Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Wendell Berry Backs Gay Marriage

Here’s good news for Norwegian Bachelor Farmers. My old National Review colleague John J. Miller went to Wendell Berry’s house to sit on his front porch and talk to him about things. He got a surprising answer on the topic of gay marriage: The main thing keeping liberals from a full-on swoon for Berry is sexual […]

Here’s good news for Norwegian Bachelor Farmers. My old National Review colleague John J. Miller went to Wendell Berry’s house to sit on his front porch and talk to him about things. He got a surprising answer on the topic of gay marriage:

The main thing keeping liberals from a full-on swoon for Berry is sexual politics. “I’m pro-life, in lower-case letters,” says Berry, meaning that although he shares many principles with the pro-life movement, he won’t join it. (He once wrote an essay called “In Distrust of Movements,” in which he argued that political causes are often too narrowly specialized.) “Abortion for birth control is wrong,” he says. “That’s as far as I’m going to go. In some circumstances, I would justify it, as I would justify divorce in some circumstances, as the best of two unhappy choices.”

He does support Obama’s embrace of gay marriage. “I’m in favor of it, too,” he says. “It’s really only because they’re being denied the benefits of inheritance and so on — otherwise I don’t think it ought to be the government’s business.” He regards the entire debate as a distraction: “I really don’t understand how you can single out homosexuality for opprobrium and wink at fornication and adultery, which the Bible has a lot more to say about. The churches are not going to come out against fornication and adultery because there are too damn many fornicators and adulterers in their congregations.”

I must admit this genuinely shocks me. Nobody familiar with Berry’s work could possibly expect him to be a conservative culture warrior on the gay marriage subject. But endorsing same-sex marriage is not something I expected from him. To be sure, he does so on strictly limited grounds, implying that it’s not because he necessarily approves of homosexuality, but because it strikes him as unjust that gays face legal penalties because of their inability to contract a marriage. [Side note: A lot of what gays face in this regard strikes me as unjust too, but I would support remedies short of legal marriage.]

I had not realized until this morning that Berry endorsed domestic partnerships for gays (and other unmarried people) as far back as 2006. Though the essay in which he did this (“Letter to Daniel Kemmis”) is not available online, Allan Carlson mentions it and quotes from it in this piece. Excerpt:

Concerning the third “values” issue, Mr. Berry concludes that the Democrats have been “further weakened by mishandling the issue of homosexuality.”  He blasts the knee-jerk liberalism that gives “categorical approval” to any group which once faced broad disapproval.  “[T]his is nonsense,” he declares, for some people in minority groups—just as some people in majority groups—behave in ways that should always face disapproval.  Regarding cries for same-sex marriage, he becomes something of a libertarian, arguing that state “approval of anybody’s sexual behavior is as inappropriate and as offensive to freedom as governmental disapproval.”  After endorsing equal “domestic partnership” benefits for all adults living in households—be they heterosexual, homosexual, widowed sisters, bachelor brothers, or friends—Mr. Berry adds: “Let sacraments such as marriage be the business of religion and communities.”

This seems naive. To start, it seems to me that Berry has not thought through the implications gay marriage will have for religious freedom and practice in the United States. He may have done so, and may have spoken about it to John Miller; not everything an interview subject says makes it into the published version of an interview. Still, it is surprising to me that Berry, an archtraditionalist in most things, did not at least mention the tension that America’s civil rights framework will bring to bear on religious institutions that wish to adhere to the traditional Christian teaching. Perhaps he has thought about this and has worked it out in his mind. If so, I would like to hear what he has to say, because based on my familiarity with his work, his position strikes me as dissonant.

More puzzling to me is Berry’s apparent dismissal of one of the chief philosophical criticisms of same-sex marriage: that it violates the natural and communal order. I’m not talking about the thoughtless “gays, yuck!” attitude you still see in places. I’m talking about something deeper than that.

Berry is America’s leading agrarian philosopher, a man who is deeply in tune with the idea that the chief sin of modern industrial and post-industrial culture is the delusionary refusal to recognize natural limits, or the possibility of a telos revealed through Nature. His remarks do not appear to take into consideration the degree to which the claim for same-sex marriage depends on the privatization of sexual desire that Berry elsewhere, and at length, decries. (I say this with caution, because it’s possible Berry has written on this elsewhere, and I’ve missed it.) Plus, it strikes me as nothing short of astonishing that someone who has written with such passion and understanding about the way communities understand each other, including how they regulate sexual passion, would take what looks like a simplistic libertarian line on this issue. How is it that a man who has pondered natural traditions as deeply as Berry has can offer an opinion on this issue without reckoning with the fact that no culture has ever had same-sex marriage?

In trying to figure out where Berry is coming from on this, I observe that he doesn’t actually endorse same-sex marriage, but only the conferral of legal benefits of same on same-sex couples. He says that solemnizing relationships as sacramental is something the government has no business doing; that’s something for churches and local communities. It is possible too that Berry has come to believe that provision should be made for gay couples and their commitment to each other to be incorporated into the moral order of communities. These are both defensible positions, though again, I would not have imagined either of them coming from Wendell Berry, any more than I would have imagined a full-throated, Family Research Council-ready defense of privileging traditional marriage coming from him.

What mystifies me about Berry’s position, at least to judge by the very limited information presented here, is his incuriosity or insensitivity to the way embracing same-sex marriage as a cultural ideal (leaving aside the law) will affect, or may effect, the way the broader culture will come to see marriage and its purpose. Berry has written beautifully on marriage, and the discipline it imposes on individuals, couples, and communities. It is not a private thing, and cannot be a private thing; marriage is first and foremost a communal act. I believe there is a strong case to be made that popular support for SSM has risen as a consequence of the privatization of sexual desire, and in turn marriage. Berry has long decried this, so I am puzzled as to why he doesn’t trouble to explain why this isn’t the case, in his view, regarding accommodating SSM.

It bothers me too that he blithely waves off religious people opposed to same-sex marriage as cynics. Every serious-minded religious opponent of SSM I’ve heard from fully admits that the churches have plainly done a poor job of catechizing and regulating the behavior of heterosexual Christians, and ought to repent. Why is that an argument against extending marriage to same-sex couples? It’s a flippant charge by Berry.

You regular readers know that I revere Wendell Berry and take everything he says seriously, even if I don’t agree with it. That’s why I’m taking care here not to dismiss his views. But I don’t think he is an oracle, and I wish simply to register skepticism over how he arrived at his pro-SSM position, and to express hope that he will explain himself at greater length. It is possible, of course, that I don’t understand Berry’s thought well enough, and that this position makes sense within the broader context of his vision. But it seems to me to be counter to his vision, which has never been libertarian.

In any case, it is interesting to observe that a 77-year-old Kentucky farmer holds approximately the same views on abortion and gay marriage as an emerging majority of young Americans: anti-abortion, pro-gay marriage.

UPDATE: Before we even get started in the comboxes, I’m going to say flat-out: if you aren’t willing to discuss this civilly, in a philosophical tone, don’t even bother posting, because I’m not going to publish what you write.




Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now