Around 270 A.D.—according to one tradition, at least—St. Valentine, a Roman cleric, was imprisoned for his opposition to Emperor Claudius' decree that young men (his potential crop of soldiers) could no longer marry. Valentine performed their ceremonies anyway and was thrown in jail for his obstinacy. His belief was that marriage is too sacred a rite to relegate to the incompetence of state bureaucracy. And, on February 14, he was executed for that belief.
One thousand, eight hundred years later, the government is still confounding itself with marriage. In November, eleven states "defended" the institution by further defining it in law. Judges in Massachusetts took the reverse route, forcing gay marriage on Senator Ted Kennedy's constituency, and it was exactly one year ago that San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom performed his unsanctioned ceremonies in the Golden State. In a twelve-month span, Congress proposed a constitutional amendment to prevent homosexual matrimony, both presidential candidates backed themselves into corners debating the issue, and enough political friction was generated to make Claudius seethe with jealousy.
But at a time when churches themselves are split on these controversial issues, shouldn't we ask ourselves one very simple question: Where would Valentine stand today?
Certainly, he would be concerned with the modern institution's inconstancy. In 1997 the likelihood that a new marriage would end in divorce was 43 percent. That same year, the median duration of a marriage ending in divorce was between seven and eight years—an eternity to Britney Spears, chump change to your grandparents. More than five million couples now cohabitate rather than marry, and a million children enter new divorces each year.
But would Valentine see this as a problem of the state or of individual responsibility?
For millennia, state entities have manipulated the people through matrimonial bureaucracy. In Sparta, marriages were often arranged even as sexual partners were assigned, and pedophilia was exercised as a prerogative of the state. The legal system of the antebellum South never recognized slave marriage on the grounds that "property" could not enter into legal contracts, and in countries from Russia to Afghanistan, marriage has been used to oppress women and to assert the superiority of czars and dictators in the ruling regimes.
As we approach the anniversary of Valentine's own rebellion and denial, shouldn't the nation that pioneered a popular government of the people, by the people, and for the people" be the one that finally stands to assert the pre-governmental primacy of matrimonial privacy?
It is time to privatize marriage. If the institution is really
so sacred, it should lie beyond the withering hands of politicians
and policy makers in Washington D.C. There should be no federal or
state license that grants validity to love. There should be no
office that peers into our bedrooms and honeymoon suites. If the church thinks divorce and homosexuality are problematic, it should initiate the real dialogue to address these problems in-house rather than relying on state-sponsored coercion to affirm doctrinal beliefs. And if tax-codes and guardianships need some classification for couples, let's revise civil union standards to reflect those needs.
In his second inaugural address, President Bush highlighted the
preeminent importance of liberty and individual responsibility
noting, "In America's ideal of freedom, the public interest depends
on private character—on integrity, and tolerance toward others, and
the rule of conscience in our own lives. Self-government relies, in
the end, on
the governing of the self."
This Valentine's Day, let's live up to this call and spark a revolution in commemoration of the occasion—the very revolution alluded to in Bush's latest, and most eloquent speech. On February 14th, take a loved one to dinner. Reach out to those who are lonely. But if you really want to honor the martyr, join in the battle to take matters of personal character—matters that should precede governmental authority—out of the hands of the state.