As far as modern American society is concerned, the "legal stuff" and "paperwork" is the wedding. It's the only part that's required in order to constitute a valid marriage, and the only part that every marriage has in common.
It's one thing to have the legal ceremony a day or two before the formal or religious ceremony. I understand that's standard in some countries, even required in some cases. I don't think anyone would feel duped or have cause to object to that kind of thing.
But to have the legal ceremony, and then months or years later have another (invariably bigger) ceremony and call it your "wedding" is weird. You're already married! Period!
That is not how everyone regards it. It is also not the norm among my family and friends. Maybe we're in the minority, but we are as much a part of modern American society as anyone else living here.
The "legal stuff" and "paperwork" is basically filing for joint treatment and benefits. It is not the "wedding". I know of several *real* marriages without it. Some could have the paperwork if they wanted, other's can't. Calling those marriages invalid because they haven't signed government forms is a bit insulting.
In a way, I want to say that this is a difference between "legal marriage" and "spiritual marriage" (I'm struggling for the right adjectives-- I know that "spiritual" isn't quite what I'm looking for, but it's the best I have right now). It seems in this discussion that we all find only one of those is real/necessary/relevant. We just don't agree on which one it is.
I don't think disagreeing on that point has to be a problem, though. Why can't we let every couple decide according to their own beliefs and customs what act constitutes their real marriage, rather than trying to re-cast it all according to your (general "your") own beliefs?
I know that it is difficult to convey tone in typed messages. Please read my response not as an argument, but just trying to explain my POV and gain understanding. I admit that I am a bit defensive of my faith-based beliefs and the relationships
of some dear friends who are married, just without paperwork.