I’ve been away from the keys for most of the day — and very happy to have the ability to schedule posts to go up in advance — and I find I don’t have time to respond point by point to all the critical comments in the Wendell Berry thread from yesterday. A few remarks, though.
How strange for some of you to act like I am taking back every good thing I ever said about Berry and his work. That would be absurd. I still strongly recommend Berry’s writing, find him to be one of the wisest men in public life, and will continue to return to his work for wisdom and renewal. I will continue to encourage traditional conservatives to read Berry, who is, and remains, fundamentally a conservative thinker.
I reacted so strongly to his newly stated views on same-sex marriage because they are highly uncharacteristic of his thinking and his voice in two ways. For one, Berry can be moralistic, but most of his writing, even his most passionate and prophetic writing, is done with such evident care for expression. He invites his reader to think, and to think of things in new ways. He is especially strong when he speaks out against violence and dehumanization. I have not read all of Berry’s work, but I can’t recall anything he’s written critical of anybody that was so crude and dehumanizing as that. And by “dehumanizing,” I mean referring to entire groups of people — Christians, and those who do not believe in same-sex marriage — in sweeping, vitriolic, and frankly slanderous terms.
People in this culture on all sides of any issue do this all the time. Wendell Berry doesn’t do that. I didn’t think he had it in him, which is one reason I looked up to him, and saw him as a model of what a public intellectual should be. I was wrong. That doesn’t diminish 99.999 percent of his work, but I’m afraid it does diminish him.
I am surprised to read that Berry supports same-sex marriage, given the overall thrust of his philosophical writing and worldview. If I had imagined Wendell Berry making an argument for legalizing same-sex marriage, I would have expected a beautifully nuanced discussion of commitment, community, and changing moral standards. He has challenged my thinking, and changed my mind, on the connections among faith, tradition, the material world, and loyalties to community. It is difficult for the serious Christian or conservative reader to think quite the same way about our economic system, or the natural world, after reading Berry.
But he didn’t take this approach on same-sex marriage. He merely upchucked all over Christians and traditionalists — people just like most of his neighbors in rural Kentucky, I would imagine. Berry has been unmatched in the eloquence with which he has defended country people, and the rural, agrarian way of life. If he believes that same-sex marriage ought to be the law of the land, then by all means let him say so, and fit it into the context of the other things he believes in. Again, he did not do that. Berry hitched together a wagon train of cranky liberal cliches, and with exceptional nastiness demeaned and dismissed millions of people — in particular the kind of simple, rural conservatives whose interests and dignity he has spent a lifetime defending. If he doesn’t agree with them on gay marriage, that’s his right, and it may be his duty to speak out. But to speak out with such thoughtlessness and meanness of spirit? That’s not the Wendell Berry I came to know, to respect, and to love.
Finally, I am mystified by the line some of you are taking on this: that Berry is reacting to hardcore fundamentalist Christianity, and his own hard line can be forgiven because, you know, the crazy Christians drove him to it. For one thing, Wendell Berry is many things, but a simpleton is not one of them. He perfectly well knows, or should know, that the Christian opposition to same-sex marriage can come from crude, hateful Bible-beaters, or it can come from a sophisticated moral and anthropological analysis of humankind and the teleology of sex (Roman Catholicism is especially good at this), or it can come from any number of places in between. If you Berry defenders are right, then he has taken the absolute worst of Christianity and made it stand for the whole. This is wrong — as wrong as SSM opponents taking the most objectionable extremes of the gay community and acting as if they represented all gays.
Moreover, this view — that Berry is only reacting to the ugliness of Christians — valorizes emoting over thinking. What about the principles involved here? Don’t they count for anything? Berry is engaging in a rancid ad hominem game here, attempting to deny all Christians any ground on which to defend traditional marriage by pointing to violence and bigotry with which Christians in the past have behaved. In recent years, liberals constantly, and correctly, have reminded conservatives not to demonize all Muslims because of the violent and hateful words and actions of a minority. They have never given quarter to Christian conservatives and others who have spoken with gross intemperance and contempt for Muslims, or said that well, you have to understand why these conservatives talk like that, given that 9/11 happened. Nor would they have stood for one minute for a Christian or a conservative attempting to deny the right of a Muslim American’s argument to be heard on its own merits, on the grounds that Muslims have done terrible things to non-Muslims in the name of their religion.
Many liberals have different rules for Christians and conservatives, though. Wendell Berry does too, it seems. I remember reading some of his essays after 9/11. They warned in part against anger, and overreaction, and falling prey to emotion, and the willingness to demonize. I needed to hear those words then. I wish I had listened more closely. Today, I wish Berry would reconsider, in light of his past writing, his own sweeping, angry, unjust condemnation of all of us, Christian and otherwise, who support maintaining traditional marriage standards.
Finally, Berry’s business about how Christians don’t oppose divorce, etc., and how the Bible spends more time talking about X than it does about homosexuality — it’s all nonsense. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting Christians who freely admit that the church has blown it when it came to opposing things it ought to have opposed, either by not standing up to it, or by not standing up effectively. But that is an argument to be more consistent; it is not an argument to quit standing up to anything.
Similarly, there are many things the Bible talks about that we don’t pay sufficient attention to. Berry is so valuable to Christians today in large part because he eloquently and persuasively reminds us that the Biblical ethic for caring for creation requires far more of us than we think. But if Berry condemns us for picking and choosing which parts of the Bible’s moral message we want to follow, he should realize that he himself is doing exactly this on the matter of same-sex marriage.
Anyway, if my child kicks the dog and I admonish him for doing so, would it make much sense for him to say, “Dad, you’ve talked much more to me about other things I do than how I treat the dog. Why are you coming down so hard on me for this?”
I would tell him that it hadn’t really presented itself as an issue before in our household, and besides, I’m telling him it’s wrong to kick the dog because that’s part of the same ethic I’ve told him from the beginning about treating other creatures with kindness and respect.
In that way, I would tell Wendell Berry and those supporting him that Christians spend so much time on same-sex marriage because gay activists have done such a terrific job of putting it on the national agenda and making us face it. If we only started talking about it in the past 20 years, that’s because very few people prior to that took it seriously. And our opposition to gay marriage — that is, the thoughtful opposition — is not strictly and solely based in a few verses in the Bible, but on an entire theology of sexuality, indeed a theology of what it means to be fully human, and what it means to submit to the authority of the God of the Bible. That is to say, opposition to same-sex marriage must be considered within the entire context of the Judeo-Christian moral matrix and tradition.
This is the kind of approach Wendell Berry takes to his writing about the natural world, religion, social ethics, and suchlike. On the issue of same-sex marriage, his gifts and his wisdom have failed him, as has his charity. Perhaps the kinder reaction from Berry followers like me would have been to have done a Shem-and-Japheth. But as someone who has championed Berry’s thought and writing to fellow conservatives — and who still will champion these things — I don’t think I had the liberty of not saying anything out of respect for the great man. Insofar as my charity failed me in my initial response, I apologize.