Maybe it’s strange to think about political theology at a wedding ceremony.
But political theology was on my mind a few years ago, when I attended the wedding of a same-sex couple in my extended family. The recent victories for marriage equality in Maine, Maryland, and Washington have me thinking about political theology again. I had a Thomist epiphany at that wedding years ago, and as the levees blocking marriage equality seem ready to break, I’d like to share that experience.
My aunt Alice and her partner Lucy (whose names I’ve changed for the sake of their privacy) had been in a loving, committed relationship for over thirty years. They had been together for so long and their relationship was so stable that in my mind, they were already married. They were, simply, “my aunts.” But a few years ago, the state in which they lived passed legislation allowing same-sex marriage. Following a brief consultation (“Do we need the state to sanction our relationship? Then again, how wonderful would it be to finally get married?”) they decided to take the plunge. “After 35 years, I figured I should make an honest woman of her,” Alice said.
The day came, and family and friends gathered expectantly to celebrate. It was a truly joyous community. The joy was partly rooted in the normalcy surrounding a relationship that had, for so long, been deemed “not normal.” It was a relief to celebrate my aunts as they deserved. It was especially poignant to see my aunts’ families there in support of their union. My aunts’ parents were aging, and had traveled considerable distance for the ceremony. Their presence was all the more poignant because Lucy’s parents had withheld their approval since the relationship began.
I would bet that of all the merry-makers, I was the only one with political theology on the mind. When the wedding weekend came, I was a graduate student in Christian ethics. My studies and experiences had convinced me that Augustine had correctly described the human predicament in City of God. We human beings are sinners, and love ourselves to the contempt of God. This default condition of excessive self-love leads us to dominate our neighbors. Thus, the function of law is to restrain sin, protect the innocent from the wicked, and establish the tranquilitas ordinis until the time between times reaches its conclusion. Augustine’s vision of the nature and function of law is often described as dark and somber. I figured it accurately described life in a world increasingly marked by perpetual war and globalized capitalism. Is not restraint of sin the obvious task of law?
And yet, as the chapel filled with Lucy and Alice’s family and friends and with real, authentic love, I started to rethink my unflinching allegiance to Augustine. More specifically, I felt drawn to embrace the political theology of Thomas Aquinas. Thomist thought departs sharply from Augustinian political theory on the question of the basic task of law. For Aquinas, the function of law is to promote the common good and foster virtue in the people who obey it. Rulers guided by reason will create legislation that orients people toward collective and individual happiness. People guided by reason will follow this legislation, and grow in virtue as a result. Until Alice and Lucy’s wedding, I hadn’t given this Thomist vision of the function of the law a second thought. It seemed hopelessly unmoored in the brutal behaviors of actual human beings.
The pull of this Thomist vision of the law’s function began tugging at me harder and harder as the band began playing, and the shy flower girl (Alice and Lucy’s granddaughter, escorted by her fearless father) initiated the ceremony. It peaked when I looked to the rear of the chapel and saw Lucy, standing with her father, ready to walk down the aisle. For decades Lucy’s father had refused to acknowledge his daughter’s relationship. Over the course of more than 30 years, the family had learned to live with varying degrees of alienation and resentment. But on that day father and daughter were reconciled. Lucy’s dad, now in his mid-80s, was beaming as he walked with his daughter to the front of the chapel.
It is obvious to me that the law created a dramatic change in Lucy’s father. Before the state gave legal approval to same-sex marriage, he had refused to acknowledge her relationship. But the law’s passage was a catalyst in leading him to acceptance. I don’t know how or why a change in state law had such an effect. But it is clear that it did. In this case, the Thomist vision of the function of law was vindicated. On that day, the law led to the common good. Families that had been estranged were reconciled in celebration of real love. And on that day, the law fostered virtue in Lucy’s dad. His joy, compassion, and fatherly pride were palpable. (There’s a picture of the two of them walking down the aisle, with me in the background, weeping. Thomist epiphanies can be emotional.)
Recalling this experience, I am very glad to think of what might happen in the coming months in Maine, Maryland, and Washington. Same-sex marriage is not only about fairness in applying and recognizing legal rights (although it is certainly about that, too). Same-sex marriage also has the capacity to remove stigma and reunite estranged family and friends. In the case of law permitting same-sex marriage, the Augustinian political vision is too narrow. These laws can facilitate the common good, and they can help us grow in virtue.
Daniel A. Morris graduated from The University of Iowa in 2012 with a PhD in Christian ethics. He is currently a Bergendoff Teaching Fellow at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL. He enjoys riding bikes with his wife, Kate, dancing with his four-month old daughter, Parker, and throwing sticks for his dog, Samson.