Recently the great Catholic scholar George Weigel spoke at Georgetown University, and as the lecture wound down, there was a moment of solemn acknowledgment that the culture war is probably lost. Mr. Weigel, whose talk was based on the life of John Courtney Murray, noted that those who disagree with him have no interest in a genuine argument.
As Mr. Weigel put it: "Disagreement is not the beginning of argument, agreement is." In order to have a constructive debate about America, democracy, and our public life, we must agree on certain things. You don't debate the style of a house you're building without agreeing on the foundation. You don't construct the best fantasy football team without statistics.
And you can't have a debate about marriage without a definition of what marriage is. At one point a member of the audience asked Weigel how the culture war stalemate could ever be broken. Weigel, a man not only of great intellect but good cheer, had a blunt and unavoidable answer: "When you have a gnostic philosophy that ignores the very fabric of reality -- and it is wed to a coercive state -- it's hard to know where to go."
This gets to the heart of the despair felt by many religious traditionalists and reasonable people in the West. The popular Jesuit author, Fr. James Martin recently asked on his Facebook friends and follwers to meditate on our LGBT brothers and sisters and Matthew Shepard, the gay man who was the murder victim of a hate crime (or maybe not). Fr. Martin asked for civility and wrote that he was shocked when, in the past, similar posts had drawn such hostile reactions.
I left a comment on Fr. Martin's post, saying that it is indeed time for a civil argument, but in order to have that civil argument, we must agree on the definition of what it is we are arguing about. What is marriage? I wasn't offering an opinion pro or con, just asking for an agreed-upon meaning of the term under discussion. What happened next is emblematic of the argument that is now taking place over the culture war. I was dismissed, offered bromides, and hosed down with feelings.
Perhaps the loudest and most ludicrous example of liberalism's assertion of What Is without defining anything, was the now notorious fracas between actor Ben Affleck and liberal talk show host Bill Maher. When Maher made the obvious observation that many Islamic countries have some very illiberal policies, Affleck's reaction was to shoot Maher down as a racist. The confrontation has been described as an argument, but it was anything but. Affleck hurled the racist charge the way a fundamentalist would shout at evil spirits. He had absolutely no interest in polls, evidence, or logic. Affleck was several steps short of constructing the basic edifice that would have allowed for an argument.
This kind of dissonance on the left used to be shocking and sad, but, as Mr. Weigel noted in his lecture, this is not about reaching common ground about anything. After the Affleck-Maher dustup, Washington Post journalist Christopher Ingraham reported on polls from the Middle East that showed frighteningly high acceptance in many Muslim countries for practices like honor killings and stoning. The data correlates to hundreds of millions of Muslims accepting these practices. Ingraham's conclusion? "Ben Affleck and Bill Maher are both wrong about Islamic fundamentalism." It took several posts in the comment section to point out that if "only" 50 percent of people believe in honor killing a woman then that is a problem.
What is so dire about this situation is that in refusing to engage on common ground when it comes to modern cultural questions, the left also jettisons America's own past. When Virginia politician Ken Cuccinelli ran for governor of Virginia and cited the "natural law," he was dismissed in the Washington Post. As George Weigel observed at Georgetown: "what was truly stunning about this editorial assault on natural law (launched in aid of the Post's relentless campaign in favor of same-sex 'marriage') was its implicit willingness to throw out Jefferson's claims in the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln's claims in the Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s claims in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, all of which appealed to a natural moral law that was a reflection of the eternal and divine law. To deny that such a moral law exists, and to compound that intellectual error by the moral crime of labeling those who still adhere to the first truth of the American Proposition as bigots, brings to mind...[John Courtney] Murray's cautions about the barbarism that threatens us: 'Barbarism is not...the forest primeval with all its relatively simple savageries. Barbarism...is the lack of reasonable conversation according to reasonable laws.'"
Marriage and gender mean whatever we say they do. Many Muslim countries do not have Stone Age beliefs, despite what the data reveals. And if, like Bill Maher, you say otherwise, you will be cast out and stoned.
A gnostic philosophy wed to a coercive state. What I would give for just one real, genuine argument.