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Some Burkean Thoughts on SSM

Readers keep asking why, other than religious objections, I oppose same-sex marriage. They figure it must be bigotry, because nothing else makes sense. I have the feeling that we argued this all out on my blog years ago, and it wearies me to go back into it, mostly because I believe that nobody actually wants […]

Readers keep asking why, other than religious objections, I oppose same-sex marriage. They figure it must be bigotry, because nothing else makes sense. I have the feeling that we argued this all out on my blog years ago, and it wearies me to go back into it, mostly because I believe that nobody actually wants to consider an argument about this stuff. Very few people want to think about it; they just want to emote. I can think of no issue in our public life in which what MacIntyre called “emotivism” drives sentiment more. But I owe you an attempt, however sketchy and abbreviated, to explain why I believe as I do.

I’ll start by saying that people who say that an opinion largely, or even wholly, informed by religion is illegitimate are either wrong, or do not mean what they say. If they were consistent, they would have told Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights marchers to knock off the religious rhetoric, and make their case in secular terms, because that is what is permissible in America. If they were consistent, they would have said the same thing to the abolitionists a century earlier. And if they were consistent, they would tell contemporary figures on the Religious Left either to make their pro-SSM arguments by appealing to secular principles, or shut their pieholes, because they’re trying to impose their religion on the rest of us.

The point is, people who try to silence religion-based arguments against SSM are being highly selective in their principles. Unless they are prepared to rebuke MLK for his religion-based crusade for black civil rights, I find their objections to religious conservative activism and argumentation on the SSM front to be phony. What’s more, I doubt they understand how religion works. Religious believers — Christian, Jewish, Muslim — who are orthodox do not believe that the claims of religion are an individual’s statement of theological opinion. They believe this stuff is objectively true. In a liberal political order such as ours, one has to recognize certain limits on how the truths proclaimed by religion are to be recognized in the way in which our public life is organized. The government is not going to agree, for example, that there is one god, and Muhammad is his prophet, nor is it going to accept things that follow from that (e.g., sharia). American Muslims have to live with that. Same with orthodox (small-o) Jews and Christians. Yet this does not imply that the truths proclaimed by those religions, and accepted as fact by those believers, are untrue. As a general matter, one believes they are true for everyone, even those who don’t agree. Religious liberals and secularists won’t share our way of seeing the truth in this respect, but simply as a matter of understanding where we’re coming from, they should get this about the orthodox.

I do agree, though, that America is a much less authentically Christian country today, in 2012, than it was in 1964, and religion-based arguments don’t make a lot of prudential sense in the public square. I will only make them here with reference to how the Christian community understands its own holy book and tradition.

My non-religious opposition to SSM comes from a Burkean point of view. That is, I do not believe that we should be so quick to revolutionize and to deconstruct the traditional family, which has endured for so long, and has been so key to the cohesion of our civilization. The “traditional family” (one man + one woman, bound exclusively) is not a natural fact; it is an achievement of civilization. As sociologist Carle Zimmerman shows in his historically-based “Family and Civilization,” the traditional family is a historical artifact that provides a unique basis for human flourishing — this, versus the “trustee family” (the clan, including polygamous ones), or the atomized family, which is the ultimate product of individualism. Zimmerman, a Harvard sociologist, doesn’t make religious arguments — indeed, one gets the idea that he is not religious at all — but rather observes the connection between ways of seeing the family and the individual, and the decline of ancient Greece and Rome. The book is too complex to get into in detail here, but this is a passage from a column I wrote about it some years back:

Civilization depends on the health of the traditional family.

That sentiment has become a truism among social conservatives, who typically can’t explain what they mean by it. Which is why it sounds like right-wing boilerplate to many contemporary ears.

The late Harvard sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman believed it was true, but he also knew why. In 1947, he wrote a massive book to explain why latter-day Western civilization was now living through the same family crisis that presaged the fall of classical Greece and Rome. His classic “Family and Civilization,” which has just been republished in an edited version by ISI Press, is a chillingly prophetic volume that deserves a wide new audience.

In all civilizations, Zimmerman theorized, there are three basic family types. The “trustee” family is tribal and clannish, and predominates in agrarian societies. The “domestic” family model is a middle type centering on the nuclear family ensconced in fairly strong extended-family bonds; it’s found in civilizations undergoing rapid development. The final model is the “atomistic” family, which features weak bonds between and within nuclear families; it’s the type that emerges as normative in advanced civilizations.

