The LGBT vs. Orthodox Christianity War
I posted yesterday about my friend Frederica Mathewes-Green’s publicly stated position on same-sex marriage. As soon as I did, I wanted to go back and amend what I said because my own position differs significantly from hers, though I do believe, as I said in the earlier post, that she gets a lot right. But the plane from Houston was boarding, and I didn’t have time connecting through DFW to Boston to revisit the post.
I’m doing so here — and I’m going to highlight something that a reader said in the comments section of that Frederica post. It expresses my point of view much, much better than I could do. When I said in my earlier post that what Frederica said was “good,” I meant her focus on the destruction unfaithful heterosexuals have done to the institution of marriage, and her recognition that there’s no point in having a discussion anymore, because from the left, mostly, this is all about an exercise in will to power (i.e., “Shut up!” he explained.) But I think my friend, who is just about the most irenic person I know, misses something important about the stakes here, and the nature of the argument.
That reader posted a link to First Things editor R.R. Reno’s response to two readers who wrote objecting to certain things about the magazine’s Christian orthodoxy on same-sex matters. The first letter (Peter Blair’s) says that because orthodox Christians have not been outspoken in opposition to contraception, they weaken their stance in favor of traditional marriage. The second letter, from Ian Markham, complains that the magazine won’t allow conservative Christians who accept same-sex marriage to publish in its pages. Here is Reno’s complete response, which I quote in full because I think it is strong, true, and courageous:
The architecture of the Christian intellectual tradition admits of careful parsing. For this reason, I find Peter Blair’s claims unconvincing. The use of a condom in the sexual intercourse of a man and a woman has a different moral meaning than the intercourse of a man with a man. The first impedes by artificial means the intrinsic potential of the sexual act to give rise to new life. The second is an act that’s intrinsically sterile. The first enacts in an imperfect but real way the one-flesh union of a man and a woman, something Scripture suggests is fundamental to the human community. The second does something else entirely. In both regards, the procreative and unitive ends properly sought in our sexual lives are complex rather than simple, admitting of nuance and degree. For this reason, Evangelicals and others are not being incoherent when they allow for the use of contraception (a mistaken judgment) while judging homosexual acts immoral.
Casuistry aside, I find it very hard to understand how some Christians, perhaps most, fail to see the fundamental threat same-sex marriage poses to the biblical view of marriage. Divorce wounds marriage. Cohabitation and a contraceptive mentality reflect a private indifference to the goods of marriage. But same-sex marriage does something much more fundamental: It asserts public control over marriage, detaches it from the reality of our bodies as male and female, and remakes it into a purely affective union for the sake of . . . affective union.
Only the blind can fail to see the difference. Using pornography, a contraceptive mentality, premarital sex, divorce, adultery—all these transgressions ignore divine law, sometimes with a haughty disdain that says “To hell with traditional morality; I’ll do as I please.” Same-sex marriage is different. It insists on claiming the public sanction of the marital bond. Nobody is calling for a blessing of the condoms. Meanwhile, wedding photographers are being taken to court for failing to join same-sex celebrations.
Let me put this a different way. Onan reminds us that human beings have always sought sex without consequences—the contraceptive impulse. The Old Testament allows for divorce as a concession to human weakness, as have other religious systems. Prostitution, adultery, fornication: These are perennial. All reflect our failure to live in accord with the biblical view of sex and marriage. But same-sex marriage? It’s not an all-too-human failure. Instead it’s an assertion of human will, the conscription of a sacred institution to serve a contemporary ideology. Where is that to be found in the Bible? In the prostitution of Israel to Baal.
Blair worries that prioritizing the wrongness of gay marriage will make us seem anti-gay. Seem? Christianity is opposed to the contemporary ideology that equates us with our sexual desires and tells us we’re entitled to their satisfaction. We oppose the Gnosticism that says our bodies have no intrinsic moral meaning and are mere instruments in the service of our fine inner feelings. We assert the male-female union as normative, surpassed only by the sublime, supernatural vocation of the celibate life dedicated to divine service. Christianity can’t avoid being seen as anti-gay, because a failure to be “pro-gay” today is invariably regarded as “anti-gay.”
