Mormons have this fascinating relationship with America and Americanness. On the one hand, we often seem to be among the most American of Americans. Mitt Romney’s problem as a presidential candidate was not that he was weird, but that he was too normal (in a white, 1950s kind of way). To the extent that people thought he seemed alien, it was more because of his money than his religion. American political principles seem to even be more or less written into the Book of Mormon (of course, some similar material is in the Bible, too, including a denunciation of monarchy colorful enough for even Jefferson to admire). Joseph Smith himself ran for President, and the primary reason for his assassination may have been the fact that as a candidate, he spoke eloquently against slavery.
On the other hand, before the church was twenty years old, the main body of Mormons had been essentially driven out of the United States at least twice, and the Mormon homeland in the Rockies was a part of Mexico when the Saints chose to build their Zion there. We fought and won a carefully restrained guerilla war with the Federal Army to maintain our independence and perhaps even our existence as a people and a church (mainly just by disrupting their supply chain and transportation, and arranging for them to enjoy some nice winter weather outdoors). We then treated them very kindly during their visit to Utah, while making it clear that if they fired one shot, they would all die of starvation in the desert, just like we almost had when we first arrived there. The Book of Mormon has some rather impressive stories of nonviolent resistance we may have learned from . . .
So, we Mormons have a history of needing to be creative in managing our relationship to the U.S. government, and of wanting to see restraint in the use of government power. In this context, the idea of a separation of marriage and state may seem rather appealing.
Is it a good idea for a society to regard marriage as a matter of no concern for public purposes? Absolutely not. Marriage is too important to human well-being, especially the well-being of children, for it to be seriously presented as a merely personal choice. And since every human being is a child first, and is formed for adulthood as a child, the importance of marriage can hardly be exaggerated.
However, when a society is as confused and divided with regard to what marriage should or shouldn’t be as ours is right now, the downside effects of getting government out of marriage may be a lot milder than the downside effects of one side in the controversy trying to impose its view of marriage on the other. Anyway, the authority of the civil institution of marriage has already been eroded to the point of minimal effectuality. Though most young people in America today want to be married in due time, a disturbingly large number regard marriage as having become essentially obsolete in our society (though this should be no surprise given our media culture).
Further, if we didn’t already suspect as much, the recent Supreme Court rulings on marriage seem to confirm that our court system is incapable of speaking sensibly about why marriage matters, or of even engaging in a serious conversation about it. Like religion, marriage is not an individualistic or consumeristic institution, and our public discourse at the national level rarely seems to understand anything more than individualism and consumerism.
Many of the American founders believed that religion is vitally necessary for civil order, and paradoxically, for that very reason argued that religion should not be established by the state. They believed that a religion separated from the state would be more pure and vigorous, more able to exert its beneficial effects, than a religion entwined with state power. Perhaps the same is true of marriage.