausible). On one hand, I believe two people are married when they have sex. I think it's best if they make that marriage explicit with vows before God before they go ahead and really get married. Thus many more people are polygamists, polyandrists, and adulterers than think they are. My recent discussions with Will Baude of Crescat Sententia have more information on why I think this. Consent to sex, as I see it, is the deepest kind of commitment anyone can have to anyone else. People often engage in it without having the less significant commitments of agreeing to be with the person for the rest of your life, but most people don't see this and wouldn't agree that that's what they're doing. Still, I think they've basically married the person physically and are backing out on that agreement once they've moved on to someone else. For some biblical arguments for this view, see Gordon Hugenberger's FAQ on this issue.
On the other hand, most civil unions (called marriages) reflect so little of what marriage is supposed to be. Marriage, for most, involves nothing of a spiritual union, nothing of reflecting the relationship between Christ and the gathering of believers, nothing of reflecting the relationship between the Father and the Son, nothing of the desire to raise children in a godly environment to love and serve God, etc. Given this, I wonder if it's worth calling them marriage anymore. This, as I said, creates a real tension with the other point, since any civil union is marriage as long as sexual union occurs. Many other relationships are also marriage in that sense. Then how could we go so far as not just to deny that someone who has had sex is married but even to deny that someone legally married is married? In one sense, they're certainly married, but in another what they have is so far short of the ideal for marriage that it's hardly worthy of the name. I don't know what to think of this tension, but it's there.
Now how should the Christian who takes this view respond to the current situation? The only thing I can think of is to have two levels of discourse. On one level, I think Christians need to continue to make the case that sexual union is a much deeper commitment than secular society thinks it is, and people who take it lightly and move from partner to partner are really harming themselves and their relationships, not that they can see this. On another level of discussion, I think we need to emphasize that whatever Britney Spears had for these couple days, and indeed the average secular union, is not marriage. One way to do this would be to have something like the distinction between covenant marriages and civil marriages, as Louisiana does. I'm not sure this goes far enough (but then again it also seems to go too far, because of the other issue). It doesn't go far enough because it only addresses the issue of divorce and not all the other elements of marriage missing in a mere civil union. However, I'm not sure how you could get away with adding religious elements to a legal marriage that goes beyond civil unions, at least in the current era of obsession with separation of church and state (which isn't in the Constitution and wasn't ever intended to be a removal of all religious language from anything remotely connected to the government but more just a prohibition of a state religion).
The moral of the story (and why on one level I strongly agree with what Sullivan is saying): What the homosexual community wants to do is slightly further along this line than the Louisiana law, since it distinguishes between marriage as some sort of religious union with at least a desire for eventual procreation or childrearing (which LA's covenant marriages don't do, since they just disallow the option of no-fault divorce). Civil unions need no such connection to religion or to procreation and/or children. So on one level I really would love to see the civil union thing come in, because it will demonstrate the difference between a mere civil union and a marriage. If there's such a big difference between what I have with my wife and what Britney Spears had for these couple days, why is it such a bad thing if two men or two women want whatever she had for a longer time? I just don't get the insistence against such civil unions. Won't it strengthen the notion of marriage, separating it from the weakened notion of marriage that allows such frivolous things as her activity this past weekend to be called marriage?
Incidentally, I think Sullivan's own more extended arguments (from conservative premises) for full-blown marriage (and not just civil unions) are some good arguments why someone coming from a biblical perspective would want to resist the fuller notion of gay marriage. For now at least (but perhaps not permanently) I'll leave it to the reader to figure out what I mean by that.
[Concluding Unrelated Postscript: The link above is slightly higher on the page than it should be, but that was the closest link he included in his page. Besides, the dictator/doctor thing on Howard Dean is interesting too. I have the same sense about most doctors, and Dean doesn't seem any different. I don't get that from Bill Frist from observing him and hearing him speak, but what he's being accused of doing recently with the medicare legislation makes me wonder. (I should say that the two doctors in my congregation don't seem like this.)]
Update (on the doctor thing): Someone at the Washington Post beat Sullivan to the punch on Dean's doctor personality. I should say while I'm thinking about it that our family doctors and the doctors who have delivered our children aren't like this, but virtually every other doctor (besides the aforementioned ones in our current congregation) that I've seen in a professional context fits this profile very well.