Christianity is “pro-person.” I am profoundly sympathetic to Christians who want to provide hospitality and companionship to our gay friends—and that includes friends who don’t obey biblical norms, and even gay friends who have married. I have such friends—along with divorced friends and friends who cohabit—and friends who have stolen, cheated, and lied. The company of the perfect is vanishingly small, and I’m not among them. But we need to get a grip on reality: We are the bad guys of the sexual revolution. We are the heretics of our time: We forbid when it is forbidden to forbid. No appeals to the great cathedral of Christian doctrine are going to change that.
Ian Markham is mistaken. The overwhelming majority of people do not enjoy heterosexual marriage. Forty years ago, 70 percent of American adults were married. Today 50 percent are. The decline comes from the collapse of marriage among the working-class and poor. Only those living in the gated moral world of elite America can possibly imagine that our grand experiment in sexual liberation has not come at a great cost to the most vulnerable. Gay marriage is a luxury good for the rich that will be paid for by the poor.
I’m glad Markham raises the question of whether First Things welcomes articles arguing for the validity of “lifelong, monogamous gay relationships.” I appreciate the delicacy with which he cordons off the question of gay marriage. But, no, we won’t. In the present climate, it is for all intents and purposes impossible for a person who publically dissents from gay rights orthodoxies to get a job teaching in higher education. It’s increasingly impossible to be the leader of a major corporation or to get a job at a major law firm. The New York Times certainly won’t publish the most modest demurrals from these orthodoxies. And I dare say one cannot find preferment in the Episcopal Church unless one subscribes to the same orthodoxies. Pretending that there is an honest public debate about the gay rights agenda is an act of dishonesty.
And not just dishonesty. There are many courageous people who have refused to capitulate to the ruthless Jacobin suppression of all dissent. Many have paid a heavy price, including gay writers who defend Christian teaching in our pages. Were we to play the idle game of “dialogue” on this issue, the implication would be clear: These people foolishly sacrificed their livelihoods and reputations for the sake of an ambiguity, not a truth. That’s an act of betrayal First Things will not commit.
Read the whole thing; you’ll get both letters there. Rusty Reno’s remarks are exactly right. Same-sex marriage is not simply a variation on marriage, but something that changes its essence. It’s a change that reflects how our broader culture has flipped on the meaning of marriage, seeing it as something purely expressive, and disconnected from any larger metaphysical meaning that inheres gender, and in the ability to produce life. As Rusty points out, there are more or less disharmonious forms of sexual expression, both within and outside of marriage, but same-sex genital expression, and same-sex marriage, is categorically different. Because, as Rusty says, our bodies have intrinsic moral meaning. Christian orthodoxy is not nominalist.
Most of the culture today does not agree. I get that. This is the fruit of nominalism, which says there are no essences, and that things mean what we say they mean. Same-sex marriage didn’t come from nowhere, of course, but it really is a Rubicon. A Britney Spears quickie Vegas marriage is a travesty, but it is still a version, however distorted, of something essentially real. Same-sex marriage, which I agree can refer to a pairing of two men or two women who genuinely, deeply, and sacrificially love each other, is simply not marriage.
The difference is metaphysical more than moral. Or rather, it’s moral because it’s metaphysical.
We orthodox believers — Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant — are heretics who are going to be despised on this no matter how kind and generous. Frederica will find that she’s no better than Fred Phelps in the eyes of many. I have spent the last week talking to professors and students in several colleges, and the fear they have about what’s happening now to freedom of speech and religion, even within the faculties and in the classrooms of Christian universities, is very real. I tend to be Chicken Little about this stuff, but even I wasn’t prepared for some of the things I heard. This is McCarthyism. It really and truly is. I must have had at least a dozen people, professors and students, come up to me privately over this past week to say that it’s exactly as bad as I think it is, and in some cases worse — and then give examples.
At Q this morning after my talk, I had an intense private discussion with a man who has deep and high-level experience in Democratic politics. He has been shocked by how quickly and how decisively his party at the senior level has moved on this issue. As I have been hearing over and over, from a diverse array of people since Indiana, he said that it’s worse than most people realize.
