There Will Be No House Divided: Defining Marriage and the Art of Being a Country

“A house divided against itself cannot stand. . . . It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States.”—Abraham Lincoln, 1858

 

His “House Divided” speech at the 1858 Republican Convention in Illinois was not, as we often remember it, a moral condemnation of slavery, nor was it a prophecy that slavery would (as it actually did) tear the nation in two. Rather, the speech was an expression of a simple political fact: a single body politic must eventually settle on a standard answer to its most fundamental questions.

For Lincoln, the fundamental question was, “who is a member of the political body?” Who, in other words, has rights that the state is bound to recognize. The Framers of the Constitution simply kicked this can down the road, and, as a result, the Union spent much of its first 70 years on the brink of collapse. The question was too important, too fundamental, to have multiple answers. A country that cannot answer this question definitively is simply not a coherent political unit.

The Constitution, of course, recognizes this, and it builds in mechanisms for standardizing our answers to the most important questions we have to ask at any given time. One of these mechanisms is the “full faith and credit” clause of Article IV of the Constitution. Another is the federal court system, which ensures that questions about who has what rights are answered the same way in different jurisdictions.

Enter recent federal court decisions in Utah and Oklahoma requiring the states to allow same-sex couples to marry. These decisions are the beginning of a process that has to happen—a process built into the Constitution to make sure that states don’t end up with conflicting definitions of what constitutes a right. We go through this process periodically. We have to, because the alternative is simply unacceptable.

I know very few people who do not realize (some triumphantly and some regretfully) that the same-sex marriage battle is over. Enough jurisdictions now define marriage as an inherent right of two people of any gender that the standardization of this definition is inevitable.That so many people realize this, I suspect, is the reason that the opposition to the recent court decisions has been so half-hearted. The last time we saw a major extension of civil rights, things were not nearly this quiet. Oklahoma has not declared its intention to secede from the Union. The governor of Utah is not standing outside of the courthouse with a shotgun. Nobody has rioted. The National Guard is staying put. Nobody let the dogs out.

We cannot have 50 definitions of marriage and remain a coherent political unit. We are not a country if a married couple traveling from one state to another stops being married when they go through a third. We do not grant full faith and credit when a widow has no claim to property held in common for half a decade because the state she now lives in says she was never married. We all agree that marriage is a fundamental institution, and we do not have a society if we do not have a common definition of our fundamental institutions.