My Second Thoughts About Gay Marriage
After the Empire State legalized same-sex marriage, I wrote a RealClearReligion column faulting New York Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan for his histrionic, ineffective defense of the marriage status quo, and complained that no conservative religious leaders had managed to articulate a persuasive case against gay marriage -- this, because so few have been able to mount an effective defense of Christian sexual teaching since the Sexual Revolution.
"OK, I get that," a friend wrote. "But what would you have pastors say?"
I wish I knew. Even the sharpest minds among traditionalist Christian public intellectuals are flailing, reduced to making hysterical claims about what same-sex marriage will do to America, or producing philosophically serious critiques that, however truthful, do not resonate beyond the classroom or outside the choir of the already committed.
It is clear that aside from those who consider their moral judgments bound by Biblical religion, or informed by prejudice (both in the good, Burkean sense, and in the bad, bigoted sense), the point of privileging traditional marriage is increasingly lost on contemporary Americans.
It is true that the relatively swift popular acceptance of same-sex marriage is breathtakingly revolutionary, and it is a cultural revolution that has been driven by elites. But traditionalists cannot for much longer pretend that gay marriage lacks popular support. It is widely accepted by younger Americans, many of whom view the taboo against homosexuality as arbitrary and irrational.
Why? Daniel Bell once remarked that the modern condition was one in which one did not believe that there was a telos to life, at least one outside of individual experience and desire. This, as well as what Philip Rieff famously called "the triumph of the therapeutic" -- roughly, the belief that the point of life is to lessen pain and discomfort -- and the concomitant victory in public discourse of emotivism (the philosophical view that moral statements only express individual preferences, not objective truth) have brought us to this moment in history.
The point is not that there are no morally serious arguments for same-sex marriage. Of course there are. The point, rather, is that the arguments against same-sex marriage are now so countercultural. Even more depressingly, it seems to me true that so few people want to entertain arguments at all.
So, again: what should pastors and other social conservatives say now?
How about telling the truth to ourselves about the situation we're in. Gay marriage is a landmark event because it represents the codification of a cultural revolution that has been redefining the meaning of marriage, and of human sexuality, for a very long time -- many decades before anyone ever imagined same-sex marriage. We have come now to the point in which marriage, the basis for the most fundamental social institution, the family, has been redefined in law in opposition to clear, incontrovertible Christian teaching.
Whether you see this as a good thing or a bad thing, you can't deny that this is a historical watershed.
Unlike Pat Robertson, I don't worry that same-sex marriages will bring down the judgment of Sodom on America. What concerns me is that a concept of marriage that reflects the objective moral order has now been irreversibly displaced, and that in time, there will be dramatic consequences from this violence. What looks like a victory for liberty and equality will, I fear, prove to have been the point beyond which the atomization and dissolution of the family could no longer be arrested. It has happened before.
Could it be that we traditionalists don't know what to say to the culture on this issue because it is no longer capable of hearing anything we might say? How can we in the church speak persuasively to the broader culture when we struggle to offer a coherent and compelling moral framework to our own young people?
Conservatives in the church need to face up to some hard facts about the defeat that we are enduring, and what the aftermath for our people may be. Far too little attention has been paid within the church to the religious liberty challenges ahead for us. More importantly, we have focused on same-sex marriage as a discrete issue for Christians, but neglected the cultural changes that allowed gay marriage to emerge not only as possible, but virtually inevitable.
What church leaders need now is to have a frank conversation among themselves, and to come up with a strategy for survival in the age to come. No, I'm not talking about surviving a persecution (though that may yet come), but rather the survival of authentic Christianity in a culture that is growing increasingly alien, even hostile, to what, from a sociological point of view, could be its core teaching.
Rieff, the aforementioned sociologist and cultural critic, was a secular Jew who recognized that, in his words, "the rejection of sexual individualism [was] the consensual matrix of Christian culture." In Rieff's telling, Christianity did not engage in simple renunciation of the sexual impulse, but rather built an entire civilization around a view of the human person, and of human sexuality, that has now been decisively rejected.
For Christians, gay marriage is not the cause of our crisis. It is only a symptom, and a symbol of a new age. Orthodox believers in Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox churches cannot afford to surrender to the spirit of the age (as many churches have), nor can we afford false hope, groundless optimism, and damaging illusions about the true nature of our condition. I don't know what, precisely, pastors and other church leaders should say about this issue going forward. But unless it's based on an analysis that's sober, deep, and unsparing, their words will continue to be unavailing.
The questions are difficult, the answers elusive, the mood anxious and gloomy. But this is the reality of church leadership in a post-Christian civilization.