Half an hour ago, I taped the Ricochet podcast. I was on with a gay Millennial conservative. It was a good talk, but then he said that someone who would refuse on principle to attend a same-sex wedding is “loathsome,” and should not be president.
Wait, I said, the goalpost has now shifted. It is not enough to favor gay marriage as a legal right. Now you have to show up to indicate your approval, or you are not just wrong, but “loathsome”?
Yes, he said.
There you go. I don’t advocate giving up the fight, but I do advocate understanding the stakes and how useless it is at this point to hope for anything better than some small legal space within which to carve out breathing room for religious dissent. Whatever happens in the law, though, there can be no doubt that in the world rapidly coming into being, to be known to be a traditional Christian on this issue will subject you to loathing, and will exact a tremendous social cost. A lot of people will yield, and rationalize it. Those who will not yield will be made to pay.
Let me be clear: we must not respond with hatred, because that would be a betrayal of our God. But we must not allow ourselves to believe that this is not a big deal. It’s a very big deal, though this won’t become clear for some time yet. Anyway, if we’re going to go down, let’s do it with clear eyes and heads held high. They’re going to do what they’re going to do, but they mustn’t get from us the satisfaction of having a clean conscience.
At National Review, David French has a thoughtful criticism of the Benedict Option. He writes:
In reality, Christian conservatives have barely begun to fight. Christians, following the examples of the Apostles, should never retreat from the public square. They must leave only when quite literally forced out, after expending every legal bullet, availing themselves of every right of protest, and after exhausting themselves in civil disobedience. Have cultural conservatives spent half the energy on defense that the Left has spent on the attack?
After all, the theological base is still strong. As I’ve pointed out before, not one orthodox Christian denomination is even contemplating shifting its stance on sexual-revolution issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, and the traditionalist faiths are holding the line in membership or growing. By contrast, the mainline, progressive churches are collapsing in membership, continuing a long slide that could see some of America’s historic denominations essentially vanish in our lifetimes.
I wish I agreed that this is true, but it’s not. I was at Notre Dame earlier this week, and saw hanging in the student center a big banner advocating training for how to be an LGBT “ally”. The training program was co-sponsored by campus ministry. I’ve heard from professors at other Catholic and even Evangelical universities that if you believe in orthodox Christian teaching on homosexuality, you had better keep your mouth shut. You keep finding things like this if you to to Christian colleges. Even at Houston Baptist University, a much more culturally conservative place, talking to students I discovered that the general view is that SSM is fine, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.
I have been hearing also from several independent sources that we are going to see a major crack-up among Evangelical colleges over this issue. The theological base is not nearly as strong as French thinks. Look at Christian Smith’s work on this. The official position of the churches does not necessarily reflect what the people in the pews believe. Again, I wish it were so, but that’s just not true.
We have to keep fighting for our religious liberty. But we must be clear-eyed about our prospects for victory.
My friend Ryan Booth speaks my mind on this on his FB page:
I think that Rod Dreher is correct is viewing the culture war as largely lost, but his bigger concern (and mine) is for the church, not the culture, because the church cannot be (for long anyway) much of an influence on the culture if is corrupted and thoroughly enmeshed in it. When teachers at Catholic schools get fired because they refuse to support LGBT initiatives, those Catholic schools have failed to be a witness for Christ.
And that’s where we are. The overwhelming pressure against traditional Christianity is such that we have no shot at raising our children to be authentic Christians unless we set up better support systems, unless we form better communities amongst ourselves, unless we improve Christian education. That’s what the Benedict Option is about.
Beyond that, if Christianity is only seen by the culture as a bunch of hateful bigots who oppose people having the freedom to marry whom they love, then we Christians have no chance to present Christ as Savior and Redeemer. The Gospel isn’t about political opposition or cultural protests. That’s part of why I resigned from the Republican State Central Committee and am planning to enroll in seminary.
And we can’t show people the life-changing power of Christ if we’re fully enmeshed in the culture. If our lives don’t look any different than those of non-Christians, then why would anyone decide to become a Christian?
Enough for now. I’ll come back with more about my Q Talk later.