When the Roman Empire fell in the fifth century, the strong trustee families of the barbarian tribes replaced the weak, atomistic Roman families as the foundation of society.

Churchmen believed a social structure that broke up the ever-feuding clans and gave the individual more freedom would be better for society’s stability and spent centuries reforming the European family toward domesticity. The natalist worldview advocated by churchmen knit tightly religious faith, family loyalty and child bearing. From the 10th century on, the domestic family model ruled Europe through its greatest cultural efflorescence. But then came the Reformation and the Enlightenment, shifting culture away from tradition and toward the individual. Thus, since the 18th century, the atomistic family has been the Western cultural norm.

Here’s the problem: Societies ruled by the atomistic family model, with its loosening of constraints on its individual members, quit having enough children to carry on. They become focused on the pleasures of the present. Eventually, these societies expire from lack of manpower, which itself is a manifestation of a lack of the will to live.

It happened to ancient Greece. It happened to ancient Rome. And it’s happening to the modern West. The sociological parallels are startling.

Why should expanding individual freedoms lead to demographic disaster? Because cultures that don’t organize their collective lives around the family create policies and structures that privilege autonomous individuals at the family’s expense.

In years to come, the state will attempt economic incentives, or something more draconian, to spur childbirth. Europe, which is falling off a demographic cliff, is already offering economic incentives, with scant success. Materialist measures only seem to help at the margins.

Why? Zimmerman was not religious, but he contended the core problem was a loss of faith. Religions that lack a strong pro-fertility component don’t survive over time, he observed; nor do cultures that don’t have a powerfully natalist religion.

The radical transformation of our understanding of marriage in the West has been underway for at least a century, and has many sources, of which gay activism is only one, and a late addition at that. The atomization of the traditional family, and in turn individuals, under the ideology and dynamic culture of capitalism and individualism, continues, with serious effects. Divorce and single parenthood, as social scientists have determined over the last few decades since the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s got fully underway, has been a disaster for children. (Anecdotally, talking to my late sister about the children she taught in her sixth grade class, their poor performance in school had a lot to do with the emotional stress they were under because of unstable, single-parent situations at home.) Many of us grasp that as distorted as marriage has become in the past few decades, it still retained some connection, however tenuous, to its original purpose: to beget children and provide for a nurturing environment in which they can thrive. When marriage is seen not as an institution that shapes us, but rather as an institution we can shape at will, to suit our needs, and that exists as only, or at least primarily, as a statement of the love two people have for each other, then the bonds holding these unions together will dramatically weaken. To accept same-sex marriage would be to definitively break with the old view, and make it impossible to reform.

Do I think same-sex couples cannot love each other? Of course not. Do I think no same-sex couple can make good parents? No, I do not think that. But I do believe that the harm that is likely to be done to the fabric of society overall will be much greater than the real and specific harm that will be done to particular same-sex families. I don’t know that for certain. But the Burkean attitude is to go slow on these things, not to be so quick to utterly refashion an institution that, while much-battered, has endured for so long, and done so much good.

The United States is not a Burkean nation, though. We are one of the most radical in human history, both for good and for bad. Plus, as the sociologist Philip Rieff understood nearly 50 years ago, the Christian sexual matrix has ceased to exist as a prescriptive and binding force in the West. Everything that has happened in the past 50 years is a logical working out of the consequences of ceasing to believe in Christian orthodoxy.

Finally — and this is not really a Burkean thing — but the American public is likely unaware of the full implications of what legalizing SSM will mean. In 2007, a federal judge in Massachusetts ruled that parents of public elementary school children do not have the right to be informed that their kids will be taught about homosexuality in a positive light beforehand, nor do they have the right to withdraw their kids from class during those lessons, for religious reasons or anything else. In his ruling, the judge said that this is reasonable, and if they don’t like it, the parents can send their kid to a private school, homeschool them, or work to elect a school board that shares their viewpoint (though one wonders how long that school board would last before being sued). If same-sex marriage is legal and constitutionally protected, why, exactly, would this judge’s logic be wrong? This is one reason why people who say, “Why does my neighbor’s same-sex marriage affect me?” as a reason to dismiss concerns are not thinking past the end of their nose. For better or for worse, the way marriage is seen in the law has tremendously far repercussions — including for the public schools (more on this here.)

UPDATE: Listen, for the sake of not cluttering up the comments thread with things we’ve heard a thousand times before, please keep your comments focused on what I’ve written here.