C. S. Lewis, the British essayist, author and cleric, died 41 years ago, so he wasn't writing about same-sex marriage in America. No, his subject in his book "Mere Christianity"...

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WASHINGTON — C.S. Lewis, the British essayist, author and cleric, died 41 years ago, so he wasn’t writing about same-sex marriage in America. No, his subject in his book “Mere Christianity” was divorce. Still, his observations might shed some light on our own “values” controversy today.

“I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused,” he wrote. “The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is the quite different question — how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws.

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“A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for everyone. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. …

“There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.”

Religious marriage, he was saying, is a sacrament, and the state has no more business involving itself in the rules that govern it than it has in such questions as the efficacy of infant baptism, the validity of kosher certification or the number of virgins a (male) martyr might reasonably anticipate as his reward.

But marriage isn’t only sacrament. It is also the basis on which we decide who may inherit in the absence of a will, who may make life-and-death decisions for loved ones, or who is eligible for the advantages of joint tax returns. And because it has these secular implications, the state has a legitimate role in determining who is married and who isn’t.

The church has no interest in joint filings, and the state no interest in declarations of love or religious affiliation. To the one, marriage is a sacred rite; to the other, it is the sanctioning of a contractual relationship. The church may care whether he is a philanderer or she a gold-digger, or whether there’s too great a gap in their ages. The state’s interests run to the validity of the contract.

And what has any of this to do with same-sex marriage? Maybe if we can get past such churchly considerations as God’s will as expressed in the book of Leviticus, we can make peace with the bifurcation Lewis urged in his 1952 book: Let the church handle the sacrament, the state the contract.

If we could get there, we might even calm down long enough to ask ourselves what would really be the risk in same-sex marriages. I mean, if our sexuality is pretty much hard-wired, how likely is it that legitimating gay or lesbian marriages would tempt straight people into homosexuality? On the other hand, keeping the status quo seems unlikely to turn gays or lesbians into straights.

Maybe what we are principally talking about is the effect of marriage on couples who are already involved in sexual relationships. We believe it’s a good thing for heterosexual couples to commit to fidelity. Do we think it’s a bad thing for homosexual couples to do so?

Ah, but many of the advocates of gay marriage want more than the sanction of the state. They also want the blessing of their religions. And that makes opponents understandably nervous. The “full faith and credit” clause of the Constitution is generally taken to mean that a marriage held valid by any state is valid in all states. One state, that is, could change everything. You see why some traditionalists wanted a constitutional amendment to keep the old definitions in place.

I don’t know where Lewis might have stood on gay marriage. For all I know, the cleric might have opposed any marriage except between one man and one woman. He might have urged such a view on his church.

But he wouldn’t have urged it on the state. His fear of government intrusion into matters of faith would have kept him from doing so; his proposal for “two distinct kinds of marriage” would have made it unnecessary.

In his two-tier scheme, all couples would take the contractual steps necessary for state sanction of their domestic partnership. Those who chose to — and who could persuade their religious organizations to go along — could also obtain sacramental sanction of their religious marriages.

And we all could live happily ever after.


William Raspberry’s column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com